Darrell Waltrip’s 2019 retirement press conference at Bristol Motor Speedway was, in every way, a conundrum.
If there’s been one word to describe what the NASCAR season has been to this point, conundrum is the word. Such was the case with Friday’s (April 5) official announcement that Jaws, a fixture in FOX’s NASCAR broadcast booth since the network came to the sport 19 years ago, will be retiring following the broadcast at Sonoma Raceway in June. Anyone that’s read Thinkin’ Out Loud in 2019 knows full well I’ve been among the chorus calling for Waltrip to step aside from the broadcast booth. But having heard him speak at Bristol this Friday has me almost rethinking that call.
Listening to this press conference, without the distractions of Boogity Boogity Boogity, Digger or an ice cream bar to be found, Waltrip delivered a presser that kept a throng of media on their feet in rapt attention for over half an hour. He was articulate, self-aware, knowledgeable and passionate. The presser was filled with the kind of things all NASCAR fans, love or hate Waltrip, want to see and hear when they tune in on race day. The most visible of conundrums was to see Mike Joy, a man who has audibly expressed exasperation with some of Waltrip’s antics thus far in 2019, visibly struggling to keep his emotions in check for the entirety of DW’s remarks.
It could be seen as egotistical that Waltrip described Bristol as a personal sanctuary, reminding everyone that the Turn 4 grandstand (“it’s one of the biggest in the sport,” he said) is named for him. But the sport’s most successful short track racer in the modern era, already a NASCAR Hall of Famer, has earned those bragging rights. Lest we all forget that the man won 12 Cup races at Bristol, including a stretch of seven consecutive that makes Kurt Busch’s run during his early years at Roush Fenway Racing pale in comparison. Waltrip’s colleague Mike Joy noted in his introductory remarks Friday that Bristol is “Darrell’s house.” There’s no argument to be had there.
The frustration and even embarrassment NASCAR fans have felt watching telecasts in 2019 that have featured everything from Celine Dion references to fart jokes can overcloud just how significant a figure Darrell Waltrip is to NASCAR racing. Any driver that has won three Cup titles, the Daytona 500 and 84 races has earned his spot on stock car’s Mount Rushmore. What’s more, Waltrip commands a legion of fans to this day. Many on our staff at Frontstretch grew up with him as their favorite driver; others warmed to him through his broadcasting expertise in the early 2000s. He truly is a name and persona that belongs up there with Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and even his hero, Richard Petty.
“The biggest thing I learned…” Waltrip said. “I always told Petty, Pearson and all those guys, I don’t think they respect me.
“And Petty, with his long index finger said ‘boy, respect begets respect.’”
Waltrip admitted he had to think long and hard about that point. But in the end? Petty was right.
“I remember when I started thinking, ‘What the hell… who’s the king?’” said Waltrip of his start in NASCAR. “I look back… I know why he’s the king now.”
Listening to Waltrip make these comments made him sound far more relatable than the man bellowing “hot dogs” as the green flag fell at Martinsville a few weeks back. Instead of a hype man no one wants to hear, he sounded like the kind of race fan that you’d want to run into on a Friday night at the local bullring. And he took it even further, addressing an elephant in the room with both passion and conviction.
“I love Kyle Busch,” said Waltrip when, of his own volition, he brought up the topic of bias in the booth. “I think he’s fun to watch. And am I biased? You’re darn right I am.
“[But] everyone in this room [the Bristol media center] is. One way or another, when you write a story, when you tell somebody something, you always have to put your kind of spin on it, your personal opinion. And we’re all guilty of that. I don’t care if you say ‘oh no, I went to journalism school, I sit on my hands, I don’t clap.’ Well that’s bullcrap. Because we all do.
“That’s what I’ve done. I’m a race fan. I love it when the guys put on a show.”
I damn near broke Bristol’s printed code of conduct for media members and applauded on the spot hearing Waltrip go on this rant. And I also thought to myself, “Where does this man go on Sunday afternoons?!”
Therein lies the conundrum that necessitates Waltrip to move on. It was clear Friday afternoon he still possesses all the talent and knowledge needed to make viewers want to tune in on Sundays without hitting the mute button.
But this Darrell Waltrip is not the man that shows up to work on Sundays.
Maybe it’s the pressure of years of spurious marketing that perhaps culminated with the creation of the DW store, making a literal merchandising line out of “Boogity” and an animated show out of a camera graphic. Maybe it’s the pressure of trying to stay relevant in a booth that’s now occupied by a driver, Jeff Gordon, who’s equally accomplished as Waltrip and nearly 25 years younger. Maybe it’s even exasperation on his own, having spent nearly 50 years living at the racetrack.
