NASCAR Cup Series
By Jerry Bonkowski
9 Minute Read
Since retiring nearly two years ago, Darrell Waltrip remains as popular as ever — but he’s also developed somewhat of an identity crisis.
“You should see my desk, I get more mail today than I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Waltrip cheerily told NASCAR.com recently.
Then he quickly adds with a woeful lament, “but here’s the thing: a lot of people don’t know I ever drove.”
That’s right, one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history is known by many of today’s especially younger fans more for how he wielded a microphone than how he wheeled a race car.
“It’s amazing to me the number of people that think all I’ve ever done is TV, and I’m only famous for saying ‘Boogity, Boogity, Boogity, Let’s Go Racin’ Boys,’ ” Waltrip said.
For nearly 20 years, Waltrip was the most popular and recognizable member of the NASCAR on FOX broadcast team. His excitement, knowledge of and passion for NASCAR racing shined through over 300 Cup telecasts.
But he’s turned that relative anonymity as a racer to many fans into a teaching moment of sorts.
“(For every fan letter he responds to) I send a postcard with the results from when I drove,” Waltrip said. “When I was in that movie ‘Cars,’ I was Darrell Cartrip. A lot of young kids think I’m just some guy that was in a movie.
“So it’s kind of an opportunity for me to share a little bit, enlighten a little bit and brag a little bit. I get a chance today to do things that maybe I never got a chance to do before. But I enjoy it.
“There was a time when it would have annoyed me that someone would not know about my driving career. But in actuality, I think it’s a great opportunity for me to share what I’ve done in my career as a driver, my career as a broadcaster and TV, I’ve written books, I’ve traveled with and known presidents and governors, and our car business is going great, we sell more cars than we ever have. I’ve just done a lot of things.”
Indeed, the self-proclaimed “Old DW” has done so many things and worn so many hats — and helmets — in his illustrious career that he’s run out of things to still achieve in his life.
Ask him what’s on his bucket list and he chuckles, “There’s not any awards out there that I’m aware of that I haven’t won or at least participated in. So no, I don’t have a bucket list. My bucket’s empty.”
Waltrip was 72 when he hung up his microphone for the final time in 2019. After nearly 50 years of racing and broadcasting, he retired to spend more time with his family.
But retirement isn’t all Waltrip thought it would be. He readily admits he misses the action that racing and being at race tracks brings.
RELATED: Darrell Waltrip’s career in photos
“I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed being retired,” said Waltrip, who turned 74 last month. “But by the same token, when I look back and COVID-19 hit and the way they had to do TV last year — they did all the races from a studio in Charlotte — I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed that because I’m a see it, feel it, touch it, hear it, smell it kind of guy. I like to be at the track.
“So I guess the good Lord was looking out for me and the timing was probably better than I thought. I did go to a couple of races last year. I went to the Daytona 500 with President Trump and that was a fun day. And the only other race I went to was the All-Star Race in Bristol and I went with Governor (Bill) Lee, our governor of Tennessee. Other than that, I haven’t been to any tracks or any races, I watch them all on TV.”
But one thing is very clear when talking to Waltrip: you can take “old DW” out of the booth, but you can’t take the booth out of “old DW.” In a way, he’s still calling races today, only now it’s talking back to his TV rather than a camera.
“I do it all the time,” Waltrip said with a big laugh. “I’m constantly saying, ‘Tell ’em this, tell ’em that.’ Why? I’m a race fan at heart and if there’s a flat tire or a wreck, I’ll say, ‘Why do you want to sugarcoat it? Tell it like it is. Guy had a flat tire, he spun out. Guy ran into him, spun the other guy. Look at his nose, look at his rear quarter panel.’ I’m real guilty about that.
“I’m opinionated, always have been. I guess in a lot of ways, I’m a perfectionist. And so when you’re a perfectionist, you’re a miserable person all the time because nobody does it the way you would do it, or nobody says what you would say. But I guess that’s part of being a fan. I know so much. I was in the booth for almost 20 years and drove for 30 years before that and I’ve been around racing my whole life. And so I see things and I know things.”
Waltrip misses his old buddies, Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon, in the FOX booth. But he’s also enjoying Clint Bowyer’s first season as his heir apparent, even seeing some of himself in Bowyer.
