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Driven to the Past: Darrell Waltrip

I first met Darrell Waltrip when he was still in his teens, racing on Sunday evenings at Kentucky Motor Speedway near Whitesville. A bunch from Louisville used to go down there every weekend, and, when I didn’t have to be somewhere else with ARCA, I went with them.

It was pretty obvious even then that the kid had a lot of talent, along with a ton of ambition. One night when he crashed his own car – the result of a blown engine, if I recall correctly, he ended up in the backup car of a guy named PB Crowell from Franklin, Tenn. PB had two 1955 Chevrolets when I first started going down there, but by this time had updated to 1964 Chevelles. When he mentioned that he had offered the second car to Darrell, he wondered out loud if it had been a good idea. My response was that he was going to find out just how fast that car would go, but there was a chance he could get it back in a bucket.

Well, he didn’t get it back in a bucket, and DW started driving for him regularly. That stretch included a track championship at the Nashville Fairgrounds (I’ve still got a model of that Chevelle).

In the early 1970s, we started running some “open competition” races on the high-banked half-mile at Salem, Ind., and Darrell won three in a row. In fact, he was undefeated on that track and was a big draw for the first ASA Circuit of Champions race planned for October 29, 1972.

This was also the first “Midwest 300” with upwards of 70 cars entered. The original concept of the Circuit of Champions was to have rules which fit most short tracks in the area, and which would bring competitors from all over to the same place.

The field, in addition to DW, included Jim Cushman, Terry Bivens, Joy Fair, Don Gregory, Rick Knotts, Dennis Miles, Larry Moore, Moose Myers, Joe Ruttman, Jack Shanklin, Herb Shannon, John Sommerville, Ed Vanderlaan, Dave Wall and a slew of others – all names recognizable to short-track fans of the day.

The race didn’t come off that day. In hot laps, Don Seaborn and Lonnie Breedlove got together and ripped out roughly 140 feet of guard rail in the third and fourth turns. It was obvious that there was no way to get it repaired before dark, and officials were not really willing to try. Mercifully, it then rained and saved them the trouble.

DW had a verbal commitment to run a late model sportsman race somewhere in the Carolinas the next weekend, so we didn’t expect him back. However, as he was changing clothes to head home, ASA competition director Milt Hartlauf commented on his perfect record at Salem and the field which was assembled and said, “Waltrip, if you can beat this bunch, you’re really the Daddy!”

This must have touched a nerve, because Waltrip called Salem promoter Steve Stubbs on Tuesday and said he was coming.

The race format called for two 100-lappers with 24 cars each, and the top 15 in each 100 to make the feature. Darrell was leading the second 100 when the transmission locked up on him and put him out. He had a team car there which had qualified for the first 100 with another driver and made the feature, so he climbed in.

Because of the driver change, he had to start scratch, of course.

We had a quick drivers’ meeting before the final 100 and explained to the drivers that we might cut it short because of approaching darkness. I told the drivers I’d give them 10 laps of warning with a blackboard when I thought it was time to do so. Since we had scheduled 300 laps, we were well past halfway, of course.

This obviously lit a fire under Waltrip, because he came through the field in just over 30 laps – and there were no pushovers in this group, as Hartlauf had noted.

At 33 laps, with Moore leading and Waltrip gaining on him, I told Rex Robbins I couldn’t read the numbers on the backstretch anymore and it was time to do something in the name of safety. He told me it was my call. I put “10 laps” on the blackboard the next lap and every one of the drivers acknowledged it. This was before full-face helmets, and I swear they were all smiling.

Particularly Moore, who later said he “…damned near fell out of the seat” when he saw Waltrip in his mirror.

On lap 38, Waltrip went around Moore, but Larry wasn’t ready to give up the fight. He got right to the rear bumper before I finally pulled out the white and then the checker, and DW won by a car length.

As he pulled up to the finish line, he was greeted by Hartlauf with an outstretched hand saying, “You ARE the DADDY!”

Steve Stubbs still calls it “…maybe the damndest race I’ve ever seen.”

A postscript – while I was walking through the pits after the race, I heard someone say “Hey, Flagman!” I turned around and it was Moore.

I thought I was about to catch some flak, but he stuck out his hand and said, “Man, was I glad to see that white flag. My right-front tire was going down.”

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