It’s not that we didn’t like Darrell Waltrip. We just didn’t know what to make of him,
He burst onto the scene like a loudmouth relative we knew we had but had never met. And he just never stopped talking.
Finally, after almost 50 years of racing and running his mouth, Waltrip is retiring. The race at Sonoma on Sunday will be his last NASCAR broadcast.
The truth is, after all these years, we’re going to miss him. Though deep down we wish it were his goofy little brother that was retiring.
Waltrip was always an acquired taste, a cocky guy from Kentucky, which was just sort of in the South. He made enemies on and off the track, almost from the very beginning, and then he went out a backed up his bragging.
Most of the time anyway.
Looking back on it now, it’s clear that Waltrip gave NASCAR something it never really had before. A bad guy.
Oh, we pretended Fred Lorenzen was a bad guy, but he didn’t stick around long enough to move the needle. And of course drivers like Curtis Turner, who really could be a bad guy, seemed to come and go so often it was almost like he wasn’t really part of the show.
But with Waltrip, it was different. He arrived in 1972 and he never went away.
Before Waltrip, stock-car racing rivalries were more about cars than drivers. Ford vs. Chevy, or Mopar vs. the world was as far as it went. Granted, we didn’t like the Allisons all that much, but that had more to do with USAC and Indy than anything else. We were very suspicious in those days.
It was a simple-minded suspicion. You either liked Richard Petty or you weren’t from around here.
Waltrip wasn’t from around here.
He could drive a race car though, you had to give him that. He drove a little like Junior Johnson or Cale Yarborough, hard-charging, paint-swapping, fender-bending and hell-bent on getting to the front.
That didn’t always go over so well, particularly with Cale.
Petty didn’t care for him all that much either, which is really why Waltrip became NASCAR’s first real bad guy.
But over time, he changed minds. Over time, he became a different driver and a different person. Eventually, he earned the one thing he wanted more than anything else.
The current generation of racers and race fans don’t understand the man in full. They don’t remember when Waltrip was in his prime and was the best driver of his day. They don’t remember that he earned the nickname “Jaws” (from Cale) because of how he ran his mouth. They don’t remember he won 84 races and three Cup titles, all in the golden age of racing, when Petty and David Pearson and Bobby Allison and Cale and were also in their prime, and even into the days of Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace and Davey Allison and Bill Elliott, also in their prime.
But even from his peers and those of us who are old enough to forget, Waltrip endured the wrath from his fellow drivers and the fans, and in 1989 and again in 1990, he was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“I always tell people ‘Dream big’,” he said in April when he announced his retirement. “It might come true.”
He was like a nightmare when he blew into NASCAR. He didn’t arrive as a young kid. He was 25-years-old when he ran his first race, the 1972 Winston 500 at Talladega. He was 29 when got his first full-time ride with DiGard Racing.
Waltrip had already won late model titles at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville and had already become close friends with Ralph Emery, a legendary radio and television star at WSM radio and later on country television’s Nashville Now.
Waltrip was a full-blown racer, classically trained, who already knew how to work media and how to market himself. There was never anyone like him before.
He was polished, and just a little unwound and a marvel to watch on and off the track.
And when he finally decided to give up racing and get behind a microphone, he was perfectly suited for it. We listened because he knew what he was talking about, even though he talked too much and no one knew what “Boogity, boogity” meant.
That was just Jaws being Jaws.
So there’s a certain sadness in all of this. He probably doesn’t really want to retire, and he’s hinted that this wasn’t all his idea. And he’s not sure what he’s going to do now. Racing is all he’s known his entire life.
Waltrip will likely still be around. He’s said he’s still sort of employed by FOX in some unknown capacity.
But he’s made it clear he still wants to be part of racing. So expect some sort of transformation in the coming months and years. Don’t think he’s going away for good.
Darrell Waltrip never goes away. For good or bad.
He’s part of racing history, a hall of famer for both racing and running his mouth.
And whether we like it or not, he’s part of us, too. He’s earned it.
Good luck, Jaws. See you around.