Junior might have gotten more than he bargained for when he went to sign his own contracts with Waltrip. Junior was about as old school as anyone left in the sport and he was used to an owner and driver sitting down to agree on terms and sealing the deal with a handshake. DW brought along his lawyer. At one point in the negotiations, the barrister asked Johnson about potential bonuses.
“What are you going to give my client if he wins races and championships?”
Taken aback Junior furrowed his brow and folded his hands on his desk.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll give him if he don’t,” he growled.
While the cost of getting out of the contract with DiGard was high, it seemed to work out splendidly. Waltrip at the wheel of Johnson’s Chevys won 12 races in 1981 and again in 1982. Waltrip won Cup championships both years, but something highly ironic happened in 1983. Darrell finished second in the standings to his good buddy (Sarcasm alert. They hated each other) Bobby Allison driving DW’s good pals back at DiGard Racing.
In 1984, Johnson decided to add a second race team to his stable. DW didn’t care much for that idea. Junior didn’t care much for Waltrip’s cares and started running a second car fielded by the late Neil Bonnett who you can add to the list of drivers who never got along with Waltrip too well. Waltrip slid back to fifth in the 1984 standings despite winning seven races. Bonnett won just two races that year but finished fourth in the standings.
1985 featured a bizarre championship battle. The sport was beginning to hit its stride and gain nationwide popularity. A good deal of that attention stemmed from a new bonus program title sponsor Winston was offering for the first time. If any driver could win three of the big four NASCAR races that year (The Daytona 500, The World 600, the Winston 500 at Talladega and the Southern 500) he’d earned a million dollar bonus paycheck. Keep in mind this was an era when a million dollars was still a good deal of money.
Elliott won the Daytona 500 and at Talladega then had to take a mulligan at Charlotte. But when he claimed that year’s Southern 500 he had a million reasons to celebrate. It was a sterling year for NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver with 11 wins in 28 starts. DW managed only three victories that year and it appeared that Elliott was going to run away with the title. Unaccustomed to the spotlight Elliott remained laconic. A notorious hog of the spotlight Waltrip remained verbose. Waltrip kept right on talking and started playing mind games with Elliott and his brother/crew chief Ernie Elliott. We got them right where we want them (said David to Goliath).
The latter part of the 1985 season was laden with short track events. If DW was the master of the short tracks they were kryptonite to Elliott. Of Elliott’s 44 career wins just two occurred on tracks less than a mile in length. DW kept chipping away at Elliott’s once substantial points lead. Elliott won the penultimate race of the 1985 season at Atlanta but DW finished third.
Going into the season finale at Riverside Waltrip actually had a 20 point lead on Elliott. To the horror and dismay of Elliott fans, the wheels fell off Bill’s little red (and white and gold) wagon at Riverside. His shift linkage fell apart (on a road course) and he could manage no better than a 31st-place finish. Waltrip could only muster a seventh-place finish but that was enough to earn the 1985 Cup championship by 101 points. That third championship would be the last for Waltrip. In another one of life’s bitter ironies, the Hurst shift linkage that failed Elliott at Riverside was manufactured in Franklin TN.
Also of note in 1985 was the controversy concerning that year’s All-Star race won by none other than Darrell Waltrip in a Chevy so swift it defied belief. As he crossed the finish line Waltrip’s engine blew the hell up. Just a coincidence, right? Conventional wisdom has it on Johnson’s orders DW hit the clutch and hit the gas as he took the checkered flag. NASCAR was ready to check to see if that engine was oversized after the race but there was no way to determine if it was based on the shrapnel that was left of the Johnson built Chevy engine. But it was just an All-Star race, no harm no foul, right? Well, a few years later when Junior got nailed with an oversize engine at an All-Star race NASCAR parked the team for four weeks.
In 1986 Waltrip won three races but finished second in the standings to Dale Earnhardt. And DW had his traveling booties on yet again. He’d never been happy with Johnson running a second team to start with. And having found religion Waltrip said he was no longer comfortable driving a car sponsored by a beer company, Budweiser. (I think in Bibles distributed south of the Mason-Dixon line it reads that the Lord changed wine into water at that wedding.) After six years the Waltrip/Johnson pairing that had yielded three championships and 43 race wins Waltrip moved on to Rick Hendrick’s team for 1987. That pairing proved to be less successful with DW in Hendrick’s No. 17 car winning just nine races in four years.
Waltrip was involved in a savage wreck in final practice for the 1990 Firecracker 400 that sidelined him for the next five races. Doctors managed to save his badly broken leg in a six-hour surgery that weekend but truthfully Waltrip was never the same after that wreck. In the final 10 years of his career (1991-2000) Waltrip would win just five more times in the 281 races he started. (With none of those victories scored after 1992.) Some say that that Daytona wreck “knocked the brave” out of DW, but of course, there’s no medical way to measure that.
