The "Victory 2000" Tour
From the February, 2009 issue of Stock Car Racing
By Richard Huff
Photography by Barbara Garrett, Dave Franks, Dick Kelley, Drew Hierwarter, Jon Hill, Ken Coles, Mike Gurnsey, Richard Swanner, Sam Sharpe, SCR archives, Walt Disney Co.
Darrell Waltrip maintained...
Darrell Waltrip maintained good humor and dignity throughout a trying season in1999. This larger-than-life figure, who won 84 Cup titles as he helped shape NASCAR Winston Cups modern popularity, begins his farewell 2000 season at Daytona.
Stevie Waltrip has been DWs...
Stevie Waltrip has been DWs love of his life, confidant, and partner from the beginning.
Waltrip watches the Busch...
Waltrip watches the Busch Grand National 1999 DuraLube 500 at Phoenix.
Waltrip was able to briefly...
Waltrip was able to briefly show his old fire in 1998, when on-track foe Dale Earnhardt had him sit in for injured Steve Park in the DEI Pennzoil Chevrolet.
Waltrip, with daughter Jessica,...
Waltrip, with daughter Jessica, as winner of the 1991 Pocono 500 event.
Waltrip wrestled with ill-handling...
Waltrip wrestled with ill-handling cars and sparse funding, and drew deeply from his vast experience to always give a 110 percent effort.
DW "going to Disneyland" with...
DW "going to Disneyland" with Jessica in 1990.
Waltrip approaches qualifying...
Waltrip approaches qualifying at the 1999 Winston 500 with his Travis Carter-owned Ford Taurus.
Waltrip had a "never-lift,...
Waltrip had a "never-lift, never give an inch" style that brought him 84 Winston Cup victories and legions of loyal fans.
Door to door with Davey Alison...
Door to door with Davey Alison and Alan Kulwicki at Michigan in 1992. He would win at Pocono, Bristol, and Darlington that year.
Stevie Waltrip and a young...
Stevie Waltrip and a young Jessica celebrate DWs 1988 Coca Cola 600 victory.
The smile that captured "Most...
The smile that captured "Most Popular Driver Awards" in 1989 and 1990.
Sundays may soon never be the same for Darrell Waltrip. If all goes to plan, when the checkered flag is waved at Atlanta in November, Waltrip will step out of his K-mart sponsored car and never return to the cockpit in full-fledged competition. After 28 years as one of the best drivers in the history of the sport, the three-time Winston Cup champion will move on to find whatever it is that will replace a significant part of his life. With this year's Daytona 500, Waltrip kicks off his "Victory 2000" tour, a farewell campaign that he hopes lives up to its name. When it's over, it'll bring to a close one of the most storied driving careers in NASCAR history. "We hope there's truth in advertising," he says. "Our intention is to have a win in 2000. Then it would really be a victory tour. But it's a celebration of all my victories."
Winning a race may be easier said than done. Waltrip is coming off a 1999 season he has called "ugly," one in which he frequently failed to qualify for races and didn’t fare well in those he did make. The on-track failures weren’t his fault. His Travis Carter-owned team came together very late in 1998 and that put the team way behind competitively all year long, a fact both Carter and Waltrip readily admit.
"Our team hasn't been as good as we wanted," Waltrip says. "We knew that and we've tried to grow and improve." Part of that improvement includes getting engines this season from Robert Yates Racing--the best in the business--a new shop, and planning ahead for this year which started late last season.
There were some growing pains along the way last season. And it didn't help that once the team fell out of the top 25, NASCAR's provisional system wouldn't save them. Many weekends, Waltrip, the sport's elder statesmen, found himself at home on Sunday rather than at the speedway.
Not being in the field was difficult for Waltrip. He's built his life around the cockpit of a race car. Being anywhere but in the car on race day is the equivalent of a smack in the face. "The first time it happens, it's devastating," he says. "I couldn't believe I just missed a race. It was an impossibility it would ever happen. [Last season] it was the same feeling. 'My gosh, we missed a race.' We certainly haven't accepted that."
