When Darrell Waltrip was a 12-year-old kid growing up in Owensboro, Kentucky, he raced go-karts and dreamed big.
Waltrip had some friends who were big stock-car racing fans. They said they had an extra ticket for a NASCAR Winston Cup race in Nashville. Did he want to go? Uh, yeah.
“When I got there, I found out why (they had an extra ticket),” he says. “My seat was right behind a post. I had to hang onto that post all night long to watch the race — from one side of the post to the other.
“But I was intrigued with stock cars. That's really when I started to look at myself and say, ‘Maybe some day I'll be a stock car driver, rather than IndyCar driver.’ I realized that was an easier thing to get into than IndyCars, (which) took a lot of money, and I didn't have any money. And I could build a stock car, and I couldn't build an IndyCar. So that made it pretty easy.”
Waltrip entered his first stock-car race four years later. Racing a 1936 Chevrolet coupe that he and his father built, he hit the wall and severely damaged the car at a local dirt track near their Owensboro home.
But that inauspicious start gave way to greatness.
Waltrip was so good that he won three NASCAR Winston Cup championships (1981, 1982, 1985), and also competed, and won, in a number of other series, including the American Speed Association, the International Race of Champions, the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series, the All Pro Racing Association, and the NASCAR All-American Challenge Series.
Waltrip, who gives The Work Truck Show's keynote address on February 27 at 7:30 am, went on his retirement “Victory Tour” in 2000.
When he was finished with his NASCAR career, he had 809 career starts (third-best all-time), 84 victories (tied for third with Bobby Allison), and 59 pole positions (fourth).
He won the Daytona 500 in his 17th attempt, in 1989. He is the only five-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and won the inaugural The Winston in 1985.
Waltrip holds the modern-era record for wins from the pole position with eight in 1981. He was the first NASCAR Winston Cup driver to win $6 million, $7 million, $8 million, $9 million, and $10 million in prize money and was the third driver in NASCAR Winston Cup history to surpass the $15 million mark.
He won the NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award in 1989 and 1990 and the National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year in 1977, 1981, and 1982.
“The thing that's important to me is that I made a difference,” he says. “My presence in this sport made a difference. I didn't just go through for 30 years unnoticed and was just part of the show. At one time, I was the show.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick once said that Waltrip was “a very smart race car driver — probably as smart as any driver I've ever worked with.”
Smart. And brash.
Cale Yarborough nicknamed him “Jaws,” because Waltrip didn't mind talking about himself. He also was called “the Muhammad Ali of NASCAR.”
His brashness got him in some precarious situations early in his career when he wasn't winning — he didn't win his first NASCAR event until his 50th race — but he had at least one victory a year from 1975 through 1989, and in 1998 was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers.
Some of Waltrip's bravado left him in 1983, when he failed to win his third straight championship, losing 17 of the last 19 races as Bobby Allison claimed the title. During that season, Waltrip's wife, Stevie, had her second miscarriage.
Waltrip, humbled by the personal and professional heartache, accepted Jesus Christ.
“Before that, Stevie would say, ‘We need to go to church,’ and I'd say, ‘I don't have time. I've got to race. That's my job. Sorry, I can't make it,’” he says.
Waltrip realized that not only had he been obsessed with winning, but he had been obsessed with himself.
“I've been a Christian since 1983, but even then I was more interested in what Darrell Waltrip wanted than what God wanted,” he says. “As I began to grow as a Christian, I began to realize that there were more things in life more important than winning races and what I thought. I began to see that serving God needed to be first. God showed me just how blessed I was in having such a strong Christian wife and how children are a true blessing as well. The most important thing to do is to pray and study the Bible. God can take your need and bless you as well as others around you if you put Him first.”
Waltrip and his wife decided to start a ministry called Motor Racing Outreach, which grew into a sort of church on wheels. Every Sunday morning, wherever NASCAR stops, drivers, pit crew, and their wives meet — usually in an empty garage — for interdenominational services.
Forget his victories. Waltrip says the ministry is his most meaningful accomplishment.
“If we weren't able to have a church on the road,” Waltrip says, “guys wouldn't be able to get to church.”
In 2004, he published a book of 60 devotions, Darrell Waltrip One-on-One: The Faith That Took Him to the Finish Line.
“Everything I know pretty much revolves around racing,” he says. “Like any athlete, you have a lot of trials and a lot of tribulations, and you make a lot of errors. The highs are never as high as the lows are low. So you just have to have something more than material things. You have to have some faith to get you through the tough times.”