It was confirmed last weekend that Steve Hallam (below) will leave his post as McLaren’s head of race operations at the end of the F1 season to join Michael Waltrip’s Toyota team in NASCAR as director of race engineering. Hallam has worked in F1 for 27 years, first with Lotus, then McLaren. During his Lotus years Hallam race-engineered cars driven by Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Derek Warwick. He moved to McLaren in 1990 where he ran Michael Andretti, Gerhard Berger and Mika Hakkinen before becoming the team’s head of race ops.
Hallam’s move to America is a tremendous coup for Michael Waltrip and Toyota. Waltrip is a silver-tongued salesman and raconteur who is rated as one of NASCAR’s five most saleable drivers. He’s also a renowned TV personality as a racing commentator, analyst and pitchman. But make no mistake; Waltrip is building a very serious team in partnership with Toyota.
A year ago, Waltrip hired long-time Indy car engineer Bill Pappas (above with Michael McDowell) to take charge of his engineering team and is aiming to step his team up to another level by convincing Hallam to move to America. At the same time, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) recently opened a new chassis engineering shop in North Carolina and be assured that Toyota has played a considerable role in Hallam’s signing.
“Michael Waltrip Racing is giving me a wonderful opportunity to enter NASCAR, which is something I have always wanted to experience in my lifetime,” Hallam said in a press release. “NASCAR racing is invigorating, and the spectacle that the drivers and teams put on for the fans is phenomenal. I am not underestimating the challenges before me and I know the differences between F1 and NASCAR are obvious. However, the essence of what we will be doing is the same, and that is racing.”
Waltrip’s (above) team runs three Toyotas in the Sprint Cup series for Waltrip himself, David Reutimann and Michael McDowell. The team has been conspicuously unsuccessful this year with Reutimann ranked twenty-fourth in points, Waltrip thirtieth and McDowell down in thirty-ninth. Waltrip has raced Cup cars since 1985 and famously, it took him 492 races before he scored his first win in the 2001 Daytona 500, no less, aboard a Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet. He took the chequered flag just seconds after team boss Earnhardt crashed to his death in turn four. Waltrip won three more restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega over the next two years before departing DEI at the end of ‘05.
He started his race team back in 1996, running in the second-division Busch series (now the Nationwide series) for many years before making a full-time move into the first-division Cup series with Toyota last year. Former NASCAR champion Dale Jarrett was Waltrip’s lead driver for most of last season, retiring near the end of the year. Jarrett was replaced by David Reutimann who finished second in last year’s Nationwide series aboard a Waltrip Toyota. Waltrip also brought on young McDowell who’s shown a lot of promise over the past few years in a wide variety of cars.
With Hallam’s arrival, Waltrip will now have to make a hard choice and find a top driver to take over his seat. Waltrip is 45 years old and while he was never a great driver if he’s to take full advantage of Hallam’s hiring and become a top class team owner he must step out of the cockpit and put all his energy behind running his team and selling sponsorship.