50 years of nascar racing ~ DW and Digard: Breaking up is hard to do (Post 21)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
These days it seems hard to believe car owners and drivers
once made agreements with little more than a promise and a handshake, without a
lawyer and a telephone book sized contract in sight, but that's how it used to
get done in the kinder and simpler days of NASCAR racing. There was also a time
when most car owners were retired drivers with a passion for the sport, not
businessmen looking to turn a profit. In those days, cars were still sponsored by
the local auto dealer, or maybe some small regional company owned by a high
school buddy of the driver. Among the first to break the trend was Digard racing, owned by Bill Gardner, his brother Jim, and
originally Mike Diprospero. It wasn't long before DiGard,
and their ace driver Darrell Waltrip, got involved in an unseemly battle of
words that went on for years.
DiGard racing first appeared on the scene in 1973, the second year of the modern era in NASCAR. Factory support money was no longer available from the auto companies, and big-name national companies were stepping into the void to sponsor stock cars. In 1973 and 1974 the cars of Donnie Allison, a veteran campaigner and Bobby's brother, were sponsored by the DiGard company itself, but in 1975 the team obtained big-dollar sport from Gatorade.
Darrell Waltrip appeared on the scene in stock car racing in 1972, trailering a Mercury, with his wife listed as car owner, to Talladega to run his first race. He continued running family-owned cars into 1975, with some support from Terminal Trucking. There was no questioning the young driver's talents. He had already made a name for himself driving Sportsman cars, primarily at his home track in Nashville. Even going into 1975, having run a part-time Winston Cup schedule from '72 to '75, he had already claimed 19 top-ten finishes, including a pair of seconds. Darrell had also earned himself a bit of a reputation. In an era when "Opie Taylor" haircuts were the norm for a Winston Cup driver, Darrell had long hair. In an era when new drivers asked about having to compete against the likes of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, were supposed to just shuffle their feet with downcast eyes and reply, "Aw shucks I'm just honored to be allowed to run on the same track with them", Darrell was very vocal about the fact he was certain he could beat all of them, he was the greatest driver ever born, and that they had best stay out of his way, because he was coming through. "Arrogant" was a word often used to describe Darrell in those days... one of the nicer ones actually. As TV became more and more essential to NASCAR, Darrell was arguably the master of the medium, able to speak in sound bites, get a laugh, or stir up controversy on a moment's notice when a camera was pointed at him. DW backed up those strong words with a surprise win at Nashville, May 10th, 1975. "I figured we would win one a lot sooner than this." Mr. Humble told the media in Victory Lane.
Bill Gardner, who ran the day to day operations of DiGard racing, was first and foremost a business owner. He had a big-dollar sponsor to keep happy so he could continue to make a profit at racing, and after the Firecracker 400 that year, Gardner decided Donnie Allison wasn't getting the job done. The team had yet to win a race, and thus Gardner summarily fired one of the most popular drivers in the sport. Darrell Waltrip was offered the opportunity to drive for the team, and he jumped at the chance. DW had been out there running hard, trying to impress some team owner, knowing that fast race cars of the era ran as much on money as they did on UNOCAL 76. DiGard had a big sponsor, a lot of money, and thus a fast car. In what was a rather unusual move by the standards of the day, DW and Gardner signed a five year contract. When asked if he felt that he could win in the DiGard car, Darrell cracked he felt that they would have to work real hard… if they were ever going to lose a race. Of course, it wasn't that easy, but October 12th of that year Darrell took the DiGard team to Victory Lane for the first time. He went on to finish seventh in that year's point chase.
The pairing hit a minor bump in the road in 1976. Darrell had a habit of speaking his mind when it came to racing (and anything else for that matter) and that year at Daytona, Waltrip and the team were caught red handed with an illegal nitrous system aboard the car. Asked about it by reporters, Darrell replied, "If you don't cheat, you look like an idiot. If you do it and don't get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me in the category where I belong." For his remarks, DW might have gotten an "A" for candor, but he got an "F" for sponsor relations. Gatorade was less than thrilled to have the team they backed labeled as "Cheaters" and Gardner was furious as Darrell's memorable quote appeared in papers coast to coast that week. DW redeemed himself a bit by winning his 125-mile qualifying race (sans the nitrous oxide) but even after that the papers reported, "Cheater wins the race". DW placed 32nd in that year's Daytona 500, after blowing an engine. In what would be a hallmark of the stormy relationship between DiGard and Darrell, he blamed the team for a lack of attention to detail for the failure, and the crew accused Darrell of being the sort of driver who could break an anvil. Still the team did go on to win a race that year, and Darrell wound up 8th in the points.