In 1991 Waltrip left Hendrick Motorsports to start his own team. To say that didn’t work out well is like saying that Custer had a rough week at Little Big Horn. Because he was driving for a brand new team with no previous season points NASCAR tried to lend a hand with the Past Champion provisional that gave a slot in the starting lineup to any previous Cup champion that failed to qualify for a race. A lot of people think that rule was intended to help out Richard Petty but it was Waltrip who became the poster child for the new rule. By 1999 even with that “gimme” in place, Waltrip failed to qualify for seven of 34 races.
Waltrip got his one last bite at the apple in 1998 filling in for 13 races for an injured Steve Park in the DEI No. 1 car owned by Waltrip’s friend Dale Earnhardt. That pairing would produce Waltrip’s last top-five finish (Fontana) and last top 10 (Pocono).
So why do driver or athletes, in general, insist on hanging on even once it’s clearly evident that the time of their time has come and gone? Waltrip finished 36th in the standings in 2000 but earned approximately $1,250,000 in purse money that year, more than he had in his 1981 or 82 championship seasons when he won 12 races both years.
Financial gain can be a powerful incentive to stay too long at the fair. Yes, in his era Darrell Waltrip was one of if not the best Cup drivers on the circuit. And there’s no disagreeing he had an “era.” Of course, Fleetwood Mac had an era. Bill Cosby as Dr. Huxtable on TV had an era. And in his era, Mel Gibson was box office gold. Oddly enough those three eras roughly coincide with Waltrip’s prime.
The exact time and date are lost to history but I know this story isn’t an urban legend because I’ve heard DW tell it himself seemingly without a hint of contrition or embarrassment. Back in the day Cup drivers normally drove themselves to the track. One race weekend Waltrip was heading to the track and stopped at a convenience store wearing his sponsor’s polo shirt. The woman behind the counter asked innocently enough if Waltrip was “with the show.” Waltrip responded, “Lady, I am the show.”
And therein lays the problem with Waltrip’s career as a broadcaster. He’s under the insane notion that he still is “the show” not that silly race you might catch a glimpse of over his shoulder in the booth. It’s different than something like the David Letterman Show where folks once tuned in to see Dave crack wise as much as they did to listen to him interview his guests. People tune into a race to watch the race, not enjoy the cornpone comedic stylings of some halfwit from Kentucky.
Right from Jump Street you stuff on FOX’s NASCAR broadcasts like the DW Store where fans could (but by and large chose not to) buy stuff like plush stuffed dolls of Little Digger and his crew of fellow rodents. There are commercials enough during a race broadcast without having to incorporate more self-serving self-promotion into the broadcast itself. Yep, Little Digger and Pals told me everything I needed to know about what little respect FOX intended to show NASCAR and its fans. It was so insanely bad that you had to think that DW had compromising photos of his bosses with barnyard animals to get it included weekly. David Hill, who was the head honcho of the operation was once told by a well-intended media member that the fans he talked to really disliked Little Digger. Hill’s reply? “Tough.”
Then, of course, we had Waltrip’s signature “Boogity, boogity, boogity!” Chant at the start of races. “Grow a pair and quit whining.” Some friends have told me.” It’s only five seconds. You do know how to use a mute button, don’t you, you aging old hippie?” In fact, I do and I use it routinely not only at the start of races but throughout FOX race broadcasts like the part when the booth crew gives their guesses on who is going to win. What say you step out of the way and shut up and we’ll all find out together? How’s that? A brief word from Duracell? Mute. And cross that brand off my shopping list forever. Energizer is just fine and they didn’t make me miss a pass for the lead.
Yes, Waltrip’s Triple B chant lasts five seconds. But it sets a tone for the entire broadcast and it’s a less than subtle reminder who Waltrip thinks is the star. My guess is somehow next year even with Waltrip not on the property most of the drivers will recognize it’s time to go when the green flag drops even without DW to remind them. Be a hell of a mess if they don’t, huh?
Waltrip said this weekend that he decided to come up with the BBB chant because the way other broadcasters were calling the start of the race was “boring.” They’d say stuff like “and coming off turn four toward the green flag you have pole-sitter Terry Labonte to the inside and Dale Earnhardt to the outside.” It might be boring but it was also in fact exactly what was happening which is why folks had tuned in to the see the race. The start of a football game might involve a call, “And the kicker gets off a long clean kick. Player A signals for a fair catch at the 20-yard line.” Not exciting but it’s exactly what’s happening. And that’s why we tuned into the game.
