HARRISBURG, N.C. — When the NASCAR on FOX broadcast team signs off on Sunday, June 23, from California’s Sonoma Raceway, it will mark the end of an era as Darrell Waltrip calls it a career.
Waltrip began racing a go-kart at age 12, and he entered his first stock car race just four years later. He and his father, Leroy, had built a 1936 Chevrolet coupe and they headed to a local dirt track near their Owensboro, Ky., home.
The first night out was far from a success as the youngster, barely old enough to drive on the street, slammed the wall and heavily damaged the coupe. Waltrip soon left the dirt and found his niche on paved tracks where the smoothness he learned in the karts proved a valuable asset. His racing activities continued to increase and by the late 1960s he had become a regular at the fairgrounds track in Nashville, Tenn.
The brash, outspoken racer quickly developed into one of the nation’s top short-track talents and he made his first NASCAR Cup Series start in 1972 at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway. Waltrip continued to make sporadic NASCAR appearances while earning a living as a barnstorming short-track driver. Finally, in 1975, Waltrip decided it was time to become a full-time NASCAR Cup Series competitor.
“Wherever I would go, I was almost assured I was going to win one or two races a week and I made a good living doing that,” Waltrip recalled. “It was difficult to step to the big leagues and be just another fish in a big pond. So it took some time for me to make up my mind that I needed to get in there, give it 100 percent and make my mark.”
And he certainly did that.
The statistics tell us Waltrip won 84 NASCAR Cup Series races in 809 starts, claimed three series championships and was named NASCAR Driver of the Decade for the 1980s. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012.
But more important than the numbers was the fact that Waltrip and his flamboyant personality helped take NASCAR from the backroom to the boardroom. He was as comfortable speaking to corporate executives in a New York City office building as he was signing autographs and chatting with race fans in a dimly lit pit area.
In addition, Waltrip understood the importance of television to the future of the sport and he possessed a certain charisma that emerged whenever he was in front of a camera – a trait that carried him into the second phase of his racing career.
Waltrip ran his final NASCAR Cup Series race on Nov. 20, 2000, at Atlanta Motor Speedway and then transitioned into the television booth when FOX’s coverage of NASCAR racing debuted with the 2001 Daytona 500.
I had the honor of working alongside D.W. from December 1993 to December 1999. The first two years were spent as a PR rep for his longtime sponsor Western Auto, and the next four I worked directly for Waltrip as his personal communications manager.
It’s no secret those were difficult years as Waltrip’s on-track performance was only a shadow of what it once was, and sponsorship issues eventually forced him to sell his race team and return to the role of a hired driver.
But through the numerous ups and downs, we had plenty of laughs, shared some great adventures and made many memories that will be with me for the rest of my life. An aspect of that period I’ll always cherish is the fact that when you worked for D.W. you were more than an employee, you were part of the family — and the Waltrips have a pretty amazing family.
It’s been 60 years since Waltrip first raced that go-kart back in Owensboro, Ky., and it’s a good thing he didn’t give up his dream after crashing that 1936 Chevrolet coupe because the impact he’s had on NASCAR racing as a driver and a broadcaster is unparalleled.
Happy retirement D.W.!