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Bristol a second home for 12-time winner Waltrip

August 23, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Hall of Fame driver had seven-year stretch where he finished in top three

As a former high school track star, Darrell Waltrip treated every race at Bristol Motor Speedway like a long-distance event. He understood that the race doesn't always go to the swiftest runner, but to the one who conserves enough to have a finishing kick.

"When I ran track in high school, I was famous for having an incredible kick," Waltrip said. "So I tried to apply that same strategy to racing at Bristol and some of the harder races. I tried to run about 90 percent or so for 75 percent of the race, and then 100 percent at the end. That seemed to work out really well for me, too."

It was a strategy that resulted in an amazing 12 Bristol victories, including seven consecutive between 1981 and 1984, when the combination of Waltrip and team owner Junior Johnson was a formidable force at the high-banked half-mile in the hills of east Tennessee.

"One of my favorite sayings is 'horses for courses.' And that was my course," Waltrip said. "You had to be smart. Five hundred laps there was physically draining, it was mentally draining. So you had to be in fairly good condition.

"I prided myself at the time in being in better shape than most of the other drivers. I knew what it meant to be in shape, and I knew what it meant to work out. The other guys kind of laughed about that or never even considered it. That was something I was always trying to stay in better shape than my competitors."

Waltrip was aided by the fact that he was in the prime of his career at about the time when the drivers who had dominated the sport in the 1970s, like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, were on the back side of 40.

"I was in a good position because I was a little younger than the other guys -- Richard, Bobby, Cale, David," Waltrip said. "I always thought that gave me an advantage at that time."

That was the case right from the first time Waltrip, a two-time track champion at Nashville Raceway, showed up at Bristol in 1973 with a car that Mario Andretti had once driven to win the 1967 Daytona 500. Some said Waltrip had a big reputation and an even bigger mouth. But he had the talent to back it up, and then some.

"I raced here in Nashville on a half-mile race track that was very high banked and fast," Waltrip said. "I had raced at Salem, Ind., on a half-mile, high-banked track that was very fast. So I had a lot of experience on high-banked short tracks like Bristol. And so I was never intimidated by it at all.

"I was very comfortable when I got there. I think that had to do with a lot of the success I had there. I never had to learn the track or never had to figure it out. I had enough experience at other places before I went to Bristol that I just felt right at home racing there."

Still, Waltrip had a few things to learn.

"The first time I went to Bristol. I put a seat in my car that I'd been running in what was then my Late Model Sportsman, a little fiberglass seat I had been using," Waltrip said. "When I put that seat in my car, Jack Elder, my crew chief, said, 'You won't last 50 laps in that seat.' And I said, 'You've got to be crazy. I've been using this seat in all my cars. It's a great little seat. It'll be fine.' "

But once the race started, Waltrip immediately realized he had made a huge mistake.

"The signal for a relief driver back in the day was you tapped on your helmet," Waltrip said. "And sure enough, about 50 laps in, I was patting on my helmet. That little seat made out of fiberglass had very little padding in it, which cut my side to death. I'd never been thrown around in a race car like I was getting thrown around in that big old Mercury at Bristol. I got out of the car and Dick Brooks drove it for a while and then the engine blew up.

"I really learned a valuable lesson the very first time I went there, about what it took to manhandle a car around that place for 500 laps. And how important it was to have a good car, a good-handling car, but also to be comfortable in the car so you could be able to run all 500 laps."

When asked what it was like racing at Bristol, Waltrip -- never at loss for words -- had difficulty pinning it down to one specific feeling.

"There's all kinds of analogies that people have used," Waltrip said. "It's like being in a blender. You get it filled with all the other cars and you're constantly in traffic.

"You feel like you're riding on a rollercoaster, a lot of the time. It's down those little short straightaways and up into the banking of those corners. And it tries to throw you out of the right window and throws you out of the seat all the time. You're turning to the left and being thrown to the right."

"I never dreaded going to Bristol. I always looked forward to it, and I think that was a big advantage I had."


That's the sensation, according to Waltrip. But imagine doing that for hours at a time, without a break.

"You get around there, back in the day, in 16-17 seconds," Waltrip said. "So you have no time to rest. You're constantly in a bowl, going around and around and around. Sort of like a rock on the end of a rope. That's what it feels like."

For Waltrip, every Bristol race was "special." But he does have a few that stand out above the others.

"The first time I won there was in 1978 and I think I beat Benny Parsons that day," Waltrip said. "I beat Cale [Yarborough] there a number of times, and then me and Earnhardt had some good battles there.

"The one race that I really took a lot of pride in was 1992, when it went from asphalt to concrete. I had won a lot of races at that track, up to that point. Everybody said now that it's concrete, maybe somebody different will win. And that first night race on concrete, we won it pretty easily."

Waltrip takes pride in being one of the few drivers who won at Bristol before and after the racing surface was changed.

"I pretty much won when it was asphalt and you had to run up high, next to the wall," Waltrip said. "And I won it when it was concrete. I always was very happy there, even when I was struggling, I always seemed to be able to get around there. I had relatively good success there when I wouldn't maybe have it anywhere else."

But like most drivers, Waltrip laments the ones that got away.

"There were several like that. Davey [Allison] beat me in 1990," Waltrip said. "I had the best car. He was pitting on the back straightaway and I was pitting over on the front. A caution came out and because he was pitting on the back, he knew if he pitted, he'd come out behind everybody. So he stayed on the race track.

"We stopped and got two tires. And I was sitting there, eating his lunch and I would have won the race easily, but with five or six laps to go, had a right front tire go down and had to pit. So that one kind of got away."

Waltrip believes he could have added to his seven consecutive Bristol wins if not for a mechanical failure in the second 1984 race.

"When I was going for eight in a row, the eighth race, I had one of the best cars I'd ever had there," Waltrip said. "I think I had a lap lead on the field, and the car broke. We came down pit road for a routine pit stop and when they dropped the jack and I popped the clutch, it broke the rear end. So we had to push it behind the wall and change the gear.

"Then there were some that I won that I probably shouldn't have, so it balances out."

In 52 Bristol starts, Waltrip had 26 top-five finishes, including a seven-year stretch where he never finished outside of the top three. It was a place where he always felt at home.

"I never dreaded going to Bristol," Waltrip said. "I always looked forward to it, and I think that was a big advantage I had."