If there's an upside to Waltrip's misfortune, it's that the sport has changed so dramatically that no one is immune from missing a race."Once it seems you get in a rut, it just piles on," he says. For the fans, though, there's something terribly wrong about seeing Waltrip on the track and not being competitive. Long-time followers of racing remember the days when he would beat and bang with the best of them. Soon after, he would emerge from the car spewing all sorts of easily quotable barbs at his competitors and touting his own driving skills. Many of those same fans now struggle for words when Waltrip is on the track and running way behind.
He's been in a slump for a few years. Waltrip last tasted victory in 1992. At that time he owned his own team and was seemingly on top of the world.
But then the sport changed. Multi-car teams began to become the craze, putting immense pressure on single car operations to increase their budgets to remain competitive. Soon, Waltrip's team was struggling. Owning the team and driving became too much. At the end, if he made a race, he fell off the pace early. Rarely was Waltrip in contention for a top spot. He eventually sold out to Tim Beverley, who runs the team as Tyler Jet Motorsports.
During the past few seasons, Waltrip couldn't dodge the retirement question. It hung around like a bad toothache. Waltrip found redemption in the bad luck of Steve Park, who drives Pennzoil-backed Chevrolets for Dale Earnhardt. Early in 1998, Park slammed the wall while practicing at Atlanta. Earnhardt called Waltrip in to sub for the injured Park. Overnight, Waltrip was running up front, leading some races, and in contention for a win. His old on-track foe Earnhardt breathed new life into Waltrip, which carried over into this season.Trouble is, the momentum didn't continue onto his new team and Waltrip was again forced to face reality and his future.
"Just not being able to get into a situation where I could be competitive every week," Waltrip says, explaining what led to the decision to leave. "If I was running in a car that was in the top ten and had a legitimate chance to get into the top ten, I wouldn't think about it."However, the sport Waltrip has worked so hard to promote during his tenure has grown such that it's now tough for a slightly older guy to land one of the good rides. "There's just not a lot of room from guys like me in the sport," he says. "The sponsors, they want a driver they can build an identity around. There's just not that opportunity out there [for me]. I was tired of getting kicked around and feeling sorry for myself. If a guy that's done all that I've done can't get into a better ride, I just need to find something else to do." Waltrip showed some of his past glory while driving for Earnhardt and he fully believes he can still drive the wheels off the car. It's just a matter of getting the right car. "I've seen a lot of factors involved with Darrell Waltrip that tells me the guy can still drive a race car," says Carter, a championship winning crew chief-turned-owner. "He knows a lot about race cars. He knows how to win a race."
Waltrip certainly should. He's been around race cars since he was a kid. He started racing at 12, when he drove go-karts in his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. By the time he was 16, he was dominating on the local short track scene. After high school, he tried college, though racing was in his blood.He broke into the Winston Cup circuit in 1972, when he ran five races in his own car. His intense driving, combined with his willingness to say just about anything off the track, made him an instant lightning rod for controversy and ridicule from other drivers. He was the young buck going after more seasoned drivers such as Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, and David Pearson. And as has been proven time and time again, sports fans don't take kindly to newcomers attacking legends.
Former driver-turned-TNN broadcaster Buddy Baker remembers vividly the first time he crossed paths with Waltrip. The new driver was just starting out and he was addressing a group of race fans in Daytona. "He said, 'Hi, I'm Darrell Waltrip and I'm here to retire Richard Petty.' I went, 'Oh my God,'" Baker recalls. "You could hear all the people saying, 'Who is this guy?' They found out later. He's like Muhammad Ali. He backed up what he said." And did he. Waltrip picked up his first win in 1975 while driving for himself. That year he also drove for Bill Gardner, where he remained until 1980, when he moved over to drive for racing legend Junior Johnson.
"Maybe the best job of race car driving I ever saw was Darrell Waltrip at Talladega, maybe 1980," says 1973 Winston Cup champion Benny Parsons, now a broadcaster for ESPN. "He was almost having to hit the brakes going into the tri-oval. I couldn’t believe how bad his car was. But he won the race." Waltrip stood out in the sport during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. He racked up wins and overturned the sport’s hierarchy. If he thought something was wrong, he said so, giving little thought to what might happen in the long run. If anything, he was entertaining. "The thinking of the home office is 1950-ish," he told US magazine of the sport’s sanctioning body. "There’s a fear of driver’s unions, and car owner’s unions. The purses we run for are pathetic, but the promoters and racetracks make money hand over fist."
