Back in his brassy early days, Darrell Waltrip was the scratch on NASCAR’s vinyl record. He was the hair down its collar at the barbershop, the static on its radio, the drip in its kitchen sink.
In an era when other drivers tended to kowtow and toe the line, DW mischievously delighted in giving NASCAR an occasional wedgie. He was racing’s Bart Simpson. Nobody other than Darrell would have dared refer to NASCAR’s formidable founder Bill France Sr. as “our Great White Father in Daytona.”
Waltrip likewise delighted in getting the goat of his competitors, challenging the Old Guard, making himself a gadfly around the garage. Rival Cale Yarborough nicknamed him “Jaws.” Others called him a lot worse.
In 1973, Waltrip was denied the subjective Rookie of the Year Award due to his sandpaper personality. He was clearly a more talented rookie than recipient Lennie Pond, a journeyman driver who never made ripples on NASCAR’s pond. But while he was a terror on the track, DW lost the congeniality portion of the rookie competition.
Fast-forward almost four decades, and there was reason to suspect that Waltrip was getting similar cold-shoulder treatment by the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He wasn’t included in the inaugural class. He was left out in the second class.
But finally, in the spring, Waltrip was included among the third round of inductees.
With the possible exception of Dale Earnhardt, nobody in the sport’s modern era has contributed more on and off the track than Waltrip. He not only won three Cup championships and 84 races — tied for third all-time — he was in the forefront at a critical juncture when TV was just starting to take notice of stock-car racing. Glib, smooth and entertaining, Waltrip was the perfect person at the perfect time to usher NASCAR into the nation’s living room.
Richard Petty is arguably the sport’s all-time fan favorite, but the majority of Petty’s fans back in the day already were confirmed racing fans. Waltrip introduced the sport to a whole new legion of viewers who’d never had the least interest in watching cars run in circles.
Back then there existed a stereotyped notion about stock car racers: They were semi-reformed moonshine runners, knuckle-skinned bumpkins with bad hygiene and bad habits. Suddenly there was DW with his stylish haircut, golf-pro wardrobe and polished persona, witty and articulate, pontificating before the cameras like Johnny Carson. Perhaps more than any single person, Waltrip altered the public perception of stock-car racing.
It wasn’t all charm and grace. Waltrip had an edge. He didn’t hesitate to stir the pot, as he called it, gouging at his competitors and nipping at NASCAR’s heels. He could be brash, loud and cocky.
But that anti-authority swagger played well during that period, and lots of fans found it appealing. He was the sport’s resident rebel, James Dean on asphalt, constantly being called into the principal’s office. Waltrip was a hard itch for NASCAR to scratch, but he attracted attention, stirred interest, inflamed passions and drew flocks of fans.
That was nothing new for DW. He’d been doing the same thing for years at Fairgrounds Speedway before catapulting into NASCAR’s big leagues and taking the national stage.
Waltrip moved to Franklin from Owensboro, Ky., in the late 1960s. He made the move to be closer to the fairgrounds, the center of the regional racing universe. In those days Nashville was second only to Daytona as the place to race, and DW wanted to be in the thick of the action.
Here, he was flashy and flamboyant, running his mouth as fast as his motor, and the fans and the press couldn’t get enough of him. Racing against colorful characters with names like Coo Coo, Flookie, Paddlefoot and Fat Boy, Waltrip was king of the road.
Waltrip played the media like a Stradivarius. He used it to rile rivals and, in the process, kept the track’s turnstiles twirling. Promoter Bill Donoho proclaimed Waltrip the greatest draw in the history of racing. And when he made his move to the big time, he took his act with him. Instead of challenging Coo Coo, Flookie and Fat Boy, he started getting under the skin of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison — and, of course, NASCAR.
There was method to his madness. Waltrip knew controversy was the way to get attention. Everywhere he went, DW was the driver fans loved to loathe. He drew big crowds, but they were hostile. Old-time fans didn’t appreciate him tweaking such favorites as Petty and Allison.
Beneath the bluff and bluster, though, Waltrip is a deep and sensitive sort. The slings and arrows stung. After a hard crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway that left him dazed and semi-conscious, Waltrip heard the crowd cheering as he was placed on a gurney and loaded into an ambulance. He realized he’d created a monster, so DW eased up on the vinegar and set about mending fences and polishing his image.
Gradually, Waltrip won over the fans. By the time he ran his final Cup race at Atlanta in the fall of 2000, Waltrip was one of the sport’s most popular personalities.
Today that popularity continues to grow through his national exposure as a TV commentator (although some fans grump that his trademark “Boogity Boogity” at the start of each race tends to grate). Still, there’s no denying his influence on the sport.
Few have raced better, and none with more flair and flamboyance than DW, now 64 and smoother with age. It’s been a long time coming, but Waltrip finally is getting his due. He’s going into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Like the sport itself, it will benefit from his presence.