Darrell Waltrip has been NASCAR's most conspicuous young lion for five years now, a situation that raises a few questions about both Waltrip and stock-car racing. The most obvious, of course, is just how long can a racer qualify as a "young" lion? After all, shouldn't five years and 123 Grand National races qualify him more as a middle-aged lion, even if he is only 30? Why hasn't a new young lion come along and replaced him? Where are the new young lions of stock-car racing?
The answer to all those questions lies in the fact that stock-car racing is a sport in which experience counts at least as much as talent. Look at the ages of the masters: Richard Petty, 40; David Pearson, 42; Bobby Allison, 39; Cale Yarborough, 38. Young lions don't come along every day, and when they do they usually don't last long. They come with dreams in their heads and leave with their IOUs in a lot of other pockets. Making it to young lionhood is easy; the hard part is going on.
"If a young driver is fast and brave and ambitious, he can make some quick progress in other types of racing," says Waltrip. "It just ain't that way in NASCAR. When I got into this thing, I made up my mind to ride the tide no matter what happened. For a few years it's nothing but hard work; the money's not there, the glamour's not there, and glory's not there." He drops his head and rubs the back of his neck. "This NASCAR racing is tough. I guess it's the toughest racing there is."
Waltrip drives for the Digard/Gatorade team. He finished eighth in the point standings last year and won $191,501, about $40,000 of which he got to keep. He currently stands fourth in the 1977 points championship, and has won $205,193 in 25 races this year. His wins in Nashville, Darlington, Talladega, Michigan and North Wilkesboro are two more than his total number of victories before this year, and have led to an invitation to participate in the International Race of Champions series.
Waltrip first gained renown as a 25-year-old rookie in the 1972 Talladega 500 when, driving in only his fourth Grand National event, he led for seven laps. Then his engine blew. No one could recall a rookie leading a superspeedway race before. It took Waltrip three more years and 49 races to win his first NASCAR race on the five-eighths-mile oval at Nashville, his home track. It was a full-fledged Grand National, but "short tracks" carry less prestige and attract less attention than superspeedways despite the fact that a driver really has to work for his success on the tight ovals.
"Superspeedways—that's the important thing," Waltrip said, looking back on that win. "Major races—500-mile races. There have been some good race drivers who never won on a superspeedway. I certainly don't want that to happen to me. And I'm not talking about winning when everyone falls out. I'm talking about winning with guys like Petty second, Pearson third. Then you've won yourself a race."
About two years later Waltrip won himself a race. It was his first 500-mile victory, and it came at Darlington, the original superspeedway, a difficult 1.366-mile lopsided oval. If a driver can win at Darlington, he can win anywhere, it is often said. With six laps remaining in the Rebel 500, Waltrip was running up front in heavy company: Allison and Pearson just in front of him, Petty on his tail. As they drafted one another through Turn Two, there was a messy crash in Turn Four. The pit crews shouted warnings over the radios before the four drivers even saw the oily smoke. Pearson immediately lifted his foot, but Waltrip didn't; he realized the crash would effectively end the race because a yellow flag would be called and the cleanup crews couldn't possibly finish the job before the 500 miles had been run. This was suddenly the last lap. Petty saw the same opportunity. Both drivers blew past Pearson on the backstretch and headed full bore toward the thick of the trouble. As they reached the turn, Waltrip dived down across the track below Allison and squeezed through a hole; Allison stayed high, so close to the wall he scraped it. They split the wreckage while Petty followed Waltrip through the fourth turn. Waltrip beat Allison and Petty to the starting line by feet, and thus the other drivers, prevented by the rules from passing so long as the yellow caution flag stayed out, paraded behind Waltrip's Chevy for the remaining five laps. The hungry young lion had charged.
A month later Waltrip won the Winston 500 at Talladega in a similar manner, only without the confusion. On the last lap he fought off Yarborough, Benny Parsons and Donnie Allison. "There I was, out front with them three breathing down my collar," he says. "But when the four of us came down to the finish line, the kid came out first. I snookered 'em at Darlington, but I didn't snooker 'em at Talladega, I just outrun 'em."
Three days after the race Governor Ray B. Blanton proclaimed Darrell Waltrip Week in Tennessee. Waltrip grew up in Owensboro, Ky. but in 1970 moved to Franklin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, where he now lives with his wife Stevie, who has just received her B.S. in special education from Peabody University and expects soon to be teaching the visually handicapped.
Waltrip is at the head of a very short line to become the next superstar of stock-car racing and he is in a hurry. "I want to set some records," he says. "That's why I'd like to win some more races before those guys retire. Then people won't be able to say I couldn't beat 'em." On one hand, he wants to beat the superstars before they go; on the other, he wants them to go so he can be king sooner.
"All it will take to retire a Pearson or even a Petty is a couple of bad years," he says. "Or maybe even one bad year. I can't see them hanging around and enduring a loss of prestige. I think racing dictates that, at their age, you've got to win or you've got to get out, and they should know when it's time to get out."
Waltrip wouldn't miss them all that much. For one thing, he wouldn't be asked constantly, "How come you don't beat those guys?" Waltrip hates that question; it's hard on his ego.
