Friends, charlatans, NASCAR fans, I come here today not to praise to Darrell Waltrip but to bury him.
OK, that’s a bit harsh. I wish ill upon no one. But last week, three-time NASCAR Cup champion, and the chief architect of NASCAR on FOX’s 19 years of aural terrorism, Darrell Waltrip, announced he’ll be leaving the sport’s Magical Mystery Tour at the end of FOX’s portion of this year’s Cup schedule.
Opinions were split after the announcement. Waltrip does in fact have his fair share of fans, both as a racecar driver and a broadcaster as well as his rabid detractors. Count me among the latter. (Frontstrech’s head honcho Tom Bowles still considers DW his favorite racecar driver of all time. He’s about half my age. Go figure.) If you were a Bill Elliott fan in 1985 (one of 16 years Elliott earned the Most Popular Driver award) likely the mere sight of DW or his quietest whisper makes you grind your teeth and your stomach churn. If you liked and admired Bobby Allison (and who didn’t/doesn’t?), you probably loathe any square centimeter of ground beaten down by Waltrip’s cloven hooves. Cale Yarborough fans are similarly poorly disposed towards “Jaws.”
Was Darrell Waltrip an ambitious man? That’s one of the few views on DW that’s indisputable. Waltrip set out to make himself a star, and my guess is that he succeeded beyond any measure he’d originally dreamed of. To try to put his 48-year career into perspective you have to place it in historical context.
Waltrip started racing in the Winston Cup series in 1972. If you have a working knowledge of the sport’s history (and if you do, you didn’t get it from FOX), that just happens to be the first year of what is termed NASCAR’s “Modern Era.” As much as DW would doubtless like to take credit for kicking off the modern era, the fact is that was a pivotal and crucial time in the sport’s then uncertain future. Ford and Mopar had ended factory backed racing efforts which had been the sport’s lifeblood since the early 60s. Winston was coming in as the sport’s entitlement sponsor, and at their request the schedule was trimmed back dramatically especially on the shorter tracks.
In 1971 there were 48 races on the Cup schedule but in 1972 just 31 remained. Fittingly enough, Richard Petty won the championship both years.
Stock car racing in that era was teetering on the edge of respectability and popularity with the TV types just beginning to catch a whiff of what was going on. The era of having every (or even most) races broadcast flag-to-flag was still a decade off. Stock car racing was still a regional phenomenon back then, deeply rooted in the fertile soil of the American Southeast. There weren’t as many fans of the sport back then as there are today and certainly not as many as followed the sport during the Boom Years of the 80s and 90s. But asked about the Deadheads the late Jerry Garcia once opined, “The Dead are like black licorice. Not everyone likes black licorice but the people who do like it, like it a whole, whole, lot.”
The same went for stock car racing fans in the 70s. Looked at dispassionately on the account ledger racing back then was far less likely to make a driver rich and famous than it was to make him broke or even dead.
Waltrip served as sort of a “tweener” as the modern era of stock car racing started to stumble forward taking its first few steps towards a gallop. The sport’s top established stars were Petty, Allison, Cale Yarborough and Daivd Pearson. Waltrip entered the scene taking some people aback by claiming he was not only the equal of those drivers, but better than any of them. And if you disagreed he felt a great compulsion to repeat himself in a louder tone.
After Waltrip, drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace et al would start grabbing the headlines and trophies. Just as Jeff Gordon was a tweener that bridged the gap between those drivers (Waltrip among them) and the current era of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, the Busch Brothers et al.
Waltrip made his first Cup start at Talladega Superspeedway in May of 1972 at what we’d now consider the relatively advanced age of 25. He drove a Mercury Cyclone (painted an unfortunate shade somewhere between brown and gold), owning a 38th-place finish in a field of 50 cars. (To give you an idea how different things were back then, 50 drivers ran that race. Another 10 tried to qualify but failed.)
DW went on to start a total of five races in 1972, managing his first top 10 in just his second start (Atlanta) and his first top five, a third-place result at Nashville, a track where Waltrip would go on to win eight Cup races at. Need I point out when Waltrip finished third that day he finished behind Allison and Petty. No, I needn’t. Waltrip took home just north of $2,000 dollars for that third-place finish. My guess is he’d never seen that much money at one time in his life. He probably took it home and colored it in, or perhaps I’m just being needlessly unkind.
The plucky (not my first choice of words) Kentuckian was back at it in 1973, mainly still at the wheel of that Mercury in 19 of 28 races. He scored just one additional top five result, but that was a second-place finish at College Station, Texas. He was a mere two laps behind the winner. Need I point out that winner was Petty? I thought not.
But Waltrip was finishing better than his self-owned equipment should have allowed, which is how a driver got a break into the big leagues back in that era. Bud Moore thought enough of Waltrip to put him at the wheel of one of his Fords for five races late that year.
In 1974, back as an owner/driver, Waltrip competed in 16 of 30 races managing seven top five and 11 top-10 finishes. In 1975, Waltrip first attempted to run the entire season. (Well, almost. He was so hopeless on road courses he didn’t even take the cross country drive to the season opener or final event of the year both at Riverside back then.) Let the record show that on May 10, 1975, Waltrip took his first Cup win at Nashville naturally enough. Ever humble, Waltrip told the press “I figured we’d win one a lot sooner than this.”
Later that fall, he added a second win at Richmond. Yep, people were finally starting to take note of DW. If they were within earshot of him it was hard not to. Both those wins were scored at the wheel of a DiGard prepared Chevrolet.
