I saw an interesting article on the April 12 Bristol Herald Courier by Allen Gregory entitled "It's time that NASCAR recruited the millennials. In it, Gregory offered eight suggestions he believed NASCAR needed to implement to attract the target demographic (of which I'm not a part) and bring them into the "fold". It was the fifth one that caught my eye as it read-
Shake up the TV booth - Longtime network television announcer Darrell Waltrip is a beloved figure in the NASCAR family for good reason, but he projects a grandfatherly and overly positive approach for a sport sponsored by an energy drink maker that promotes an “edgy” lifestyle. How about bringing an actual objective journalist into the booth instead of a former driver or crew chief who still has friends and business connections in the pits.
My first reaction was "Oh my!" immediately followed by "DW 'Grandfatherly'?"
My goodness how old have I gotten?
You see to me, DW has never been "grandfatherly", but has always been "Edgy". "Edgy" one of the new "E" words that has infiltrated and smothered the NASCAR vocabulary. "Edgy" is right up there with "Entitlement", "Encumbered" and the beloved “Enhanced" and all its variants. Since the new "Entitlement" sponsor was announced "Edgy" and Monster Energy are always used together.
DW was "Edgy". DW was Monster Energy before there was such a product.
From that time at Daytona in 1974 when he announced to the NASCAR world "I know you don’t know me. I'm Darrell Waltrip from Owensboro, Kentucky and I'm here to take Richard Petty's place" he personified "Edgy". His cockiness, brashness and trash talking mouthiness brought a new "Edge" to the sport; something that few, if any drivers had ever done before and few fans had ever heard before. Up to that point the sport had been built not on what you said you could do while off the track, but what you did with your yap closed on the track.
His announcement made him the Cassius Clay (pre-Muhammad Ali and another Kentuckian) of Stock Car Racing as he all but said in so many words, "I am the Greatest" to anyone in earshot. He respected no one, especially the established drivers like Richard Petty. But like Clay in the ring and Joe Namath on the gridiron, he backed up what he said on the track with his heavy right foot.
His first Cup season, he entered five races; blew up twice, but the remaining three races were all top 10s (3rd, 6th, 8th). The next two seasons he ran 35 races resulting in 16 top 10's, 8 top 5's and a pole. When he won in his fourth season he continued winning for 16 of the next 17 years (going winless in 1990 after he was injured in a practice crash at Daytona and missed several races) and closed out his career with eight winless seasons. When he retired at the end of the 2000 season, he had amassed three Cup Championships and 84 wins, which according to NASCAR ties him for fourth in all-time wins with bitter rival Bobby Allison (for the record I disagree with the ones doing the counting - Allison is fourth, but that's another story).
From 1972-2000, the twenty-nine years of his career, no Cup driver won more races than DW. Not Dale Earnhardt who had 76 wins and who DW said that he could say whatever he wanted about Dale and his team in the news because they "wouldn't be able to read it anyway.” Nor rival Cale Yarborough with 69 wins. It was Cale who gave Waltrip the so very appropriate nickname "Jaws" after DW had wrecked him out of a race. The driver who Waltrip said he had come to replace, "The King" Richard Petty, got 60 of his 200 wins during that time. His bitterest rival, Bobby Allison who was quoted in the book "Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang" said of his feelings for DW, "I may - I probably will - end up down there shoveling coal with the little red guy, but I'm gonna tell you something. I still have forgiven Darrell Waltrip only three-fourths" comes in next with 55 wins.
Pretty "Edgy" stuff from where I sit and it wasn't restricted to just fellow drivers. After an unfavorable ruling by The Sanctioning Body, DW bit the hand that fed him and labeled Bill France as "Our Great White Father in Daytona". Even the NASCAR fans found themselves in his crosshairs and were the target of his tongue lashings as well. Remember when he crashed out of the Charlotte race and many of the fans cheered? It was a hard wreck that could have had serious results and he was so upset at their cheers and cat calls he said questioned those fans' mentality and said he "feels like posting a notice at the tracks: anybody who doesn't like me can meet me at the parking lot at K-Mart and we'll duke it out."
We aren't DW fans and have never been, but we didn't cheer when he wrecked out of that race. However, after DW's comments I did later catch Dad at the kitchen table, poring over his well-worn Rand McNally Road Atlas checking to see how just how long it would take to get from Owensboro to the Charlotte K-Mart. When I quizzed him on what he was doing he said with a grin he'd heard they "had some great blue light specials going on there" and thought we needed to check 'em out.
Before fans wore shirts emblazoned with "Anyone But Earnhardt" they were wearing "Anyone But Waltrip" attire.
If you were from the Nashville TN area this was nothing new. You had heard it all before as for years his trash talking was leveled at local favorites like veteran drivers Coo Coo Marlin and James "Flookie" Buford.