It was in 1977, Darrell and the DiGard team came into their own as serious contenders. The line on Darrell had been he was a good short track racer, but hopeless on the big tracks. He put that notion to rest, winning six times that year, including four times on Superspeedways. (Interestingly enough, Darrell also took the checkered flag at Talladega that year, having driven the final 23 laps in relief for Donnie Allison… the driver he replaced at DiGard.) In a year when Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough just flat dominated, Darrell added his name to the list of superstars. He wound up fourth in the final points rundown. Even that dream season contained its fair share of headaches however. During the off season, Darrell was quoted as saying, "I don't know if I can finish a 500-mile race myself if the car ever does", going on to point out the DiGard entry had failed to finish in 16 out of 30 races in '76, usually after an engine failure. Crew chief and engine builder, Mario Rossi, quit the team because he couldn't stomach Darrell's attitude. David Ifft took Rossi's place as crew chief. But early in the season, Bill Gardner hired on Darel Dieringer as Team Manager. Ifft claimed that Dieringer was interfering with the relationship between him and Waltrip, and quit as well. Darrell went on record as wanting Dieringer fired, saying the team didn't need a "full time baby-sitter." Buddy Parrott replaced Ifft. Late in the year, Cale Yarborough and DW began a war of words, occasionally punctuated by the use of a front bumper on the track. At the Southern 500 in September, Darrell and Cale were battling for the lead as they came up on three lapped cars. Either Cale or Darrell had to lift. Neither did. A five car wreck ensued. Yarborough felt since he had the lead Darrell should have lifted, and dubbed DW "Jaws" both because his mouth was constantly running, and he was as dangerous as the movie shark. DW shot back Cale was an old man, and if he couldn't take the heat of battle he should retire. Either way, Darrell and DiGard signed a new five year contract that would bind them together until 1982.
Things got better on the track, but worse off the track for Darrell and the team in 1978. Darrell was in contention for the points lead several times throughout the season and wound up third, having once again won 6 races. Once again DW was certain the only reason he hadn't beat that "Old man" Yarborough for the championship was the alarming number of DNF's the team suffered. By midseason Darrell had also decided he didn't much care for the new contact, feeling as a superstar in the sport he was entitled to more money and a percentage of the post season awards. He began searching for a new ride, despite the contract, and actively courting sponsors... including Gatorade, unfortunately. In those days, if a driver wasn't happy and let it be known, most team owners would let him leave, occasionally on the spot. But when Darrell started telling folks that he would be driving for Harry Ranier, who was not aware of DW's contractual obligations at that point, Gardner let it be known that he felt the contract was a legally binding document and any owner wishing to hire Darrell would have to buy out the remaining years of Darrell's contract, and that the price wasn't cheap. When Ranier approached Gardner about the price, suddenly Darrell's contract was no longer for sale at any price. Waltrip kept on insisting he was leaving. Gardner kept insisting he was staying. Gardner also explained to Darrell that if he tried jumping ship, DiGard racing would take him to court in every state that the Winston Cup series ran in , to get an injunction to keep DW from driving for anyone else. Darrell was finding out the hard way, the Gardners didn't do things the way most race teams did. Finally, in late October, Gardner and Darrell sat down to iron out their differences after Gatorade started making noise they weren't thrilled by the situation. To everyone's great surprise, once again DW signed a new five-year contract with DiGard. He said he was happy with the arrangement and had gotten every concession he asked for. The deal was announced on Halloween. And like the ghosts and goblins that are symbols of that day, the problems between DiGard and Darrell were also among the "undead."
1979 was the most successful year of the DiGard/Waltrip association. He led in the points most of the year, on the strength of seven victories. But once again, late in the season the team began losing engines and Darrell watched his points lead over Richard Petty dwindle as he suffered through DNF's. DW was vocal that the team was at fault for cracking under pressure. Of course, Darrell didn't help his own cause much at that year's Southern 500, suffering "brain fade" and slugging the wall while leading by over a lap. On the restart, he once again slammed the wall trying to regain the lead. Gardner and the crew were as vocal in their criticism of the driver, as he had been of them. At North Wilkesboro, DW got into an on-track feud with Bobby Allison while the two were running one-two . DW shoved Bobby out of the way, and Allison responded by catching up to Waltrip and putting him hard into the wall. The DiGard Chevy was behind the wall for many laps and finished 13th. Gardner was furious, both with Allison and Darrell. At the next race, at Rockingham, the car suffered mechanical failure once again, leaving DW in sixth, eight laps behind Richard Petty, who not only won the race but took the points lead for the first time that year. Darrell finished one place higher than Petty in Atlanta and thus carried a two point lead going into the season finale at the Ontario, California track. At that race, Darrell spun out trying to avoid another spinning car and went a lap down. He wasn't able to make up the lap and finished in eighth while Petty finished in fifth place and claimed his seventh championship by a mere 11-point margin. The Gardners felt Darrell should have been able to avoid the spin. Darrell felt that his car wasn't strong enough. They both agreed that Buddy Parrott had to be at fault, and he was summarily fired. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Parrott was rehired for the 1980 season. Unfortunately, that meant Buddy wound up with a front row seat for the final act of the DiGard/Waltrip soap opera.
