As with most things, Darrell Waltrip’s love of racing started simply.
As a little boy, he’d travel to his local short track with his grandmother to take in the action. She was a diehard fan, one who loved her favorite and reviled all others. Sitting in those stands showed Waltrip a lot about fans — information that would come in handy in years to come.
Then his eyes caught sight of a go-kart as he traveled his father’s Pepsi-Cola route in the summer. When he finally got a chance to drive the gleaming machine, Waltrip felt like a new person. Something altered in that boy a little that day.
What had been a love for racing, one that already had led him to proclaim his plans to be a race-car driver someday, blossomed into an obsession.
Soon, Waltrip commanded a go-kart of his own. Racing and winning sparked a new fire in the Owensboro, Ky., native, a fire that would blaze for the rest of the life.
That would lead him track to track, race to race, first across the South, then across the country and even around the world. From the moment his father agreed to buy him a go-kart, Waltrip was that racer he’d proclaimed to become.
Brash and outspoken, he had the talent, passion and desire to gain notice and an ever-evolving series of increasingly competitive rides. His career would take him to the pinnacle of the NASCAR world, to three Cup titles and 84 wins, then to a ground-breaking role in the television booth.
Now, it’s taking him into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where he’ll be enshrined Friday night.
For Waltrip, who turns 65 on Feb. 5, it’s truly a story of perseverance, a tale of sticking to one’s dreams and remaining true to oneself in the face of adversity. And it all started sitting in the grandstands with his grandmother.
Back when he was little, Waltrip’s grandmother developed a love of racing and started going to the track on Sundays. She didn’t like to go on her own, so little Darrell found himself tagging along from the time he was about 6 years old.
"She was a ball of fire," Waltrip recalled recently. "She was one of those kind of older ladies that was like a rooster out in the yard scratching around."
She was also a fan of G.C. Spencer, and therefore not so much for his rival, a driver known to fans as "The Brute." If her guy wasn’t winning, the others must be doing something wrong. Waltrip sat in the stands as she yelled and hollered and shouted at the drivers in the race. Then she’d take him down into the pits to see Spencer after the showdown.
"I got to meet G.C. when I was a little boy, he knew my grandmother because my grandfather was a deputy sheriff there in Owensboro, and so everybody knew him because he was out in the community all the time, and G.C. was real nice to my grandmother and he was really nice to me," Waltrip said.
"This was back in the day when you didn’t ask for autographs, you didn’t know what an autograph was, but you kind of had, as a little boy, you had somebody you really looked up to. And I really looked up to G.C.
"He was a clean driver and he had a car called the Flying Saucer, and it made a different sound than all the other cars, so I would try to emulate that sound. I would go home and tie balloons to the fender of my bicycle and let the balloon thump against the spokes, and that would make a funny sound. Or I’d put cardboard, tie it to the fender braces of my bicycle and that would make funny sounds, and so I was always trying to make the same noise that G.C.’s car made and actually got to where I could.
"So, I’m going all over the neighborhood like some nut trying to make a noise like a race car."
He loved it all so much that after one Spencer win, he proclaimed his life plan.
"I said, ‘Mamaw, I’m going to be a race-car driver someday.’
"Of course, that thrilled her to death — ‘Great, let’s do it.’
"Of course, I told my mom and dad that and they said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind. How are you going to do that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ll figure it out. I’ll find a way.’ And that’s when I was little," he said.
Soon, he did just that. Riding his dad’s delivery route with him in the summer, they made a regular stop at West End Hardware. That, it turns out, would alter Waltrip’s life — and put him on the path he had so firmly announced his intention to take. For in that hardware store was where he grabbed his first chance to race.
A go-kart sat in the hardware store, and Waltrip was in love.
"I’d go run up front and I’d hop on that go-kart and I would sit there and I could just imagine myself driving this go-kart like G.C. Spencer," Waltrip said, still sounding excited at the prospect.
"The guy that owned the hardware store, he and my dad were pretty good buddies and he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Mr. Waltrip, why don’t you bring ole Darrell out to the airport Sunday. We’re going to put a little exhibition on and let some people ride these things’ — because go-karts were kind of new at the time, in that area particularly. ‘We’re going to let a few people ride these things, I’ll let him drive it a lap or two if he wants to.’
"Man, oh man. I couldn’t sleep. For five days and nights, I couldn’t sleep thinking about getting the chance to go over to the airport. They had a track over there, to go over to the airport there in Owensboro and drive that go-kart. Wow! What a thrill."
He spent that Sunday morning at church staring out the window, watching the weather to make sure it didn’t rain out his shot. Then he went to the track and sat in the go-kart.
True love bloomed.
"I hopped on that go-kart, and I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if it was watching races as a kid or watching G.C. Spencer. I don’t know what it was, but when I hopped on that go-kart you would have sworn I was born on it," he said.
