He drives with his mouth slightly open and his head cocked to the right. That's to fight off the centrifugal demons that come leaning on you at 195 mph or so on a banked racetrack. During pit stops, with his Grand National stock car perched up on a jack, he stares straight ahead, stone-faced, while his crew tips and shakes the racer violently and slams it back down. Ah, but then, as each race nears its end—usually he's within striking distance of winning—Darrell Waltrip starts talking to his car.
Nobody's supposed to know this. Now how in the world could anyone know this; a pack of stock cars at full blast rumbles like the inside of an avalanche. But one time Waltrip accidentally left the switch open on the radio mike hooked up to his crash helmet, and that gave it away. Ordinarily, there's a stern rule on Waltrip's crew: Absolutely no talking on the radio unless one has something pertinent to say—like perhaps pointing out that there's an 11-car smashup in the turn ahead. But this one time, the crew suddenly found itself listening to Waltrip sounding off.
Nothing obscene, mind you—though at a time like this a few cusswords would be understandable. As we tune in, Waltrip is rampaging down the back straight at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, tightly strapped into what looks like a sure-enough 1984 Chevy SS Monte Carlo, hitting 200 mph, easy. "O.K., let's all settle down now," he says, addressing the gauges on the dashboard, particularly the red needle of the tachometer, which is trembling slightly at 7.700 rpm. A reading like this in top gear means that he's using, say, [15/16] of everything the car's got to give him. And then, cutting through the traffic—all four wheels slipping slightly, making the car drift up high in Turn 4—he speaks firmly to the chassis: "Don't push," he says. "Come on. baby. Thaaaat's it. Be calm."
He talks his way right across the finish line as the race ends in a blur of motion. Waltrip rolls to his pit, flicks the toggle switch labeled KILL, and sits back and grins. His teeth are startlingly white in a rugged face that glistens at this moment with sweat and beads of oil tracking through a recently applied patina of tire dust. Another victory for Waltrip? Nope—and this tells you something about the way he races. In the 182nd lap of the 334-lap race he had crashed into the spinning car of Ken Ragan. The left front fender of Waltrip's car had to be torched off and its suspension rebuilt, and though he was 64 laps down to the leader when he got back into the race, there he was scufflin' and scratchin' to the end. Someone leans in and says, "Ah swear, Day-rull, you coulda throwed a blanket over them five cars at the finish, they was that close." Waltrip nods, knowing this kind of thing all too well. And after climbing out the window (stock cars have only pretend doors; in fact, they're only pretend "stock" cars), he goes through the familiar ritual that perhaps tells as much about him as anything he ever says aloud: He turns and for one long moment looks fondly back over his shoulder at his car, the same way old Tristan must have looked at Isolde. An hour or so later, sprawling in the back of the team's big red tractor-trailer provided by its principal sponsor, Budweiser, with a can of cold beer in one hand and honest-to-god boa constrictor cowboy boots on his feet, he allows, "Lord, I flat love all of this. Everything happens at the end of a race, and that's the best part. I mean, winning is one thing, but winning a race just right, at the end—that's the ultimate sting."
Waltrip lives for those stinging moments, and he has been rewarded with 64 of them, making him the winningest NASCAR driver of the past 10 years. He has been racing since the age of 12 when he was a rambunctious go-karter on supermarket parking lots and has spent all of his adult life with the pedal to the metal. He often snaps at the NASCAR hand that feeds him; it's a wonder there are any fingers left among officials in the sport. He relaxes maybe every Monday about lunchtime and then starts getting excited again about the next weekend's race.
Three quick views from different directions:
"Darrell's got brains and bravery in that order," says Jeff Hammond, Waltrip's crew chief of four years. "And sometimes, when it truly counts in a race, he's been known to reverse them two."
Says Darlene Puckett, an awesomely vivacious blonde in the marketing department at Charlotte Motor Speedway, "The women all just loooove him, because he's so handsome and all."
Aw, that stuffs true, all right, says Waltrip's father, LeRoy, but what also counts is that "Darrell's just a big ol' pussycat. That boy doesn't have a mean, bad bone in his body."
All three are fair enough assessments, but there's considerably more to consider in the life and fast times of Darrell Lee Waltrip, 6'1". 190 pounds, roguishly good-looking, a stand-up comic and nothing if not outspoken. He didn't plan it this way, but here he is at 37, caught up in contradictions: loved by fans, hated by fans; sometimes misunderstood and at other times understood all too well—and always at the center of a NASCAR storm.
