Looking back, even Darrell Waltrip admits that calling out Richard Petty probably wasn’t such a bright idea. The year was 1979, Petty was in his prime and a brash loudmouth, known simply as D.W. He introduced himself to reporters by saying, “Hello, I’m Darrell Waltrip and I’m here to take Richard Petty’s place.”
Bold? Certainly. But nothing compared to his stunt a few years earlier when the Owensboro, Ky., outlaw was chased by the police, an incident that ended with his car taking six bullets during the pursuit.
“I think they were just trying to send me a message,” said Waltrip about his feud with the local police that went back to his childhood growing up in the town. “And trust me, I got the message.’’
If there’s one thing other than racing that Waltrip has always been good at, it’s putting himself in jams. When he arrived full-time on the Winston Cup (now called the Cup Series) scene in 1975, he immediately challenged the establishment and the legends.
He would beat on the bumpers of guys such as Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison, and then say afterward that it was on purpose. Racing’s royalty meant nothing to the man known as much for fast talking as fast driving. “I was just mouthy. I was rude and obnoxious. I was a good talker, and they wasn’t,” he said.
Waltrip quickly became one of NASCAR’s most disliked drivers, and one of its most quotable. Petty might have been the king of the track, but Waltrip was the king of the one-liner. When asked how he set the Kentucky-State high-school track record with a 2:02.04 in the 880-yard run, Waltrip said, “They threw me a hubcap and hollered, ‘Police!’ “
His favourite racing phrase? “You picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel.”
On his relationship with the late Dale Earnhardt? “Dale and I were always ‘frenemies.’ We were friends part of the time; we were enemies part of the time.”
It was those quips and moments that eventually endeared Waltrip to fans and even competitors. Ironically, he finished his 29-year racing career with two most-popular driver awards that brought him almost as much satisfaction as his three cup championships.
“I felt I was given a chance to mend fences with fans,” said Waltrip, whose popularity also earned him a spot on a Wheaties cereal box. “Richard Petty had once said that I would win a lot of races and break a lot of records, but I’d never be most popular driver.”
It wasn’t that Waltrip didn’t have a heart of gold, he just seldom showed it or wouldn’t be known for it. Whether it was racing his silver-coloured go-kart as a teenager around Owensboro or his old 1936 Chevrolet coupe in Nashville, Tenn., Waltrip was the biggest fish on the little circuits; a barnstorming short-track ace whose ego became more inflated with every win.
“Wherever I would go, I was almost assured I was going to win one or two races a week and I made a good living doing that.”
In 1972, at the age of 25, Waltrip began dabbling in NASCAR’s Winston Cup series, sporadically racing until he joined the circuit full-time in 1975. “It was difficult to step to the big leagues,” he said. “It took some time for me to make up my mind that I needed to get in there.”
And what a decision it was.
In terms of all-time wins, the once-obnoxious Kentucky kid finished his career tied for third with 84 Winston Cup checkered flags. He was the first driver in the circuit to win $10 million in a single season and he was the only driver to win $500,000 or more in a season 18 times.
And his younger brother Michael went on to have his own slice of NASCAR stardom, usually being the diplomat that the older Waltrip seldom was. Both eventually won the Daytona 500, with Michael winning twice.
After retiring from driving at the end of the 2000 season, Waltrip moved to the broadcast booth as a race analyst, a position he held until June of 2019.
Now 75, he has certainly mellowed since those the days of police chases, flying bullets and brazen predictions. Waltrip’s wife of more than 50 years, Stevie, said his Christian faith helps keep him grounded. His daughters keep him on the “boogity-boogity-boogity,” one of the infamous commentator terms he used every time a race got under way.
From outlaw to champion and from rebel to father, Waltrip has come full circle. Ironically, in a life spent driving in circles.
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