"I mean I just got on her, I matted her, I went around that racetrack. There were people that had been racing go-karts forever and they were just amazed at how fast I could go. It just felt natural. It felt good. Of course, the bug bit me and daddy both right there."
And his career path was set. Waltrip still seems amazed that his dad finally bought the go-kart, paying $10 a month toward the $100 to $120 total. After all, there were four kids in the family, with dad running the delivery route and his mother working at the IGA.
They raced everywhere they could. Sundays, they threw the go-kart in the car and, after church, carried some fried chicken and potato salad his mother had made and went to a race. They expanded into the Tri-State area, and Waltrip says he won more than 500 go-kart races between the ages of 12 and 16. Then he got his first race car.
"I got my driver’s license, me and dad built an old ’36 Chevrolet, No. 6, and put ‘The Wild Child’ on the side of it," he said.
"You didn’t have sponsors back in the day. You just put whatever. … And it was No. 6 because I had a six-cylinder motor, so that made sense. And I’d ride my go-kart all over the neighborhood through the week working on it, so everybody in the neighborhood called me the ‘Wild Child,’ and so that’s kind of what we put on the car, and that was the first step toward really starting my career."
After marrying his wife, Stevie, in 1969, Waltrip moved to Tennessee, where he became a regular fixture at The Fairgrounds at Nashville. He competed against the best, got to know the NASCAR drivers when they came to town for the pair of Cup races. He’d go on to start his own team and break into the Cup series after establishing himself as a driver to beat week to week.
He broke into the Cup series in 1972, running five races in preparation for a rookie run the following season.
There, he found himself earning both respect and a reputation for his outspokenness. Both would mark his career.
"(I) lost Rookie of the Year to Lennie Pond because I was too controversial, I was not politically correct," Waltrip recalled.
"Said all the wrong things to all the wrong people. That didn’t go over so well with all the higher-ups at NASCAR, so I kind of got labeled as a bad boy when I came into this sport. People had a misconception of who I was because my wife, Stevie, her father was a very successful businessman — he was the president and chairman of the board of a company in Owensboro called Texas Gas — and people thought I had a lot of money.
"And so they thought I was some rich kid just showed up around there to cause trouble and to race a little bit; race a little and cause a lot of trouble, which was far from the truth. We struggled, mightily, trying to make it, trying to keep going."
By the end of 1973, he had hooked up with team owner Bud Moore, and he was showing the NASCAR field just how much of a threat to win he could be.
"He’s a fierce competitor, he’s a lot smarter when it comes to knowing how to set a car up than a lot of people give him credit for, and he knew that the secret to being a good race-car driver was not necessarily being the macho man, but being the mechanical man," said Jeff Hammond, who worked as Waltrip’s crew chief and won two championships with him.
"He learned how to make the car do the work rather than the driver, so that at the end, when the driver needed to carry the car, he had something left. He was the original closer. … When I started realizing the method to the madness, it was like watching an artist at work, because he would start painting some of the prettiest pictures you’ve ever seen, because he was very methodical and very precise."
It was 1979 that perhaps changed Waltrip the most. In a season that haunts him somewhat to this day, Waltrip lost the championship race he’d led earlier in the year to Richard Petty — by 11 points.
To this day, Waltrip rehashes that season, seeing minor changes that could have altered the outcome. But he also sees the value of the lesson he learned from the close call.
"Even to this day, I still can’t get over the fact that we let that get away," Waltrip said.
"And looking back, it would have been so simple if we’d have just been a little bit smarter to have won that championship. But we didn’t."
What he did, though, was have a talk with Cale Yarborough the following year, one that led to Waltrip driving for Junior Johnson, and winning three titles, in the ensuing years.
"I knew I’d win a lot of races and I knew I would probably win some championships, and that’s how I made my mark," Waltrip said.
"I think all that other stuff I did was kind of training for the opportunity I got to go drive for Junior. I knew that was the opportunity of a lifetime. It defines my career, those six years that I drove for him."
By the time he was done, Waltrip had tallied 84 career wins.
Nowadays, Waltrip enjoys life as a TV commentator for FOX Sports. He retired from racing in 2000 and almost immediately joined the network.
Modern fans know him as the broadcaster unafraid to offer his opinions on a swath of subjects. Longtime fans know him as a champion driver capable of winning week to week against some of the best who have ever driven a race car.
Johnson has known him as both.
"We had a good run," he said of their years racing together.
"I think he’s in a comfort zone now. He’s a good commentator."
As to Waltrip, he values it all — especially that part about joining the Hall of Fame.
"I love doing TV, enjoy my work there, inducted into the Hall of Fame, turn 65 in February, still going strong," he said with a smile.