In 1980 Bill Gardner decided to field a second team, with driver Don Whittington piloting the second car. Whittington brought one thing to the table…vast sums of money. Darrell was furious. Conventional wisdom of the day said that no two-car operation could win, and Darrell, with a bit of his usual flare for the dramatic, was quoted as saying, "I'm not happy with it but there's nothing I can do. I'm just a lonely soldier doing my job." Whittington failed to make the field at Daytona and left the team soon thereafter. Darrell fared little better, losing an engine on the 20th lap and winding up in 40th position. .. and he was in a very bad temper about it. Once again he was vocal in saying the DiGard team's management was ruining his career, and he compared himself to the hostages in Iran. The team seemed to be either hot or cold that year. Either Darrell finished in the top five (and occasionally won) or he suffered mechanical failures and fared miserably. The day after the World 600 at Charlotte that year, Jake Elder, who was crew chief for the points leader, Dale Earnhardt, announced he was quitting the team because he couldn't get along with the team manager. Old Suitcase Jake packed up his things once again, and became crew chief at DiGard, supposedly because Darrell wanted him to replace Parrott, who was once again fired. "I'd die before I'd turn another wrench on Darrell Waltrip's car." Parrott announced to the media in a huff. The romance between Buddy and Darrell was short lived. After a win and several strong finishes, the DiGard Chevrolet once again lost an engine and Darrell fell to fourth in the points. At that point he was quoted as saying, "I'll win championships, but this team never will", a remark he later denied making. The next visit to the Michigan track went even worse. Darrell lost engines on both qualifying attempts and failed to make the field. Gardner had to buy a car from a privateer to get Darrell in the race. The situation got that much more tense in September when Cale Yarborough announced he was leaving one of the most prized rides in NASCAR racing of that era, Junior Johnson's Oldsmobile. Yarborough had won three consecutive titles with Junior from 1976-78, but wanted to cut back to a part time schedule in 1981, and Junior wanted to continue running for championships. Darrell announced almost immediately he wanted that ride… and he wanted it bad. At Charlotte for the fall race, he went on record as saying, "If I don't get away from these Gardeners they're going to drag me right down the tubes with them." Gardner made a surprise announcement the next day, saying he was looking for a new driver for the next year, but he was not going to release Darrell from the contract. Instead he would put his new driver in the Gatorade car, and Darrell would be left running whatever junk was sitting around the shop, with a second rate crew until his contract expired. Considering the contract had three years to run, and Darrell was in his prime driving years, the announcement was tantamount to saying Gardner was going to destroy Darrell's career. He then went on to send a letter through his attorney to Junior Johnson, threatening legal action if Junior continued to even talk to Darrell about driving for him. Junior got some lawyers of his own and threatened Gardner with the same if DiGard kept trying to hire employees of Junior's team. On that day, perhaps, lawyers became as important as the pit crew to Winston Cup teams.
The scorched earth tactics Bill Garner was using in his war with Darrell were no solution. The sponsor was unhappy, and it was clear to Gardner as well as Waltrip, with the amount of animosity between the two parties, neither would ever earn the championship both wanted so much, as long as they were together. On October 28th and 29th Bill and Darrell set down and finalized the terms of their divorce. Darrell was let out of his contract, but it cost him a good bit of change. While the amount was never released, estimates were between four hundred and five hundred thousand dollars. DW went heavily into debt to buy his freedom but was still elated. Speaking of the agreement with DiGard, Darrell said, "I'm a free man. I'm committed to running two more races for them, but after that I'm free. Now if only the hostages in Iran would be set free too, my world will be in good shape." The stormy relationship ended with a whimper and not a bang. Darrell finished 26th and 25th in the last two races of the season, suffering engine problems in both.
AFTERMATH- The split up worked to both parties' advantages. Darrell signed with Junior Johnson and won the Winston Cup title the next two years, and again in 1985. DiGard signed Ricky Rudd to replace Darrell, but the relationship lasted only one year. Ironically Bobby Allison signed on in 1982 to drive for the team that had once fired his brother. He brought the Miller beer sponsorship to the team after Gatorade decided they had had enough. Bobby and Darrell were the closest rivals for the championship in 1981,1982, and 1983. Bobby finished second to Darrell in 81, and again in 1982 after signing with DiGard. In 1983 DiGard and Bobby Allison finally both got their coveted first championship , with Gary Nelson as crew chief, and some new guy named Robert Yates building the engines. It must have given Bill Gardner some special satisfaction to beat out Darrell, the driver he had wrangled with all those years, by a mere 47-point margin. Stormy relationships with drivers and crew members remained common at DiGard racing throughout its history in the sport.
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