Race Weekend Central

Darrell Waltrip: A Hometown Hero

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Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I take an additional look at motorsports-related programming. It’s been a race-filled summer thus far here in the Annex, but that will change a little, starting with today. There will be three consecutive non-actual race telecast critiques here, starting with today’s entry on SPEED’s Darrell Waltrip special from July. Next week will cover the newest episode of The Day, which covers the infamous 1992 Hooters 500. After that is a surprise. You’ll find out what it is in due time.

Now, Darrell Waltrip is not the only racer ever to emerge from Owensboro, Kentucky to race in the Cup Series. It turns out that he was only the first of no less than six to pull off the feat. However, he was by far the most successful of the bunch, winning 84 races (including 12 in consecutive years in 1981 and 1982 while driving Buicks for Junior Johnson) and three Winston Cup Championships. The other five guys (brother Michael, Jeremy Mayfield, Stuart Kirby, Jeff Green and David Green) combined for eight Cup victories.

However, what do we know about Darrell Waltrip? Ok, what do you we know about him that can’t be taken from what we see on TV, or from his autobiography, _DW: A Life Spent Going Around In Circles_ (which was pretty good)? Let’s find out.

The show starts off the day after the announcement of Darrell getting into the NASCAR Hall of Fame with Darrell driving a pick-up truck to Owensboro through the countryside and eventually into the City of Owensboro, talking about various things that he remembered about the city from years gone by. This included a short tour of the neighborhood where he grew up, which mainly consisted of relatively small single-family houses in what he described as the blue-collar, or “poor” side of town. There was also a stop at the local Pepsi bottling plant, where his father Leroy worked. A small contingent of people met Darrell there, including a couple of workers who worked with Leroy and a Buick Regal painted up to look like Darrell’s No. 11 Mountain Dew-sponsored car.

Darrell and his wife, Stevie then talked about how they met at a now-defunct drive-in theater and how they dated for a mere nine months before marrying. Darrell then gives viewers a tour of the area where he had his infamous roll over crash while driving a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396. Apparently, he was going “Kyle Busch speed” (I’m unclear as if that actually meant he was driving 128, or if it just seemed like 128) and trying to elude a cop while on the way to Stevie’s house. He clicked off his headlights, then drove through a four-way intersection in an attempt to lose the cop, which he did. He turned on his lights and discovered that he’d driven off the road and up a bank. The result was that the Chevelle ended up upside-down in Stevie’s front yard. Darrell was ok.

Next stop was the Owensboro-Daviess County Visitors Bureau, where Darrell was in for a surprise. Turns out that he took the woman behind the counter to the prom way back in 1965. She even has proof. Chuckles were had by all. Next was a quick look at the Daviess County Hall of Fame, where Darrell is already a member, along with his brother Michael and other notables like Rex Chapman, Johnny Depp and Nicky Hayden.

Darrell mentions about Owensboro proclaiming themselves to be the BBQ capital of the world (they really do, this can be backed up with evidence), so they hit up the Moonlite B-B-Q for ribs, and some more reminiscing with friends. Of course, even the general public got in on it as well. Darrell signed some autographs here and there. Some random dude took a picture from his truck, which is always good for a laugh.

Next stop was Kentucky Motor Speedway, a place that Darrell didn’t really race at, but some of the other drivers I mentioned earlier did. Most of Darrell’s short track racing took place at other venues, but he believes that his successes gave the impetus to build a track in the Owensboro area. However, Darrell did tell a story about wrecking his car in a heat race and landing off the backstretch, upside-down and missing one shoe. He then jumped in a lower-midfield car that was offered to him and won from the rare.

This concluded the Owensboro tour. From here on was basically a look at Darrell’s Winston Cup career, with sound bites from those he worked with during said career. A fair amount of coverage was given to Johnson’s deal with Mountain Dew and the resulting apprehension of running green anything on the car and on the crew. Jeff Hammond mentioned about the rarity of crew uniforms at the time, which is true. Hal Needham also commented about that in his recent autobiography, Stuntman (at the time, he co-owned Mach 1 Racing, the No. 22 (and later 33) Pontiac sponsored by Skoal. A significant emphasis was placed on the first year with Junior Johnson (1981), perhaps too much. Granted, there was a lot going on internally within the team, but the career coverage was quite stilted.

Finally, the special finished out with quick looks at Darrell’s TV career with FOX Sports and his involvement with Jerry Carroll, the original owner of Kentucky Speedway. Knowing when this special actually premiered (during the Kentucky Cup weekend), it was somewhat surprising that it was all but glossed over.

Also, it should be noted that comedian and current game show host Bill Engvall served as a host and narrator of the show. However, Engvall’s role was quite limited. Basically, all he did the first 45 minutes was introduce the show coming out of commercial breaks.

Admittedly, I was expecting a completely different kind of show when this special was announced. I was thinking that the show was going to be closer to a “This Is Your Life” kind of thing. Since it was during the TNT portion of the season, Darrell was doing NASCAR RaceDay. I figured something like a live show where various people from Darrell’s part would be introduced to a welcoming crowd and then they would start to spin stories about Darrell’s past. Yeah, my idea definitely sounds clichéd, but that was my original thought.

However, what SPEED came up with was fairly interesting. I’ve never to Owensboro, so it was nice to be able to see what it looks like. Some of the stories that Darrell told would be familiar to anyone who has read his autobiography (I’ve read it through multiple times). For example, I clearly remembered reading about the chase scene that resulted in Darrell rolling the Chevelle. For the record, yes, the area where Stevie grew up does appear to be pretty ritzy by Owensboro standards. Of course, something that is “ritzy” in Owensboro is not likely to cost as much to live in as a ritzy place anywhere in the state of New York (where I am) would cost.

However, some of the stuff we saw even surprised Darrell. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t expecting to run into a former prom date while he was in town. Believe me, if I actually had a prom date and ran into that woman I took under those circumstances, I’d be surprised, too.

Personally, I would have preferred to have a little more content about Darrell’s career in the show. However, the show’s sponsorship from Diet Mountain Dew resulted in a Mountain Dew bias. That is officially bush league. Granted, I found it interesting that they talked with Joe Block, the former Vice President of Communications for PepsiCo when they signed the Mountain Dew deal, since he gave some interesting information about the sponsorship that was relatively new to me (The France family officially recommended that Mountain Dew actively pursue either Darrell or Dale Earnhardt). Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also had a fair amount of airtime (wearing a Diet Mountain Dew T-Shirt) where he would talk about watching Darrell dominate at North Wilkesboro in the early 1980’s. However, despite the fact that Earnhardt, Jr. is basically the NASCAR historian of the current Sprint Cup grid, he seemed incredibly out of place on the show, like he was just there because Mountain Dew sponsors him. Not cool.

I hope you liked this look at Darrell Waltrip: A Hometown Hero. Check back next Thursday for a look at The Day: 1992 Hooters 500. Until then, enjoy this weekend’s action from Atlanta and Baltimore.

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