Darrell Waltrip first mashed the accelerator in a NASCAR Winston Cup series race in 1972, and has since left an indelible mark on the sport. The Kentucky native won three NASCAR championships and compiled an incredible 84 victories by the time he retired in 2000. Today, as an analyst with Fox, he’s arguably the sport’s most outspoken and charismatic TV broadcaster, whether he’s telling stories of the good old days or publicly challenging NASCAR’s new rules.
American Profile spoke with the 57-year-old—known to race fans as “DW”—about racing, family, and growing up in a small town.
AP: What was it like growing up in Owensboro, Ky. (pop. 54,067)?
DW: It was a country town. I spent a lot of time on the farm with my aunts and uncles. It was a great place to grow up, very rural America, where I had a strong religious background. There were a lot of family values. I went to Daviess County High and played basketball and ran on the track team.
AP: You even held the state record in the 880-yard run (with a time of 2:02.04).
DW: I had the state record for a long time. I guess they call it the 800 meters now.
AP: When did you start going to auto races?
DW: My grandmother, Odie, a little feisty woman, she got me going to the races when I was a little guy. She loved racing. I always told her, “Granny, someday I’m going to race a car like that.” Lo and behold, I did.
AP: So when did you start racing?
DW: I was 12 when I started racing go-karts. As soon as I got to be 16 I wanted to race cars. My dad and I built a car and started racing. There were two great little tracks in Owensboro.
AP: Didn’t your driving get you into trouble with the law in Owensboro?
DW: I stayed in trouble. A lot of the local police had racecars, and if I got into any scrape with them at the track my grandfather, who was a big man and the deputy sheriff, he’d step in. But they’d get even with me. I’d get a ticket for no turn signal, windshield wipers don’t work, muffler’s too loud, didn’t come to a complete stop. I finally got tired of it, so when I’d see one coming I’d just take off. I’d say, “You can’t catch me on the track, and you can’t catch me off the track!” (Laughs)
AP: You live in Franklin, Tenn. (pop. 41,842), now. Was it similar to Owensboro when you moved there?
DW: When I moved here 30 odd years ago, Franklin had 7,500 people. I used to drive my racecar on Saturday through the middle of town on my way to get my tires balanced. I remember I’d wave at all the farmers out selling their goods and whittling around the square.
AP: Why do you think auto racing is such a “family” sport?
DW: I have a new favorite saying, “Monkey see, monkey do, monkey learn.” That’s how my brother, Michael, got involved. He went to a lot of races with me as a kid.
AP: You have two daughters (Jessica, 16 and Sarah, 12). Any chance they’ll want to get behind the wheel?
DW: I don’t think my wife (Stevie) would be in favor of that. Like she says, she spent 30 years sitting on a toolbox, she doesn’t care to do that anymore.
AP: What’s the fastest you’ve been in a racecar?
DW: I qualified at 210 (mph) at Talledega (Superspeedway in Alabama).
AP: Do you ever get in trouble for not being politically correct?
DW: I push the envelope when it’s necessary. I never agree with NASCAR, and never have. But when I do disagree, I say, “I don’t like this and here’s what I’d do about it.”
AP: As a commentator, is it hard to be objective when your little brother, Michael Waltrip, is out there racing?
DW: Oh, I’m biased. I make no bones about it. When he’s running second all night long in Charlotte, he’s going to feel the love. But when he does something stupid, he’s going to feel the heat.
AP: Demands on drivers today are incredible, is it more work than it used to be?
DW: Drivers driving until they’re 50, that’s a thing of the past. They will burn out . . . It’s not the racing, but all that goes on around the racing. You live in a glass house. It’s difficult to maintain that lifestyle for 30 or 40 years.
AP: You were so outspoken early in your career that you got the nickname “Jaws.” Now you’re being paid to speak your mind. Do you see any irony in that?
DW: Maybe people were listening back then, maybe not, but now they have no choice. (Laughs)