You want to talk contradictions'.' When the 30-race Grand National season ends on Nov. 18 at Riverside, Calif., Waltrip most likely will not have won the points championship (Terry Labonte figures to do that), but the points don't always give the true measure of a season. Waltrip will have won more races this year than anybody else, as well as more prize money—he's at $616,653 with two events to go.
This championship-points situation stems from a scoring system that Waltrip insists dates back to the days when NASCAR—drivers, fans and officials alike—wore bib overalls and PAYDAY work shirts to the track. The points system is based on a fiendishly complicated formula, but it's like that for a reason. It was meant to encourage drivers to race the entire Grand National circuit and not just the big events, and it serves that purpose today—and you can be sure NASCAR isn't about to mess with anything that will keep spectators clicking the turnstiles...no matter what Darrell Waltrip might think. Indeed (lordy, this is blasphemy), if stock car racing were to be scored like Grand Prix racing. Waltrip would have the 1984 title wrapped up right now, based on his seven wins and a fistful of pretty fair country finishes; he's been in the top five 12 times in 28 races.
So, having won the championship in two of the last three years, finished second the other two and made the run he has this time around, Waltrip deserves to be recognized as the nation's leading stock car driver. That doesn't mean everybody loves him. He may be as irresistible as Mary Lou Retton to some fans, but to others he's Godzilla.
"Just listen to that," Waltrip says out of the side of his mouth. He's standing beside his car on the main straightaway at Charlotte, being introduced over the loudspeaker to a crowd of 131,500. From that wall of people comes a truly eerie howl. It rises and hangs in the air over a whole chunk of North Carolina: It's a combination of boos and cheers, and the net effect is to make the hairs stand up on your forearms. "It's sure a good thing I'm not running for office," he says.
But the fact is, the folks who boo Waltrip are much less hostile now than when he burst upon the Grand National scene. It wasn't so much that he started right off winning races, but that he set about beating all the heroes: Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. What's more, Waltrip was speaking up when not spoken to. in a sport in which the veterans do the talking. He snapped about NASCAR rules in particular, but he'd also call down his crew, his sponsor and. sometimes, other drivers. Talent? "Why old so-and-so was just plain lucky," Waltrip once said of an archrival after a race. "He drove like an idiot; he must have had a horseshoe...."The fact that Waltrip was just as quick to praise others didn't matter much at first.
"You must remember that Darrell is an idol-toppler," says Herman Hickman, a former sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal who is now the public-relations director for the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. "He started knocking over the old legends, one by one, and stock car fans are fiercely loyal."
Yarborough, 44, three times national champ, says, "See, when Waltrip came into good-ol'-boy country, he wasn't really a good ol' boy yet. I mean, his being from around Nashville and like that. Now the plain fact is that everybody wants to be one—just like it's true that all Yankees secretly, deep inside their hearts, want to be Rebels. But Darrell's come to be more accepted nowadays. And I'll tell you, he's one heck of a race driver."
There was a time when Yarborough called Waltrip "Jaws," and not for his racing bite; but now, he says, "When we hear that he's spoke out again about something, we just sort of shrug and say, 'Oh, did Darrell say that?' and let it goon by."
So here is Waltrip in 1984, slightly more than halfway to being loved and a lot farther than that on the road to super-stardom. Those 64 wins since his rookie year, 1973, have put him into the top five in the alltime NASCAR standings, despite the fact that the other four—Petty, David Pearson, Allison and Yarborough—have a minimum of 11 more years of Grand National experience. His total purse winnings will likely hit $5 million at the end of this season, tightening his grip on the No. 3 spot on the money list. He's won those two championships (1981 and '82) and the Driver of the Year Award three times. All this for a variety of crew chiefs in a variety of cars. His original Mercury Cyclone now sits in a mechanic's backyard in Charlotte. "A tree fell on it one night," says Waltrip. "and killed it."
A few hours after the race at Charlotte, Waltrip contemplates a margarita in a Mexican restaurant. With him are his dad and mom, Margaret, and his wife. Stevie, plus a friend. This particular margarita is one of those monster models: You could plunge into it and splash around, swimming from salt to shining salt. The concoction half-consumed, Waltrip tells about sitting in his car earlier in the day—just moments before the race—and being approached by a fan. "The guy says, 'Can I have your autograph, old pal?' " Waltrip says. "And I said of course he could. And he says, 'O.K. Uh, have you got a piece of paper?' I mean, I'm supposed to be carrying around pieces of paper at a time like that? I tell him sorry, but I haven't. So the guy pulls off his cap and asks if I'll sign that. And I say sure. Then he asks me, 'Have you got a pen?' A pen? In my driving suit? And I tell him, 'Gee whiz, I'm awfully sorry, but I just don't happen to have a pen on me.' And then the guy gets sore and says to me, 'Well, that's O.K. I don't really like you anyway.' " Waltrip sighs.
