TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Strolling through airports, Michael Waltrip is no longer recognized primarily as the driver who won a pair of Daytona 500s.
Now, he’s the dancing guy.
For this weekend, Waltrip will be both driver and dancer, going back and forth from Talladega Superspeedway to a nearby YMCA to practice the Argentine tango for the TV show “Dancing With the Stars.”
The co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing likes his chances on the track much better than beating Alfonso Ribeiro on the dance floor Monday night.
“Well, I’ve won here before so I’m going to go with Sunday, because if that dancing program was just about straight-up dancing, I’m pretty sure Alfonso’s better than me,” Waltrip said. “I saw a video of him as an 8-year-old dancing on Broadway. When I was 8, I wasn’t doing much dancing.”
He won’t have much time for either relaxing or golfing while away from the track this weekend. Waltrip and partner Emma Slater practiced at the Oxford YMCA for a couple of hours Friday morning. He emphasized the “practice” part of that.
“I’m still not comfortable calling what I do dancing,” he said.
Then Waltrip took care of media obligations before hitting the track for practice ahead of qualifying. After that, the plan was to head back for a few hours of tango until about 10:30 p.m. He expected a similar schedule for Saturday, when he’ll be qualifying and handling TV duties for the Truck Series.
Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 in 2001 and 2003, is preparing for his sixth week on “Dancing with the Stars.” His disco performance last week didn’t get particularly kind reviews from the judges — but he had fun.
“I had the best time last week doing my disco, and I was so proud of it until those four judges spoke,” Waltrip said. “They didn’t like my disco so much. One of them said, and I quote, ‘It was entertaining as hell, but I’m tired of being entertained.’
“Well, what the heck. I’m not trying to win a Pulitzer prize or anything, I’m trying to dance, you know. TRYING to dance. But it’s been a wonderful experience. It’s been so much fun. A lot of people in the airport now say, ‘You’re that dancer.’ Can you imagine that?”
An elderly couple recognized him at the Los Angeles airport recently and told him they watch him because he’s having so much fun, not because of technical skills.
“I love that people are so happy to see that,” Waltrip said. “It makes me happy. It says in the Bible you’re supposed to make joyful noise. Well, when we dance if it’s noisy a little bit and if it’s joyful, then it should work. I think.”
There’s no question Waltrip is more at home at the track, where he’s spent three decades on the Sprint Cup Series. Nowadays, he runs on the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega.
On race weekend, he enjoys hanging out with the fans on Talladega Boulevard and taking in the scene. It’s pretty clear he loves his day job, too.
“It’s Mardi Gras and the best tailgate party you’ve ever been to all rolled into one,” Waltrip said. “To me, it’s just celebrating a sport that we love. And they’re going to celebrate it tonight, tomorrow night and they’re probably going to be celebrating it Sunday as well. It’s folks coming together because they have a common interest.
“They all are here because they love race cars and they love this spectacle that Talladega is. When you go out there in the middle of them, you’re just like them.”
Only with better dance moves.
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