Darrell Waltrip has never been one to shy away from attention. But lately, the NASCAR Hall of Famer has been getting more attention than he bargained for.
During last weekend’s races at Texas Motor Speedway, rumors began circulating that Waltrip was preparing to retire from broadcasting. An Associated Press report added fuel to the fire, suggesting it was time for Waltrip to step away and for FOX to take the opportunity to seriously revamp its NASCAR broadcasts.
Waltrip himself confirmed the rumors in a press conference this past weekend. His nearly 20-year career as a full-time broadcaster will come to an end this season when FOX’s slate of race weekends is complete.
Waltrip’s announcement, however, did not bring an end to the debate about his relationship with NASCAR. Some fans and analysts believed that the AP report was too harsh. Their argument is that a legend of Waltrip’s caliber is not someone who should be forced out of the booth just for the sake of change. That is a fair point to make; Waltrip should have the ability to retire on his own terms.
But even Waltrip’s defenders have conceded that the Kentuckian is not the broadcaster that he used to be. If he is ending his broadcasting career by his own choice, the general consensus in the NASCAR world seems to be, “it’s time.”
The difficulty here is in reconciling Waltrip’s past with his present.
The AP article was not controversial because readers disagreed with the premise that the FOX broadcasts could improve without Waltrip. Disagreement stemmed from the idea that Waltrip, given his past success on the track and in the booth, should not be put out to pasture against his will.
On the other hand, for those who have grown tired of Waltrip over the years, the AP article was correct to place greater emphasis on what FOX can do right now to improve its broadcasts, regardless of Waltrip’s credentials.
So what impact should Waltrip’s past have on his present? Are his exploits as a daring, championship-caliber driver his most prominent contribution to NASCAR? Or have Waltrip’s worst days as a broadcaster eroded the memories of his glory days?
If there is one place where Waltrip’s past greatness will never be forgotten, it is Bristol Motor Speedway. Thunder Valley is one of the greatest tests of a driver’s skill in NASCAR. To win even one Cup Series race there is a great accomplishment. Waltrip won 12 of them during his career, including seven in a row. Bristol’s list of big winners reads like a NASCAR honor role. Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace were particularly dominant there during their careers. But in nearly 60 years of racing at Bristol, no one has matched Waltrip’s numbers.
Waltrip’s success at Bristol went hand in hand with his larger than life attitude. From the moment he showed up, he understood that being the best required beating the best. Rather than make a quiet study of veterans like Yarborough, Richard Petty, and Bobby Allison, Waltrip told everyone as loudly and as often as he could that he had arrived to beat them all. His penchant for talking a big game prompted Yarborough to refer to Waltrip as “Jaws,” a nickname that stuck with him ever since.
Waltrip was far from the first outlandish character to race in NASCAR. But he possessed a kind of media-savvy swagger that always garnered him a little extra publicity.
In the late 1970s, Waltrip caused a stir when he publicly declared his intentions to leave DiGard Racing before his current contract expired. His reasons? He wanted more money and a better opportunity to win races.
These days, that doesn’t seem like a such a crazy request. But it was not customary for drivers to so openly chase after new teams or lucrative sponsorship deals 40 years ago. Waltrip displayed an enormous amount of confidence in his own abilities and the benefits he could bring to a race team. If he was going to be a star driver, he had to act like one.
By 1981, Waltrip had left DiGard to race for Junior Johnson and immediately backed up his big talk with big success. He won his first Cup Series championship in his first season racing for Johnson’s team. Since then, only Kevin Harvick has been able to repeat the feet of winning a driver winning a title in his first year with a new team.
Like most drivers, Waltrip mellowed out once he became an established NASCAR star. He delivered some of Hendrick Motorsports’ early success in the late 1980s. He became a spokesperson for the short track racing scene around his adopted hometown of Nashville. After getting spun by Rusty Wallace in the 1989 All-Star race, Waltrip even became a sympathetic figure to a lot of fans.
To be sure, Waltrip’s brashness toward some of NASCAR’s most popular veterans had rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. But the Darrell Waltrip of the late ’80s and early 1990s was different.
While still a fierce competitor, he appeared to be more at peace with his role in NASCAR, someone who was more interested in being a good ambassador of the sport than just its “big star.” The fans responded by voting for Waltrip as the most popular driver in 1989 and 1990. From 1984 to 2000, Waltrip was the only person other than Bill Elliott to win the award.
Even as Waltrip struggled to run his own team and keep pace with a new generation of drivers, he clearly had a desire to be involved in NASCAR. In the post-Richard Petty landscape of the 1990s, Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt were the two most prominent elder statesmen among the drivers. However, Earnhardt was still a top competitor on the track, while Waltrip was not. In a situation that mirrors the present, nobody wanted to see Waltrip struggle at doing something he clearly put his heart and soul into. But nobody wanted to be the one to tell Waltrip that his best days as a driver were clearly behind him. When Waltrip finally did decide to step away, the reaction from many was the same to his broadcast retirement–we’ll miss you, but it’s time.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Waltrip’s long career in NASCAR is that timing was not kind to him. By being a winning, sponsor-friendly driver throughout the 1980s, Waltrip laid the groundwork for bringing NASCAR into mainstream America.
But by the time the biggest influx of new fans came between 1995 and 2005, those new fans did not get to see Waltrip at his best. They only got to see Waltrip as an aging veteran, woefully off the pace compared to how he once drove.
Even Waltrip’s career as a broadcaster has been plagued by bad timing. While he was great in the booth for several years, his decline as an analyst coincided with NASCAR’s slumping TV ratings and attendance issues. It’s not fair to Waltrip to reduce such a long broadcasting career down to a catchphrase like “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity,” but that is probably what a lot of fans think of first when they think of him these days.
So, getting back to the central question, how does Waltrip’s past impact the present? Over the years, he has played so many different roles: young hotshot, “star driver,” champion, fan favorite, fan least favorite, team owner, team builder, mentor, elder statesman, and broadcaster. Depending on when you became a fan of NASCAR, your ideas about Waltrip are probably rooted in at least one of these characterizations, though probably not all.
I would suggest is that the common thread to Waltrip’s career is dedication, both to racing and being true to himself. Although his role in NASCAR has changed many times, Waltrip’s enthusiasm for racing has kept him tethered to the sport. Through all the highs and lows of his career, Waltrip has always been a genuine figure, someone willing to speak his mind and share his love of stock car racing with all who are interested.
It is Waltrip’s dedication that keeps him linked to his legendary past and makes it hard to see his broadcasting days end, even if that time has come.