DiGard was relatively new to the sport but they were a well-funded and well-run team that expected to compete for both wins and championships. Between 1976 and 1980, the DiGard-Waltrip pairing won 25 races, finishing in the top five in points each season with a best of second in the title hunt in 1979. Need I mention that the 1979 Cup champion was Petty? No, that’s pretty obvious isn’t it?
You’d think with seven wins, a second place in the point standings, and over a half-million dollars in purse money, Waltrip would have been a happy fellow. But he was already making some noise about greener pastures. The fact he finished second to the King seemed to be proof positive to the self-professed “greatest driver ever” that the team wasn’t up to his lofty standards.
His pit crew was too slow. His crew chief was incompetent. The team’s engines were both too fragile and down on power (The engine builder was of the opinion that Waltrip could break an anvil). The bickering went on for years boiling over at inopportune times.
In that era most team owners were still former drivers and contracts were agreed upon with a handshake not with lawyers racking up billable hours writing those contracts. The Gardner Brothers, who owned DiGard and DW, were the notable exceptions. In fact, they went through brutal negotiations, often coming up with five-year contracts which Waltrip would soon thereafter demand be renegotiated to give him more of the race purses and year-end prize money.
More than once when Waltrip threatened to bolt, the Gardners warned him if he didn’t drive for them he wasn’t driving anywhere else either, and their lawyers would see to that filing breach of contract lawsuits in every state where NASCAR competed.
As the struggles continued, DW went on record as saying: “I’ll win championships but this team never will.”
In a bout of hyperbole, Waltrip compared himself to the hostages taken in the Iranian embassy takeover. The already boiling pot melted down in 1980 when 1976, 77 and 78 Cup champion Yarborough announced he was going to semi-retire from racing in 1981. That left perhaps the top seat in the sport, the wheel of Junior Johnson’s Chevy open for a driver and Waltrip was determined that ride would be his. It was ironic that Waltrip and Yarborough despised one another. Yarborough had taken to calling Waltrip “Jaws” after the fishy star of the movie of the same name because of his constant talking. Waltrip had dubbed Yarborough “The Chicken Man,” in reference to Johnson’s then-sponsor Holly Farms, a chicken produce company. The on-track and off-track battles between the pair were the stuff of legend in that era.
While he was not in contention for the Mr. Congeniality award, Waltrip was in fact one of the hottest drivers in that era, and Johnson was in fact interested in having DW drive for him. The Gardners were equally determined Waltrip would honor his contract. In the end, either Johnson or Waltrip, perhaps both, paid somewhere between $400K and $500K to buy out Waltrip’s contract. (For more on the DiGard-Waltrip split, click here.)
Since the topic was bound to come up, it should be noted that some of the DiGard/DW success was achieved in less than legal cars. The same can be said of Junior Johnson’s teams of course. Again historical context is important here. In that era there was a whole lot of “creative interpretation of the rules” among the top teams, which is to say cheating was rampant.
In some cases, NASCAR had not actually made a rule to ban some practices (take for example Smokey Yunick using an extra six feet of fuel line zig-zagging between the fuel tank and fuel pump on the infamous black Chevelle) and didn’t add a rule until they saw what the teams were doing to violate the intent of the rules.
Ironically, it was Waltrip who perhaps best summed up the mindset of the era after getting caught with a blatantly illegal nitrous oxide system during qualifying at Daytona (One of about a dozen cars caught with the same sort of system).
“If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot,” he said. “If you do it and don’t get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me in the category where I belong.”
No, I’m not recommending you needlepoint that quote on a throw pillow for your student athlete child. Not unless you want to be visiting him in a penitentiary on Mother’s Day in the future.
In my mind there’s two types of cheating in stock car racing. In one instance (say a heavily cambered rear-end) the driver has no idea that his car is illegal prior to or during the race. As Dale Jarrett used to say “Hey, don’t ask me. I just drive the car. I don’t build it.”
The other type is a driver must take a specific action (hold down the button to deploy the nitrous oxide into the engine at a given point when he needs a boost of horsepower) and in that instance the driver is every bit as guilty as whoever owns and built the car.
For all his pontificating about rules and fair play as a broadcaster, the fact remains Waltrip was among the biggest cheaters in the sport in his prime. One of the Gardner’s cars, Big Bertha, a Chevy Monte Carlo, was all but unbeatable at times. There were allegations of nitrous oxide and oversize fuel cells that dogged Big Bertha and her driver.
One thing is known for sure, in order to get the car underweight, the lower frame tube on the driver’s side of that Chevy was filled with lead shot to get the car up to legal weight. During the parade laps, the driver (and only one man ever took a turn at the wheel of Big Bertha….and no it wasn’t Petty this time) pulled a chain that opened a release valve on that frame tube, allowing the lead shot to run out onto the ground lightening the car up a bunch. In order for that system to work the driver had to pull on the chain and not just for a couple seconds either.
Gary Nelson, a NASCAR inspector, caught wind of what was going on and went to inspect the car. At least his intentions were good. Waltrip would later cackle out loud about how he knew he and the team were going to be all right when Nelson put a jack under the car right where the secret valve was on the frame and lifted it. Back in those days NASCAR didn’t weigh the racecars after an event.
Going forward they did, and Big Bertha just sort of disappeared somewhere.
Come back tomorrow (Wednesday, April 10) for part II of this story.