David Reutimann Comes Full Circle

No. 00

David Reutimann kisses his wife Lisa and climbs into his No. 00 car which is covered in advertisements for Tums. He will be starting in seventh in the Saturday night Lifelock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Just outside of Tampa is a small town by the name of Gibsonton. In Gibsonton is East Bay Raceway Park, a 1/3 mile dirt track located beside a phosphate pit. The track is dubbed “The Clay by the Bay” by some and is mildly famous for its Ybor City restarts and its annual Winternationals event.

On most Saturday nights, East Bay is home to the best people-watching in Hillsborough County, two announcers who seem oblivious to the fact that their microphones are turned on and a driver that is simply introduced as “The Living Legend.”

The Legend.

The Living Legend drives a No. 00 open-wheel modified car sponsored by Aaron’s. It’s very rare that anyone gives him much of a fight. It’s even more rare to see him not win a race. He has the best equipment and the most fans. His name is Buzzie Reutimann and he is the 69-year-old father of current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver David Reutimann.

While not nearly as nationally prominent as an Earnhardt, a Petty or an Allison, the Reutimann name is famous at race tracks all over the state of Florida.

David’s grandfather, Emil Reutimann, Jr., was a regular at short tracks throughout Central Florida. He especially raced frequently at Tampa’s three old local tracks: the fair grounds, Phillip’s Field and Golden Gate Speedway. Tampa was a given for the family’s drivers as the Reutimanns were based roughly 40 minutes away in Zephyrhills.

Racing became a staple for the Reutimanns. By the age of 13, Buzzie was working on race cars even though his mother was firmly against it. He soon began following in his father’s footsteps, running Chevrolets on a regular basis at Tampa’s trio of short tracks. He lived for short tracks and even made one appearance in a NASCAR race, a tenth place finish in the only NASCAR event ever held at Golden Gate Speedway on November 11, 1962.

One thing remained consistent for all of the racing Reutimanns. They all drove cars adorned with the No. 00.

In 1970, the Reutimanns welcomed the member of the family who would go on to carry their legacy the highest. But David was born just three years before tragedy struck. In 1973, Emil was driving on Highway 301 in Tampa on his way to a race. His youngest son Dale and Dale’s good friend Gordon Stone were also in the car when a drunk driver crossed into the opposite lane. The crash killed all three of them.

In the early going of the Lifelock.com 400, Jimmie Johnson is dominating. Looks like another predictable night at the track.

David Reutimann first flirted with the more glamorous side of stock car racing in 2002 when he raced in a handful of events for the then Busch Series. In 2004, he began his first stage of a partnership with the Waltrip family when he signed on to race in the Craftsman Truck Series for Darrell Waltrip Motorsports.

As part of the initial movement to usher Toyota vehicles into NASCAR, Reutimann was rather successful in his introduction to trucks. He was able to finish 14th in points in 2004, a feat good enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors. However, in an evolving NASCAR where stars are made at 18 and drivers are considered grizzly veterans by their early 30s, a 34-year-old truck series rookie is not exactly ideal.

In 2005, Reutimann had what would be his first and only victory in the truck series at Nashville Superspeedway. Maybe the biggest legacy that he would leave in the truck series was from some of his crashes. Plenty of commercials for the truck series featured video of his No. 17 truck getting destroyed in a bad wreck.

Quite a legacy.

Reutimann made his name slightly more well-known in 2006 when he was not only able to finish third in the truck series final standings, but he also managed to run in 15 Busch series races, finishing in the top 10 four times.

During the 2006 season, I met him at a sponsor event before a Busch race at Daytona. Having been at the truck race the night before, I talked to him about that before briefly shifting the conversation to his family. I told him about how my grandpa used to watch Buzzie, Emil and his Uncle Wayne race in Tampa and how it was only natural for our family to become fans of his.

As humble as most anyone that I’ve ever met, he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone knew his name, much less his background.

After three somewhat successful years in a truck, David moved from Darrell Waltrip’s truck team to Michael Waltrip’s Nextel Cup team. Michael’s group was an upstart team and one of the few proponents of Toyota during its controversial first year in the Nextel Cup.

Reutimann would be driving a car with a split sponsorship between Burger King and Domino’s Pizza. However, what was more important than the sponsor was the number that adorned the car. No, 00, just like Emil and just like Buzzie.