And if you were around a little earlier, 1963 or so and about two hours north you could have seen and heard not DW but "Wild Child", a long-haired, mouthy teen talking smack to all the crew cut local racing heroes in and around the Owensboro KY area off the track, while running around, over and through them on the track.
DW was "Edgy" then and over the next 50 plus years continued to be so. Although he has reinvented himself numerous times over the years I'm not sure how much has really changed, as he always retained that "Edginess".
Shortly after arriving in The Bigs, fearful that his Owensboro roots may be too far north to be accepted by the good ol' boys from down south, he adopted a clearly southern and more favorable Franklin, Tennessee as home. In 1973, DW reinvented himself once again going from owner/driver to driver in a top notch ride when Bobby Isaac abruptly parked his Bud Moore Ford ride after hearing voices telling him to get out of the car. Isaac answered the voices, got out and DW got in to finish the season.
The five starts for Moore resulted in four crashes and a top ten finish. The next season, DW found himself back as owner/driver for a season and then some, but even then he reinvented himself again, becoming a Cup race winner, taking first at his beloved Nashville.
In 1975, upstart team DiGard fired veteran driver, Donnie Allison before Talladega and hired DW to finish the season. He signed on and the following year he broke race superstition by racing a green Gatorade car. Over the next four seasons reinvented himself into a driving force in the sport collecting 25 wins, ranking him second only to Cale Yarborough in that time period.
Things soon soured and DW reinvented himself into contract lawyer and got himself out of DiGard's "airtight" contract to go drive for Junior Johnson, where he reinvented himself again, this time into Cup Champion X 3.
In 1991, he left Johnson for Rick Hendrick, reinventing himself again into "Dream Team" organizer; the team that was going to bring Cup Championships to HMS and allow DW to surpass Petty in Cup Championships.
Although those dreams did not come true, he did reinvent himself while there into a Daytona 500 winner. A bump by Rusty Wallace spun DW out of a Winston All-Star race win, but allowed DW to reinvent himself again in the unlikeliest of categories - Most Popular Driver... X 2.
After a violent crash during a 1990 Daytona practice session left him seriously injured, Waltrip wanting more control of his destiny, returned to his roots and reinvented himself once again into owner/driver. Hearing the news, former car owner Junior Johnson observed DW finally had a car owner who was as smart as he was. It was in this role in 1992 he got his final three Cup wins and in 1994 his final pole.
In 1998, he sold the team and reinvented himself again as a substitute driver for the injured DEI driver Steve Park. It was during that 13 race stint he showed glimpses of his former greatness as he drove to one top-5 finish and two top-tens, before reinventing himself once again as a driver... and fading Champion as DW finished out his career, first driving 15 races for team purchaser Tim Beverly and then the final two seasons for Travis Carter. It was during these three years we saw DW failed to make the race on 13 occasions and used the Champions Provisional to make the race 32 times.
In 2001, DW reinvented himself again, hanging up the helmet and picking up the microphone to step into the role so many fans know him as today, retired Cup Champion and FOX TV Analyst. He has been the face, voice and personality for the FOX NASCAR Broadcast Team, bringing a now tempered "Edginess", but "Edginess" all the same to their race coverage. Being in the booth, like earlier on the track, has found him to be a divisive element; viewers either like him or they don't. He produces no middle ground.
At the start of the 2017 season I was hoping to see DW reinventing himself one final time, moving from the role as "the face" to one of the sage Cup Champion Analyst. In that role he would not carry (or dominate, depending on your views) the broadcast, but would function more like a true analyst, only adding insight to situations to "enhance" viewers' understanding of what they were seeing. It would be this reinvention that would allow the microwave society we live in today to let his past "fade" and allow him to go down in history as one of the greatest race broadcasters of all time (Not my assessment mind you, it's just the way things work).
More importantly, it might end the calls like Mr. Gregory made in his article and give DW the opportunity to go out on his "own terms", a phrase we have heard used quite a bit since Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his announcement that 2017 would be his final Cup season. Jr., by going out on his "own terms" has definitely set up a domino effect in the garage and possibly one outside, depending on where he lands. This could adversely impact DW's exit "terms".
Over DW's long career, he has constantly advanced his career through the misfortune of others; Isaac's voices, Donnie's firing, Cale wanting to drive a reduced schedule, Steve Park's injury. One of his big breaks in his broadcast career occurred when TNN "Winners" host Neil Bonnett was injured in a racing accident and DW, who had been befriended by TNN owner and host Ralph Emery asked him to fill in until Neil could heal.
Now another's misfortunes may prevent him from reinventing himself his way that final time. In a sport filled with irony, it would be ironic that the driver who first personified what the current series sponsor stands for long before it even existed would be squeezed out because he no longer fits their bill.
It can and does happen-just ask longtime CBS NFL Analyst Phil Simms.