It can be argued that nothing in NASCAR was ever the same after Darrell Waltrip arrived in the early 1970s.
At 25, the Kentucky native and Tennessee resident carried the unmistakable aura of a superstar champion-in-waiting. He was an enormous talent who commanded everyone’s attention and forced the old guard to change its ways. The handsome young man with the pretty red-headed wife quickly became NASCAR’s most polarizing figure.
He was cocky and often irritating, but defended himself with Dizzy Dean’s famous mantra, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” Nobody in the Cup Series garage back then was as bright and outspoken as the man Cale Yarborough once called “Jaws.” Certainly, nobody toyed with the media and used it with such a deft touch. He was undeniably different, as good at getting your head as beating you at the flag.
Granted, Yarbrough, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, and David Pearson were still huge talents, the best in the business. But nobody had ever come in with as much talent, charisma, personality, and confidence as the yappy kid from Tennessee. He was, many would agree, stock car racing’s first “full package.” (Others lean toward Jeff Gordon, who followed Waltrip by about 20 years).
Listen to what industry insiders think about the driver who changed NASCAR perhaps more than anyone:
“How important was he?” says retired Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter Humpy Wheeler. “Man, he was very important; maybe the most important we’ve ever had. We needed a new superstar at that time, somebody who could get racing on the front page. There might not be anything going on, then here comes Darrell, saying stuff to get everybody’s attention. In that regard, he was like Muhammed Ali … always talking and stirring the pot.
“He was exactly what we needed—a half-good guy and a half-villain who moved the (fan and media) needle. It’s funny about drivers: they all want to get along; they want to like each other. Well, Darrell didn’t care about that. He’d tick you off, and the media would run with it. I can tell you from experience that he helped me sell a bunch of tickets.”
Eddie Gossage worked for years with Wheeler at CMS, learning the promotion business at the knee of the master. It’s not surprising that his view of Waltrip’s importance is similar to Wheeler’s.
“There’s no question he may have been the most transformative driver of them all,” says Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway and a long-time Waltrip-watcher. “He helped move the sport from backyard mechanics to people who looked and talked like he did. He didn’t fit the mold, but he was better at advancing the sport than anybody. And he was a smart-ass when nobody else was a smart-ass; he walked the walk and talked the talk. That’s why so many people—even in Nashville—didn’t always like him.”
Ol’ DW was among the first to appreciate the media, a group he tolerated well. He seemed absolutely natural when the klieg lights went on and the mics went hot. “He was more PR-savvy than anyone,” says motorsports marketing expert Dave Ferroni. “He was bright and articulate, but teams didn’t understand what the media could do. They didn’t want to fool with it, so he took it on himself. Later, Earnhardt and Gordon were beneficiaries of what Darrell began doing with PR in the 1970s.”
When Waltrip retired after the 2000 season, his 29-year resume showed 59 poles, 84 victories, three Cups, 18 top-10 points seasons, and a Most Popular Driver award. He was a cinch for the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame and has been inducted into upwards of a dozen other Halls. He’s been recognized with every meaningful award available to a driver. There is almost nothing he hasn’t done.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, he’s now revered as one of racing’s grand old men, an imposing figure whose opinions are valued and whose voice still resonates in Daytona Beach and Charlotte. Dare we say it: he’s accepted now by many who once couldn’t stand the sight of him. “My glory days may have passed,” Waltrip said late in his career, “but at least I had glory days.”
He and crew chief “Suitcase Jake” Elder debuted with five Cup races in 1972 in Waltrip’s hand-me-down No. 95 Mercury. They did 19 more in 1973 and another 16 in 1974. By the time they went full-time in 1975, they already a pole, nine top-5s, and 19 top-10s in 40 starts. Not bad for a relatively inexperienced kid driving less-than-competitive equipment with a relatively modest budget.
Almost predictably, his breakthrough Cup victory came on the 0.596-mile Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway near his adopted hometown. “I knew I had a slight advantage anytime I raced at Nashville,” he recently told Autoweek. “That’s where I grew up racing, so knew that track better than anywhere else we went. I figured if I couldn’t win there, I might not be able to win anywhere.”
Waltrip had won upwards of 60 times at Nashville during his career. They included several dozen “outside” victories in ARCA, ASA, USAC, Late Model, and Sportsman. Afterward, during his NASCAR days, he won an Xfinity race and eight Cup races at the track he’s now trying to help become relevant again.
The first of those eight Cup victories—and the first of his 84—came on May 10, 1975 in the Music City 420.
Waltrip won the pole and led the first 47 laps before third-starting Yarborough led 48-320. But that overwhelming performance ended at lap 321 with a blown engine in his No. 11 Chevrolet. Waltrip inherited the point and easily stayed ahead the final 100 laps. Parsons was two-down in second, then Coo Coo Marlin, Dave Marcis, and Cecil Gordon. (Waltrip’s second career victory came later that fall with DiGard Racing at Richmond).
“I was good that night,” Waltrip recalled of the breakthrough victory on a sauna-like Saturday in Nashville. “I wasn’t as good as Cale and (owner) Junior Johnson, but I was good enough to win the race. And, you know, I sort of always knew Nashville would be the place I won my first one. All along, I knew I was a good driver; the deal was for me to get the car as good as the driver. It took a while because at first we didn’t have the money to get the car to the driver’s level.”
“I sort of always knew Nashville would be the place I won my first one.”
That night, Waltrip wrapped up his first win with the thought that it could have come a lot sooner.
“If you go to bat long enough, sooner or later you’re going to get a hit,” he said. “This is a great thrill, but I wish my first win had come at some other track, other than the track where I grew up. It’s finally good to get one, though; I figured I would have won a race a lot sooner than this.”
To Waltrip, the Nashville victory “broke the ice” and opened the door that had been closed the previous 50 starts. He won at least once a year for the next 14 years, missing only in 1990. At the height of his career—12 victories each in 1981 and 1982—he was winning about once every three weeks for Johnson and crew chief Tim Brewer. But he tailed off late, going 0-for-23 in 1990, then winning only twice in 1991, and three times in 1992. He endured an 0-for-251 tailspin over the last eight years of his career.
But wait … there’s more
• Waltrip’s 15-year winning streak ended in 1990, when Brett Bodine beat him at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
To this day, Waltrip is convinced NASCAR scoring and timing had it wrong, that he beat Bodine. Instead of 84 victories and a 15-year streak, Waltrip says it should be 85 victories and an 18-year streak. It didn’t help that he missed six of that year’s 29 races due to serious injuries suffered in a practice crash at Daytona Beach in July.
• North Wilkesboro wasn’t the only issue Waltrip had with NASCAR. Another had come in 1973, when the typically outspoken and aggressive Waltrip battled quiet and unassuming Lennie Pond for the Rookie of the Year award. Even though Pond beat him in most significant categories—more starts, equal top-5s, more top-10s, and ahead in final points—Waltrip felt the selection committee was wrong. In almost 30 years of racing, it remains one of the few things that didn’t go his way.
• Waltrip went directly from racing to broadcasting the first half of the annual schedule for FOX Sports. Glib and articulate and naturally compelling, he was the first “driver talent” when FOX began its 20-year NASCAR run in 2001. His brother Michael’s victory in that year’s Daytona 500 was Darrell’s first broadcast … and who will ever forget his anguished plea toward Turn 4 after the checkered: “He’s alright, isn’t he? Dale’s alright?”
When he retired after last season – replaced in the booth by Clint Bowyer—Waltrip had done approximately 330 races and 1,500 practice and qualifying sessions for FOX. And more “BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY! LET’S GO RACING, BOYS” calls than we care to count.
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