"You can tell everyone in the world you're the smartest and the fastest, but they ain't gonna believe you unless you can prove it," says Waltrip. It is a dilemma that frustrates him, because Waltrip figures he is the smartest and the fastest driver going, but he still hasn't proved it. He has a lot of faith in himself, so much so that he also seems to recognize that unless you can prove it, chances are you ain't it.
In 1973 Lennie Pond edged Waltrip for Rookie of the Year, and Waltrip felt robbed. "I would have liked to get Rookie of the Year," he says. "It would have been another thorn in my crown." (Waltrip frequently confuses things like thorns and crowns with feathers and caps. There's no telling what an eager psychiatrist might do with that particular malapropism.) "NASCAR gave it to Lennie because he was a good boy and I was 'outspoken.' "
NASCAR officials still think of Waltrip as outspoken, and some of the other drivers think he is cocky. But it's the same thing; they just have different words for it. Waltrip thinks he's misunderstood.
"I've never said anything about myself or anybody else that I didn't think was true," he says. "I just say things everybody else knows but won't say. My 'cockiness' is just that I won't deny things everybody knows."
The crux, of course, is whether what Waltrip says is what everyone else knows. Still, his candor is needed around stock-car racing, whether NASCAR welcomes it or not. One of the biggest reasons it takes so long to make it in Grand National racing is that NASCAR makes young drivers pay their dues. Officials deliberately make it rough on newcomers—but they try to stop short of making it so rough that newcomers don't come back. The means are many. Most apparent is NASCAR's technical inspection system: you can't race unless you have a legal car, and what constitutes "legal" is at the sole discretion of NASCAR. Consequently, NASCAR can keep its drivers in line by inconsistent enforcement of rules that are subject to interpretation. And the rulebook is notoriously vague, which makes for a lot of judgment calls, many of which go against young drivers. Particularly, an outspoken young driver. More subtly, NASCAR also has a powerful influence over sponsors, the sugar daddies of all racers, but especially of young ones with reputations still to be made. The initiation rite is tough, and when NASCAR sees a driver has the talent to be around a few years, it can just about make sure he has the "right" attitude. "Darrell's problem is he just doesn't know his place," says a man close to NASCAR officialdom.
"They want to put a little fear in the new guy," says Waltrip. "It's like prison: when you stop bucking the system, they ease up. Pretty soon they let you get away with candy in your cell. But it's always their ball game. They only ease up when they want to. If you play by their rules and do everything the way they want you to, you'll never be in trouble."
Waltrip has the system pegged perfectly, and he is one of the few drivers who have called it. Says NASCAR's competition director, Bill Gazaway, a man Waltrip irreverently calls the Great White Father of the Garage, "I'm jes' as nice to these boys as they'll let me be."
However despotic the system may seem, one thing cannot be argued: it works. NASCAR racing is the most competitive—i.e., exciting—automobile racing in the world. When a race has 63 lead changes, as did the Winston 500 won by Waltrip in May, and a multi-car sprint to the finish line on the final lap, as happens more often than not in NASCAR races, the lack of democracy in the ranks somehow seems validated.
"What I dislike is that so much is based on politics," says Waltrip. "But they're getting easier on me now, and I'm getting to dislike the system less and less now that I seem to be over the hump. I may not be showing it right now, but one thing I've learned is how to talk elusive."
The man who helped teach Waltrip how to "talk elusive," among other things, is J. C. Elder, Waltrip's first Grand National crew chief, now crew chief for Benny Parsons. He says, "I understand Darrell, because I'm high-strung like him. I knew how to approach him; I knew how to work him, which is like a racehorse.
"First race I took him to was Atlanta, only his second ever. He hadn't never even been to Atlanta. He didn't know how rough that place is. He said to me, 'This is gonna be fun,' and I told him, 'You run 500 miles first, and then you tell me how much fun it is.' The kid finished eighth, which was damn terrific for his second Grand National race."
"J.C. taught me pretty much everything I know about the game," says Waltrip. "He taught me about the racetracks, taught me how to wheel and deal with promoters, taught me how to cheat, which of course you have to do to stay competitive and everyone knows it. I was really fortunate to be able to take advantage of his knowledge. He was one of the reasons I was as successful as I was early on. He kept me from getting messed up. A lot of young drivers come to a superspeedway and are lost. They can't handle it. They don't know anything about setting a car up one way for qualifying and another way for racing. If you've never been there before, if you haven't got an experienced crew, it's so confusing, no way you can keep up. You end up driving so slow no one knows you're there, or end up in a wreck. But if you got a guy like J.C. telling you what's going on and bragging you up to people, you got an ace in the hole. Things progressed probably three times faster for me because of him."
Not many people understand Waltrip the way Elder does. Waltrip is not easy to work with because he is extremely sensitive about looking bad through no fault of his own. It is a trait that causes him as much grief as his outspokenness. As one might imagine, such treatment doesn't settle easily with a crew. It's a classic case of an intense performer demanding a lot from himself and as much from those he works with. Those who understand that like Waltrip; those who don't understand don't like him.