In 1981, Waltrip described Indy Car racing to a New York Daily News reporter by saying the series was boring. "What those championship cars do isn't racing," he said then. "It's follow the leader. It's the most boring racing that ever was." Despite the feathers he may have ruffled along the way--fellow competitors nicknamed him "Jaws"--Waltrip says speaking out was expected of him and ultimately, all he was trying to do was help the sport. At the time, the national media rarely discussed the then southern-based stock car series. Most reporters outside of the south only covered racing if there was a bad accident or the spectacle of the Indy 500. "The thing that drove me most," he says, "is that our sport was never accepted as a very professional sport. When I went to New York, or Chicago, or California, it was always, 'Are the drivers really athletes?' and, 'Is this really a sport?' I think the thing that motivated me the most is I wasn't doing it for the individual, I was doing it for the masses. Damn right we're athletes. I work out everyday. I was just trying to present our case to the whole world."
Part of that process was trying to give reporters who usually covered stick-and-ball sports an easily understandable answer to describe racing."At the time I came along, all I ever heard [other drivers] say was, 'The car run good,'" he says. "I just had a lot more to say than that. I said, 'I drove the wheels off it, I had a better car, and I'm smarter.'"
The timing was perfect for Waltrip. He'd come into the sport just as some of racing's regulars were winding down their careers. In many ways, Waltrip was the Jeff Gordon of his day, though without the nationwide appeal and multi-million-dollar sponsorships. "What I always wanted for our sport was to be able to stand toe-to-toe with other professional sports," he says. "For a race car driver to be recognized as a person, or personalities, not just in racing, but in the whole world." But being a quotable driver comes with some downside. For many fans, Waltrip was viewed as a creep and they widely booed him during driver introductions. "Darrell's the most booed driver I ever seen," Bobby Allison said in 1981. "They used to say they booed him when he drove down Interstate 77," Baker says. "He's always a little different," Baker adds. "A little more outspoken. One thing I admire, he says what he thinks. And he can get by with it, because he's got a good track record. He lived up to his first billings when he said he was going to be something special."
Waltrip's image with the fans changed dramatically over the years. Fact is, one night in Charlotte, during a running of the Winston all-star race, the perception of Waltrip changed instantly when Rusty Wallace spun the champion. In a heartbeat, Waltrip went from the most despised to the most loved, a position he still holds with many fans today. His standing with the fans was helped because of his emphasis on family values. Often, Waltrip can be seen on pit road with his wife, Stevie, and daughters, Jessica Leigh and Sarah Kaitlyn.
He spent six seasons with Junior Johnson, where he earned three Winston Cup titles. He left Johnson for a chance to drive for Rick Hendrick, leaving that team in 1990 to go out on his own as a driver-owner. But the going was tough. He started out fine, winning two races in 1991, and three in 1992. Then the wins dried up. While driving for Earnhardt midway through 1998, there were flourishes of the old Waltrip, earning nine top-20 finishes, with a fifth-place finish at the California Speedway. So much so, Waltrip set aside retirement. He talked about a career rebirth and joked that before Earnhardt gave him a ride in the Pennzoil car, he was in the grave, though not enough dirt covered him. Yet, that rebound didn't carry over into his tenure with Beverley or Carter last season. "It really got tough," he says. "The biggest disappointment was expectations weren't met. The pressure increased. The best thing for us was to get the year over with."
The pain of struggling isn't limited to Waltrip. Fact is, the fans, his competitors, and his friends, all of whom hate to see the former champ left out of races, feel it. "It's the most disheartening thing I've ever seen," Parsons says of Waltrip's battles. "I remember when he was the man, when the race was over, he was the guy contending for the win. Seeing Darrell Waltrip back there and being the first one a lap down is heartbreaking." However, now Waltrip is facing the unenviable position of having every race be his last. There will be a last Daytona 500, a last Winston, and a last Coca-Cola 600. No doubt, each and every one of them will be a tearjerker for the fans, and maybe Waltrip. Stepping away from the car is never easy. Fact is, the hardest thing for any driver is seeing someone else drive his car. Moreover, Waltrip will be stepping away from a huge income to drive.