Jimmie Johnson slides through the grass, drops to 24th and then soon hits the wall to drop two laps down. Meanwhile Reutimann is consistently running in the top five.

The 2007 Nextel Cup Series rookie class consisted of a 27-year-old Paul Menard, a 22-year-old David Ragan, a 26-year-old A.J. Allmendinger and the 37-year old man from Zephyrhills.

Michael Waltrip brought in Reutimann to be a catalyst for his new team along with veteran Dale Jarrett. The move was the NASCAR equivalent of adopting the pimply 16-year-old in an orphanage full of adorable toddlers. And, to be honest, there were plenty of days when the move didn’t seem completely logical.

Reutimann failed to register a single top 10 finish during the 2007 season. To make matters worse, Michael Waltrip Racing’s three cars failed to qualify for a combined 39 races in 2007 and none of them were able to achieve a top five finish.

Fun while it lasted, or not.

Domino’s and Burger King left MWR after the season, leaving Reutimann in search of a sponsor. Dale Jarrett left Reutimann his No. 44 UPS car after he retired a few races into the season. This shifted the No. 00 car, now sponsored by Aaron’s, over to rookie Michael McDowell.

But UPS signed into NASCAR because they wanted a big name like Jarrett representing their company, not a low-profile guy without a top 10 finish on his resume. Reutimann was able to get 4 top 10 finishes in 2008, but it wasn’t enough to impress UPS, who left for a team that MWR had recently become an arch rival of, Roush Fenway Racing and driver David Ragan.

Now in second place, Reutimann trails only Jeff Gordon. Crew chief Rodney Childers encourages David to wait for Gordon to make a mistake.

“Are you kidding?” Reutimann replied. “He’s Jeff Gordon. When’s he going to make a mistake?”

Reutimann is able to take the lead on lap 213.

Reutimann was brought back to familiarity in 2009. Painfully loyal to David, Michael Waltrip gave him back the No.00 Aaron’s Dream Machine car in 2009. The result was a fresh breeze of success. He finished the 2009 season with 10 top 10 finishes, five top five finishes and one bittersweet Monday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C.

Reutimann won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s longest event and one of its most prestigious. It was his first career victory in the now Sprint Cup Series. However, the race that Reutimann won was actually the Coca-Cola 340.5, a rain-shortened event that ended with little celebration or satisfaction.

He said all the right things after the win. He’d take whatever he could get. It was a shame they couldn’t run the whole thing, but a win is a win. But deep down, the victory would kind of haunt him for the next year. He had reached the crowning moment for a family that revolved around racing, but plenty said that it wasn’t legitimate.

So one year, one month and 15 days later, Reutimann came to Chicagoland Speedway, still in the unique process of gaining redemption for a win. He drove the same No. 00 Toyota Camry, this time with secondary sponsor Tums plastered across the hood. He carried the same humble demeanor that has become linked with a slightly more fiery nature.

David Reutimann holds off Carl Edwards to cleanly win the Lifelock.com 400. There are no drivers calling it illegitimate, only guys talking about what a great guy David is and how deserving he is of this win. The only rain comes in the form of confetti and a variety of liquids in victory lane.

Brad Keselowski finishes in 18th. This is important because, as my grandpa would say, as long as Keselowski is running, David is only the second ugliest driver.

The moment is emotional. Crew chief Childers tells reporters that he doesn’t have a lot to say about this, but his tears say it all.

The post-race becomes the first notable stage for media to bring up Reutimann’s free agent situation. After the 2010 season, his contract with MWR is up, and he is free to go wherever he would like. On the heels of the LeBron “Decision” nonsense, plenty of jokes are made during the late television coverage.

But this is not a selfish superstar, this is the hard-working product of generations of drivers who never made it this far. He pledges his loyalty to MWR and insists that they have made a “handshake deal” that will soon be translated to paper.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Reutimann said. “I’m going to be at Michael Waltrip Racing. I may be cutting the grass, but I’ll be at Michael Waltrip Racing.”

In a word, refreshing.

-Bryan

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “David Reutimann Comes Full Circle

  1. First!

    (that’s a little joke)

  2. Pingback: Signs of the Apocalypse: 50 Reasons to Hate Sports « Sports Casualties

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