SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Rob Kauffman tells the story with a mischievous grin.
While in London two weeks ago for the Goodwood Festival of Speed, he and good friend and business partner Michael Waltrip were trying to follow the NASCAR Sprint Cup race going on at Loudon, N.H. The two owners of Michael Waltrip Racing had three cars in the field and one driver, Brian Vickers, well positioned for victory in the closing laps.
Kauffman, 49, recalled the two grown men sitting shoulder to shoulder at their hotel restaurant, leaning in to watch the race on Waltrip's cellphone. While there was a slight time delay on the phone, Kauffman got real-time updates through his Twitter account.
Just as the field lined up for the final green-white-checkered restart, Kauffman glanced at his Twitter feed then he abruptly put the phone down and got up.
"Michael was like, 'What happened? What happened? Did we win?' Kauffman recalled with a smile sitting trackside at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he raced a Ferrari in Friday's GRAND-AM race.
"A minute later he realized Brian won. And then we just started buying beers for everyone.''
There's been a lot to celebrate at Michael Waltrip Racing lately. Vickers' win was the second for the team in the last month and two of its drivers, Clint Bowyer (ranked second in the championship) and Sonoma race-winner Martin Truex Jr. (11th) are in good shape to make the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
As a result, the team is enjoying an unprecedented level of optimism and enthusiasm and to a person credits the good times to Kauffman, a hugely successful international investment banker who seven years ago bought half of the MWR organization -- salvaging the business at a time when a cash-strapped Waltrip had to seriously contemplate closing shop and worse, abandoning a dream.
So much more than a team owner, Kauffman is regarded and referred to as a team savior under the MWR roof.
"He's meant everything, obviously,'' Truex said. "Without him there would be no Michael Waltrip Racing. Michael will tell you that straight up.
"Without him, I wouldn't be there. We would have run out of money before I even went there."
Agrees Bowyer, "Rob brings a great deal of business savvy to the table and without him, we'd all be looking for jobs, truth be told.''
For Waltrip, it is obviously and understandably deeply personal.
"I wouldn't be standing here in an interview, if I hadn't met Rob,'' Waltrip said. "Us hitting it off and sharing the same goals and dreams for the team, now seven years later, we're best friends.
"I like who he is as a person. He doesn't like when I say this, but I'm forever indebted to him. Not financially, but this whole endeavor is a big part of who I am and he helped me continue the dream.''
Kauffman, who is private, low-key and soft-spoken, is clearly touched to hear what the others have said. He is a bit uncomfortable with the references to him as a savior.
"Savior is a pretty high standard, I think we'll keep that in the Bible'' Kauffman said. "I will say I'm pleased (with where we are) but not satisfied. We're close. But I have high expectations.''
It's the ethos that made him so successful in the high stakes business world of private equity and investment banking. Last year, he retired from the billion-dollar company he founded, Fortress Investment Group -- from what he affectionately used to refer to as his "day job.''
Now Kauffman devotes his time to his four-wheel passions. He competes in sports car and historic races around the globe and even teamed up with Bowyer and Waltrip in this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona.
(Right to left) Rob Kauffman talks with Rolex 24 teammates Michael Waltrip and Clint Bowyer during testing in January for the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway
He also founded RK Motors in Charlotte, what he describes as a "muscle car restoration" business with enough classic cars to impress the most discerning collector. This week RK Motors is sponsoring Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota in the Brickyard 400.
His simple, pure and fervent love of cars is what put Kauffman in Waltrip's orbit and ultimately how mutual friends introduced the pair.
"It wasn't long into the 2007 season, our inaugural year at MWR, when it was pretty obvious to me the plan we'd put together wasn't going to work,'' Waltrip said. "We told NAPA and Aarons we could win and by the fourth or fifth race we had failed to qualify.
"We weren't able to buy the equipment it would take for us to win. Everything we had was spent and the way we were performing was continuing in a bad direction. There were many problems but the one that was the key to survival was we were going to run out of money.
"Fortunately there were a lot of people in the garage area -- and 2007 was at its height and the economy was good and everyone wanted to be a Cup owner. I had sponsors and this manufacturer so the sharks were swimming and wanting to take what we had put together.
"My dream to own a team looked like it was in jeopardy to continue. Fortunately, despite seeing the trouble we had and the desperation I saw in many people's faces, I was smart enough to weather the storm long enough to find a partner or someone who would come in and team with me."
And that's where the one time auto mechanic-turned-billionaire banker Kauffman came in.
The relationship works because Kauffman didn't want to buy out Waltrip but to invest alongside him. He doesn't want to be the "front man" but is content and savvy enough to know that Waltrip's massive personality is big enough for the both of them.
"He says no one ever comes up to him and asks for his autograph,'' Waltrip said jokingly.
The infusion of Kauffman's financial backing and business sense along with Waltrip's knowledge of the sport and marketing ability have produced a championship-caliber team that is now contending every bit with NASCAR's most successful organizations like Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs and Penske.
(Left to right) Rob Kauffman talks with fellow NASCAR team owners and NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress at Daytona in January
This is not a hobby for Kauffman.
"Not at all,'' Waltrip said. "There's too many zeroes involved for it to be a hobby. I think Rob really wants to see the team win a championship and us be able to be part of the conversation of who's the best in the garage.''
In April this year, Kauffman sat down with NASCAR.com for a lengthy interview, revealing his motivations, expectations and mindset and providing rare insight into his background and hopes. It is clear that Kauffman is invested in all senses of the word.
While other major investors have come and gone in NASCAR, Kauffman has proven he is in it for the long haul. The man who has travelled the world, making his name in international business has found a home in NASCAR.
"It's harder than what I expected,'' Kauffman said of his NASCAR involvement. "I expected it to be hard, but it's really hard. How close it is, the last one percent is the difference between 28-flat and 28.1-lap time and that's the difference between being first and 10th. That total precision and finesse is what really resonates the strongest. The difference between good and great is a really thin line.''
But Kauffman sees that merely as a challenge to overcome.
And it's not lost on those who work with him. His low profile belies his high impact.
"He's a great leader, obviously a great businessman, that's how he got where he is,'' Truex said. "He's really passionate about the race team and really pushes everybody hard to win. He wants to be a Rick Hendrick or Jack Roush. He wants to be at their level and has made the commitment to do so.
"That's why you've seen in the past couple of years we've been able to do what we have. He's really the guy leading the ship and steering everything. He's a lot of fun to be around and a great guy to work for.''
What does someone whose net worth is more than some small, third-world countries get out of owning a race team?
"It's really simple,'' Kauffman said. "The (payout) for me is when we win. The whole point of this is to win. Especially now, seven years into it. I feel like it's the last one percent -- we're 99 percent of the way there.
"We were runner-up in the championship last year. No one in Michael Waltrip Racing is doing all this for practice at this point. We're doing this for a very simple reason, to win. It all boils down to that.''
"Win a championship. It's as simple as that.''
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Sports & Recreation
- Motor Racing
- Michael Waltrip Racing
- Rob Kauffman
- Michael Waltrip
- Clint Bowyer