"I've been doing this all my life," he says. "If there's anybody out there who loves racing more than I do--the media the hype, all the things that go with it--I don't know who it is. I'm a purist." His love for the sport is what will make leaving so tough. He's been spending 30-plus Sundays at a speedway for nearly three decades. There's going to come a point in the not too distant future where Waltrip won't have to get up early to beat traffic to the track."Sundays will never be the same. I'll miss the Sundays," he says, pausing. "When I say Sundays will never be the same, I mean the routine."
When he's failed to qualify for a race, he's been unable to watch the race at home. It's just too painful. He'll watch the start, then get depressed and fiddle on something else. He might return for the finish, though often he's caught up on the details on TNN's "RaceDay" or ESPN's "RPM2Night."
Thanks in part to Waltrip's early efforts to boost the sport, NASCAR is now a household word. And Waltrip is featured in nationwide television promotions that were non-existent in his heyday. Indeed, late last season while Waltrip was vacationing in Nantucket, Massachusetts, a small kid noticed him. "He said, 'Mom, there's that guy in the Wendy's commercials.'" That said, as the sport has grown, sponsors have become more demanding and rightly so. They're spending upwards of $10 million in some cases, and they want results.
Likewise, the boom in multi-car teams has taken a toll on guys like Waltrip. He was forced to sell his team to compete. Ricky Rudd did the same, as did Geoff Bodine, all of which flusters Waltrip. He's been an advocate for franchising teams so that when an owner wants out there will be some set value. "I always say to my wife, 'I spent 30 years for this?' he says. "My life, my time, my energy for this? Somebody is going to have to step up and make a change." He's also challenged the provisional rules--rules he's admittedly overused in recent years to get into races--which give only those teams in the top-25 a free pass into some events. By not giving them to the struggling teams, few folks outside of the multi-car operations will be encouraged to take a stab at racing. "I love this sport," he explains. "I don't want to hurt this sport at all. I just want to see it fair and equitable for all, and I don't see it that way now." If a change does occur in ownership or provisional rules, it'll be too late for Waltrip. Come the final event at Atlanta in November, Waltrip will be hanging up his helmet and looking toward the future.
He's been saying since at least 1981 that television could be his second career and he's proven to be an adept broadcaster. Though some inside the sport suggest talking about the sport might not be enough to satisfy Waltrip. "I'll take my dog and pony show and go somewhere else," he says. "The television market seems to be right for me and I can do the sport good. When I'm done with my Sunday gig, I'm not going to look for some steady job. If there's not a job like that, I'll sell cars in Franklin, Tennessee, and live happily ever after."
He's also aware that the next opportunity in the sport may be one that's not available yet or hasn't been presented to him. "I have never, in my whole life, thought about anything but racing," he says. "I just thought about the next race and the next year. That's the hard thing to deal with. It's like you always say, 'We'll get em next year.' I'm not going to be able to say that anymore." He won't totally rule out getting back into a car again. There may be a time, he says, when he'll want to run in a celebrity race or run an event at the Nashville Speedway. He may help out some teams in testing, much the way Baker did for a couple of years after retiring from full-time racing. He won't, however, be one of those guys who retires only to unretire.
No matter what he does in the future, it's certain that Waltrip's legacy in the sport will live long after he's gone. Few folks win Winston Cup championships, and even fewer win more than one. Looking back on his career, Waltrip doesn't cite one statistic over another as his best. He's amassed enough notable milestones to fill a record book. His 84 wins tied Bobby Allison for third overall. He's got the most wins of any driver in the modern era. He's seventh on the list of superspeedway race winners and fourth on the all-time list of pole winners with a record 59 poles in the modern era. The list of accomplishments literally goes on and on. But rather than focus on those statistics, Waltrip likes to look at his career in other terms.
"I don't look at any one thing I've done as greater than any other thing," he says. "I believe my contribution has been that I've made a difference. That's all any athlete wants. You just want to feel you've made a difference. That you made a difference in how people perceived you, the way they perceived your sport. I think I brought color. I think I brought definition to a sport that was desperately misunderstood."
And if those are the parameters Waltrip wants to use as a yardstick of his career, than he's been an unquestionable success. But the sport, no doubt, will be diminished without him on the track.
"It loses a character," says Carter. "A very witty character and that's a key element. Not as many people can step to the microphone and be as entertaining as he can be."