He knew little about racing and didn't have a favorite driver. As we headed south on I-59 towards Gadsden, I asked him where he was from. When he responded Owensboro, Kentucky, I paused, looked at Philly, and smirked a bit like Ferris Bueller breaking the fourth wall. I looked back at him and said "I've got the driver for you. Michael Waltrip. He is from Owensboro."
To his credit, he was open-minded about his newly assigned favorite driver. Philly and I then formed an unspoken covenant that we'd drain his wallet with purchases of Mikey swag.
After we settled into our campsite amongst the trees behind turn two and away from the rowdies that prowled the wide open spaces behind the back stretch, we headed for Saturday's Busch race and then the souvenir trailers.
In those days, souvenir row was positioned along Speedway Boulevard across from the track's main entrance. Our eyes roamed to and fro looking for what should have been the easily identifiable, vibrant yellow, Pennzoil emblazoned trailer featuring a boo-coodle of Mikey Merch.
Earnhardt had what seemed to be about a dozen trailers. The noob, Jeff Gordon, had his stuff sold at a handful of trailers as well. The other predictable trailers were there as well hawking gear for drivers such as Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, etc.
As we roamed about the beaten-down grass, I still vaguely remember scalding my mouth with a cup of Maxwell House coffee. Why a cup of coffee in late July in the heat and humidity of central Alabama? Well, one - they sponsored Sterling Marlin. Reason enough, right?
The search for Michael's gear soon grew weary. I was sweating like a hack poker player and had scar tissue forming inside my mouth from my free cup of joe. I headed for one of Kyle Petty's Mello Yello trailers for a transaction and an answer to a question.
A few weeks before the race, I'd won a Kyle Petty jacket on a Chattanooga sports talk radio show. One problem: it was a medium. I laughed at medium after about two semesters in college - yet the jacket was free.
I explained my situation to the guy at the Mello Yello trailer, and he was superb with customer service. "No problem. Whadda ya want? XL? *pitch* There ya go man." Boom, that easy. With a big grin, I shook off the lisp from my scalded tongue and dehydration from my multiple adult beverages to ask a legit question. "Can you help out my bud here? He's a big fan of Mikey. But we can't find his trailer out here anywhere. Are we just overlooking it - have you spotted it?"
The dude went from Mr. Gregarious to the scene from Casino when DeNiro and Pesci believe the FBI can read lips from a distance. His reply still makes me laugh to this day: "Naw, there ain't one here. Mikey has a lot of good lookin' stuff. He just ain't got any fans."
It was the line of a lifetime. In 1993, no one quite frankly could argue with him. Our new Mikey fan got off without spending any money on a shirt, hat, koozie, die-cast, seat cushion, jacket, decal, anything. Fast forward a few years, and Mikey did build a sizable fan base. He did it through hard work, some wins, and a sizable dose of campiness.
As the 2016 season began, it was indeed different. The field did not feature Michael Waltrip on a regular basis - as a driver or as an owner. The new guy was prepared to buy Mikey's gear that day in '93, not me. Yet, Michael has been a part of Cup racing for over two decades.
He is certainly still a part of NASCAR with his commentary during televised truck races and FOX Sports' pre-race grid walks. Many seem to love what he does - but he has also has a ton of detractors. As Dale Earnhardt once said "At least they’re making noise. It’s when they stop making noise that you know something’s wrong.”