“For 60 years of my 72, I was holding onto something,” said Waltrip. “I was holding onto a steering wheel for 30 years. Then, I was holding onto a microphone for another 19 years. I’ve always been holding on to something.”
Listening to Waltrip, retirement was not a spur of the moment decision. This day was supposed to come two years ago in 2017.
“17 is the perfect time, the perfect number, that would work well for me,” he quipped. “Bad decision.”
Waltrip opted to stay, telling the throngs of media assembled he didn’t feel right leaving the booth right as Jeff Gordon was beginning his own broadcast career. Such a move would have left fellow FOX stalwart Mike Joy with two green broadcast partners in the booth. But that now feels like a lifetime ago. Gordon has found his footing as a broadcaster while a dearth of senior drivers has earned experience in FOX’s Xfinity Series telecasts. The pressures to stay for Waltrip are now gone.
Assuming one buys into Waltrip’s statements retirement was of his own volition, Friday’s comments presented yet another conundrum. Taking Q&A after the conclusion of his prepared remarks, 27 minutes into the presser, Waltrip’s tone and words got more aggressive when asked whether he had considered changing his mind about retirement.
“The sport has changed, it’s changed a ton,” he acknowledged. “[And] people say [DW’s] not relevant anymore, he hasn’t driven a car in blah blah blah.
“Big whoop. I’ve been in a car. I know what they feel like. I know what it feels like to win a race here. You want to listen to a guy that’s never won a race tell you what it’s like to drive a car? I don’t think so.
“I have the knowledge, I have the experience. I’m not sitting Monday through Thursday twiddling my thumbs. I talk to crew chiefs. I talk to drivers. I know about the data they have, the technology they have.
“I could build a damn car myself if I had to.”
Such comments sound more like a job audition or defense testimony than someone ready to move on and hang up the mic. They also sound like a man who self admits to having an ego… and knows full well social media every Sunday has been blitzed by those explicitly not enjoying what he has to say in the booth.
While this type of speculation was denounced by both Waltrip and Joy during their remarks, the reality is DW has nobody but the Waltrip family name to thank for such questions. The reality is, love the antics or not, the combination of both Darrell and Michael Waltrip have brought theatrics to NASCAR racing for over a decade. To this day, one of the most memorable races I’ve ever covered was Michael Waltrip’s 2011 Truck Series win at Daytona. It was courtesy of a spoiler that folded down at the last possible moment, ensuring victory for Waltrip over a hard-charging Elliott Sadler.
Waltrip wasted no time during his post-race remarks from that victory to tie the win to Dale Earnhardt’s birthday (incorrectly)… right after the release of his book that made his racing career relevant because of its proximity to Earnhardt rather than its prowess on the track. Darrell’s not been immune to such theatrics, and they’re not all buried in the past like Digger (see Kyle’s push for 200*).
It’s also important to consider the tone of defiance that was present in both Waltrip’s comments (see above) and those of Joy. In introducing Waltrip, Joy noted, “A funny thing has happened over the last week. There have been a lot of stories written and aired on radio and on TV. A lot of them positive, some not, but that’s OK.
“Because what’s happened the last few days is that the legion of fans of DW, from the beginning to now, have all come forward and made their well-wishes known.
“That’s been gratifying for all of us to see.”
It would have been gratifying to see today, on the day a NASCAR Hall of Famer retired. But Joy seemed to be making a veiled allusion to controversy that erupted this week relating to the AP’s Jenna Fryer’s take on Waltrip that many (on social media at least) found to be disrespectful.
Fryer’s closing line did come off as quippy. But she was entirely correct in asserting that criticism of the TV broadcast is both fair game and necessary with today’s NASCAR at a crossroads:
For whatever reason, #NASCAR is not on radar of the outlets that still do this kind of analysis. That doesn’t mean that the television production from any network in any series is immune from independent critique. It happens in every sport, every business.
— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) April 4, 2019
I do sincerely hope that Waltrip was able to be honest with all of us in stating retirement was his decision, that he’s ready to spend “quality time” with his family instead of the “quantity time” he’s had for decades at the racetrack. The man is a legend and one of the best stock car racers to ever live. He and his family deserve that.
But even if Friday’s presser was an effort to preserve an ego and persona that has held on for as long as practicable in the booth, the conundrum presented is that same type of ego, passion and aggression that made it possible for Waltrip to become the Hall of Fame driver that he is was on display for the first time in 2019… outside the booth. Speaking to the Bristol media center, Darrell Waltrip sounded like a fiery competitor about to do battle in the Last Great Colosseum.
If only that DW was commentating each week, maybe retirement wouldn’t be a few short months away.