Truthfully ESPN and their trio of Jenkins, Parsons, and Jarrett had left some pretty big shoes to fill when it came to NASCAR broadcasting. Those who can innovate. Those who can’t imitate. In this instance, a lot more imitation and less innovation were in order. Watching an ESPN race broadcast was like inviting three very well-informed friends over on a Sunday afternoon to watch the race with you.
With FOX it was like letting a big mouth opinionated guy with a desperate need for self-aggrandizement kick down your door, take over your recliner and simply refuse to shut up. Then to compound his villainy imagine this “guest” who has long since overstayed his welcome and plucked your last nerve reaches into his valise and tries to sell your kids stuffed animals as well.
Waltrip’s poor manners as a broadcaster aren’t just directed at viewers either. He seems determined to talk over the cast of characters that have been his booth-mates for years. If they, in fact, make a succinct point DW will often repeat what they just said as if hatching a new idea while chortling at his insightfulness. It’s tough to even describe the sound he makes in those instances other than that I’ve heard it compared to a donkey trying to cough up a throat full of briars. It just seems after all these years DW is still amazed by his own wit to the same degree some of us are irritated by his witlessness.
Perhaps in a final, or some would contend initial, act of atonement Waltrip could mend some fences by asking NASCAR to finally correct one statistic that still galls me and many others.
The official records show that Waltrip and Bobby Allison both ended their careers with 84 Cup victories. That’s simply not the case. Allison won 85. On Aug. 6, 1971, Allison won the 34th race of that season, the Myers Brothers 250 held at Winston-Salem. That evening he drove a Ford Mustang, a Grand American car. Because of short fields, that year as the factories ended their support that race and several others in 1971 was a sweepstakes race that was open to both Cup and Grand American cars. Allison’s Mustang was not found illegal after the race and clearly, even the NASCAR inspectors of the era could tell a Mustang from a Torino.
Tiny Lund’s official stats show that he won five races in the big leagues. Two of those wins were scored in a Camaro Grand American car in sweepstakes races in 1971. If you add up all the official wins credited to drivers in NASCAR’s record books you can up with one less winner than there have been races. Nobody else got credit for that win it seems. When you add up Allison’s top-five finishes and top-10 results he gets credit for the finish at Winston-Salem. It’s beyond odd. It’s bizarre.
Hey, maybe I’m just an old guy obsessed with ancient statistics but I think this is a big deal. Those following the sport at the time remember how heated and occasionally even bitter the rivalry was between Allison and Waltrip. And apparently, Waltrip hasn’t completely gotten over it. At a dinner in Allison’s honor, Waltrip commented that he felt Allison was “sitting over there trying to remember why he hates me.”
That’s a pretty insensitive thing to say about a man who lost all of his memories of his racing career due to a brain injury suffered in a savage wreck at Pocono in 1988. To date, NASCAR has simply refused to set the record straight despite the preponderance of evidence (Preponderance hell. This is simply irrefutable) but perhaps if Waltrip appeals to them the matter can finally be set to rest.
It became apparent during Friday’s press conference that DW can’t provide any answers because he’s never heard the questions. Yes, he admitted he plays favorites. Over the years Waltrip has all but recited love sonnets to Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch in the booth.
As per the man himself “everyone has favorites.” Perhaps. But in the modern era, NASCAR racing sponsorships and thus drivers contracts and careers are at stake based on Joyce Julius minutes. The Joyce Julius organization goes through NASCAR broadcasts frame by frame counting how many minutes and seconds a sponsor’s logos and car were shown clearly and in focus during the telecast and how many times that driver is mentioned. Thus by playing favorites a broadcaster helps advance some drivers careers to the detriment of others.
I could say it’s time for Waltrip to take his final bow before the screen fades to black but in this instance, I think his exeunt is well overdue. When a broadcaster starts telling a stories about orders to hit the pace car and pit crews not being willing to pit a driver because they’re having ice cream as true actual events rather than scenes from the movie Days of Thunder it just might mean they’re dealing with “Sometimers” syndrome, an affliction common as we grow old.
Back when Darrell Waltrip retired from driving Dale Earnhardt gave him a pair of ornate rocking chairs to place on his front porch. The plan, Earnhardt said was to have a spare chair ready for him when he retired as well. Tragically that one rocking chair will now remain unoccupied but I wish Darrell Waltrip many long, happy and healthy years in his rocking chair ahead surrounded by friends and family. (And perhaps the occasional Good Humor man,) But Sonoma can’t come quickly enough for me. The “show” is over and that’s long overdue.
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