"People point the accusing finger at the driver," Waltrip says. "He's the one who's supposed to have it together. You hate it when your efforts are tarnished because someone lets you down. I hate being handicapped by other people."
The Digard team has a reputation for going through employees faster than any other team on the NASCAR circuit. Last year Waltrip publicly criticized his crew chief, Mario Rossi, and eventually got him fired. The man who replaced him, David Ifft, quit two days after Waltrip won at Talladega in May. Ifft's replacement, ex-driver Darel Dieringer, lasted three months. The current crew chief is Buddy Parrot.
Ifft, the best and longest-lasting—and, at 28, the youngest—of the bunch, did not quit because Waltrip is difficult, however. Ifft quit primarily because the pace and the pressure of the Digard team were something he could live without. Ifft is basically a country boy. He is now crew chief for 38-year-old rookie Sam Sommers and lives in the Georgia countryside near Savannah, in a house with a chicken under the porch. He also has a smile on his face a lot more often than he used to.
"Darrell's the next superspeedway star no matter what," says Ifft. "I never seen anyone with so much determination to win, and I've worked for guys like Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Parnelli Jones and Peter Revson. Darrell will step on anybody to win—and, don't get me wrong, I think that's good, at least in this game. He's a hot son of a gun when he loses, but if he ever stops squawking, you know he's not trying to win anymore."
"He's got a light temper, all right—like me," says Elder. "He wants to run in the front bad, but Darrell don't quite always understand the circumstances why he's not running in front. That's when he flies off the handle and throws those temper tantrums."
"I don't call them temper tantrums," says Waltrip, smiling if not laughing at himself. "I just call them getting your stuff together, trying to make it right when someone screws up. That's all some people understand. You got to get mad with some people, yell and scream at them to get things right, threaten to kill them. I think the crew really appreciates me getting on them to an extent. I think if we had a bad day in the pit and I got out of the car and didn't get on them, they'd be disappointed. They all know I only want what's best for them and myself. They know when I do good it makes them look better."
After Waltrip's victories at Darlington and Talladega he gained respect for his crew, but he wants those superspeedway records bad and he fears that his team might not be able to deliver them for him on a regular basis. "If you check, almost all the big races won by inexperienced crews have been flukes," says Waltrip.
The Wood brothers, who prepare David Pearson's Mercury, are almost unanimously regarded as the shrewdest and best crew in the business; their record, especially on superspeedways, confirms this. There isn't much a young driver wouldn't do for Pearson's ride, including Waltrip. In fact, when Digard offered him his present ride in 1975, Waltrip thought twice before accepting it, even though he was an independent and was having financial problems at the time. If he did take the job, Waltrip knew he would be putting himself out of the market for a hoped-for Wood brothers offer, a hope so strong it defied reality, because Pearson was—and still is—going strong. "I know the Wood brothers think the world of David," says Waltrip, "but if he can't win, he'll be gone." And Waltrip will be right there knocking on their door.
Waltrip's criticism of his crew may have more far-reaching effects than he might imagine. "Darrell broke one of the cardinal rules of stock-car racing last year when he publicly bad-mouthed Rossi, whether Rossi deserved it or not," notes a tracksider. "He'll never drive for the Wood brothers because of that. The Woods don't say much about that sort of thing, but you can bet they're watching."
"Nah, that ain't true," says Ifft. "Them guys is really only interested in money. Darrell's at the head of the line to drive for the Wood brothers or the Pettys or anybody because they know he's the best one to win races for them. As long as he's winning races they don't care about his mouth. It's like A. J. Foyt. Some people don't like him because he's so mouthy, but if he walked through the pits looking for a ride, they'd fall all over themselves to give it to him."
Should Waltrip never set foot inside a Wood brothers car, it certainly won't be for lack of ability—especially on the superspeedways. But some doubts remain. "I got a lot of respect for Darrell," says Elder. "But any race driver, I don't care how good he is, if he ain't got everything working for him, he's just an average driver. Darrell can run with anybody right now, but he's still missing that special...I just don't know what it is you call it."
Some people suggest it's been too easy for Waltrip, because he has a wealthy father-in-law as a sponsor to help him through the hard times, but there is one man who may have a special understanding of exactly where Waltrip is. He is Neil Bonnet, 31, who may be playing David Pearson to Waltrip's Richard Petty in a few years. In fact, Bonnet may be the man to take over Pearson's ride in the Wood brothers' car. He already has driven for Pearson in relief, and like Pearson he is becoming gray. Bonnet has not made it into the Grand National ranks with family money, but he had something just as valuable: a good mentor in Bobby Allison. Says Bonnet, "In 1967 when I began racing I couldn't have planned a 10-year program to put me anywhere else but where I am—and I've only won one Grand National race, and that was this year. Two or three years ago I was saying, 'I'm ready, I'm ready,' but I wasn't. I learn something every race, every time I come to the racetrack."
A man once said something about cockfighting that could be applied to Grand National stock-car racing as well: "It don't take but a lifetime to learn." Which is something Darrell Waltrip has learned as well as anyone.