Three-quarters of the way through dinner, Waltrip does his version of Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau. A pity Sellers isn't alive to hear it: There's nothing in this world quite like Clouseau with a Kentucky-Tennessee accent. Waltrip is shaking his leg, as if he has a pit bull hanging off his calf. "Ah thawt yew said yawr dawg didn't bite," Waltrip says, looking appropriately offended. Then he pauses and delivers the punch line. "But...but that's not mah dawg." The place breaks up.
In these relaxed moments Waltrip reveals a side few see. What comes through most often is the lippy competitor, and that's not hard to understand. Waltrip has been talking a blue streak and trying to win races from the time he was this high. "It's worse than that," LeRoy says. "I mean, Darrell was competitive from the first day he could walk."
That was in Owensboro, Ky. Darrell was the oldest of five children, three boys and two girls. The year he turned 12, he discovered go-karts, along with the fact that folks actually raced them—and before anybody realized quite what was happening, he was hammering the other kids. "There's nothing quite like a go-kart," Waltrip says, "to teach you the fundamentals of racing. It taught me everything I still use today."
Waltrip moved up to a '36 Chevy straight six and the bullrings, those quarter-mile dirt tracks dotted around the southland. At the same time, fittingly, he became a whiz on another kind of track, setting the Kentucky high school 880 record in 1964. "Actually, it was pretty easy," Waltrip says. "See, before the start of the race, somebody threw me a hubcap and hollered, 'Here come the cops!' and I just took off. I did it in 2:02.04."
It was in 1968 that Waltrip met Stephanie Rader—Stevie. "She had a brand-new Olds 442. You know, four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission and two tailpipes—that's why it was called a 442," Waltrip says. "Imagine it, this really cute girl who couldn't drive a lick, and she had this super car. And there I was with a '53 Ford flathead." Thus is true love born: They were married less than a year later. Stevie has learned enough about driving and racing to work on Darrell's crew from time to time, keeping the lap charts.
The Waltrips live in a huge new house not far from Nashville in Franklin, Tenn., complete with barn, swimming pool and two sinfully pampered bassets. There's also a cat named Tigger. Not too long ago, Darrell accidentally ran over Tigger with the family Honda. But the cat graciously forgave him—in spite of the fact that he still walks a little sideways—which also says a lot about Waltrip's winning ways.
If someone were to do a movie on Waltrip's career, it would no doubt show a succession of steady racing advances—on to paved asphalt tracks, the Sportsman class and, at last, the Grand National circuit. None of it was exactly easy: At one time early on, he owed Stevie's dad $125,000 for backing him, and as recently as two years ago he felt uncomfortable in a five-year contract with an outfit called DiGard. Waltrip came up with $225,000 of his own and borrowed another $100,000 to buy his way out. Other drivers would have given an arm and a leg to get the same deal Waltrip escaped—after all, he had just won the second of his two titles when he went into hock to jump ship.
But now, glory be, Waltrip drives for the foxy old master himself, Junior Johnson, and Budweiser's big bucks. In late 1982, Johnson sold a half interest in his racing operation to a California tycoon named Warner Hodgdon, and now there are two Budweiser Chevys, the other driven by Neil Bonnett. The cars are both prepared by Johnson and are matching images; that is, they look alike and they sound alike. But Bonnett has not won a race this year and is eighth in the points race—a condition that clearly irritates the hell out of Hodgdon. Junior just shrugs.
This situation, too, may end one day: Two-car teams rarely fare well in NASCAR—even the Pettys gave up on the idea, and they had been putting father Richard in one car and son Kyle in another. Waltrip and Bonnett aren't quite father and son, but they get along fine. Still, Waltrip just isn't equipped with the diplomacy it takes in a two-car setup over the long haul. But no matter. He's in a spot now where he can sidestep in most any direction he wants to go. At last.
Says Waltrip. "We're all sort of one big family in this sport. Sometimes we snap at each other a bit, you know, but we're all working for the same thing. I mean, I figure I owe the fans a win because they've put so much into the sport. The other drivers do, too, but there's a small difference." He pauses. "With me, man, I hate to lose."
And then he grins, with a burst of white, and says, "And they thawt mah dawg didn't bite."