“He’s kind of lit up the studio a little bit,” Waltrip said. “I enjoy listening to him and his antics.
“They needed him. I mean, Mike Joy is a pro, been doing this his whole life. He was always our leader. And Jeff (Gordon) needed somebody to kind of lean on and bring out some of the fun qualities he has. So I think Bowyer has done a great job of getting those guys excited.
“When I watch Bowyer, I kind of hold my breath because it always reminds me when somebody once told me you can say anything you want to on TV — once. I’m always waiting kind of for that one moment, but I think (Bowyer) actually was a lot like me: his career kind of stalled out and he wasn’t having any fun. And now he’s part of a team that you can go and enjoy yourself and have a good time without all the headaches and all the heartburn driving a race car brings. So I think overall, he’s done a really nice job. I’ve enjoyed seeing him in the booth.”
The Owensboro, Kentucky, native had the kind of racing career most drivers only dream about with three NASCAR Cup Series championships, 84 wins (tied with Bobby Allison for fourth-most in Cup history), was elected into the third class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012, and drove for some of the sport’s most legendary names including Junior Johnson, Bud Moore, Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt.
RELATED: Darrell Waltrip career stats
Either from behind the wheel of a race car or in front of a TV camera, Waltrip saw the sport evolve over nearly six decades, starting in 1972 when he made his first start in a Cup car.
But it was in the FOX booth that he saw the sport in a totally different light. He began preparing for a post-racing career in TV in his waning years in Cup, but nothing could have prepared Waltrip for the most bittersweet day of his life, one both joyous and tragic: February 18, 2001.
It was his first day in the FOX broadcast booth for a Cup race.
Driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., Waltrip’s younger brother, Michael, earned his first career Cup win on the sport’s biggest stage, the Daytona 500. Darrell was beside himself in the booth, excitedly screaming and with tears of joy in his eyes as his sibling crossed the same start-finish line where Darrell had captured his only win in The Great American Race nearly 12 years earlier (Feb. 19, 1989).
But those joyful tears quickly turned to tears of profound sadness when, at about the very moment Michael took the checkered flag, several hundred feet away, Earnhardt, one of Waltrip’s closest friends and toughest rivals, was killed at the age of 49 in a crash.
“Where it started off, I mean, does it start off any better or worse? I don’t know which way you want to look at it,” Waltrip said. “Our first race (with FOX) was the Daytona 500. We started with our Super Bowl, so you don’t have any practice. You don’t really get a chance to warm up. You just had baptism by fire.
“(It was a) great race, exciting race to do, Larry (McReynolds), Mike (Joy) and I were hitting on all eight cylinders. We were covering it like we’d been doing it our whole life. And then the way it ended, my brother, who had never won a race, he wins in Dale’s car, Dale loses his life and away we go.
“That’s been 20 years ago, and it’s like it was just yesterday.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, no one could have predicted how NASCAR would fare. But unlike other professional sports leagues that managed only partial schedules — if any at all, that is — NASCAR ran a full 36-race campaign. Sure, it took a number of changes that the sport, its leaders, teams, tracks, TV networks and fans all had to adapt to, but Waltrip gives high praise for what resulted.
“I thought the leadership did a nice job,” Waltrip said. “But you have to give credit to the teams, too. It doesn’t matter what the rules are. It doesn’t matter what kind of changes NASCAR makes. The teams have to make it happen.
“What I saw was a bunch of guys that are passionate about racing, just like I am. They were eager to get back to the track and get back to some sort of normalcy.
“And even though we haven’t had a lot of fans able to go to the race track, we’ve been able to pretty much maintain some sort of a normal show on Sunday for television, which is important.
“So I give NASCAR leadership an ‘A’ for getting it done like they did, but I give the teams an ‘A-plus’ for buying into what NASCAR wanted, the protocols, restrictions and mask mandates they had to go through to show up and be able to compete.
“Overall, we couldn’t ask for much more out of the situation that we were in last year. Pretty amazing that we were able to do what we did.”
Equally impressive, Waltrip added, was how the pandemic also prompted the sport to try new things that it otherwise might never have done.
“There were a lot of things we learned because of the pandemic,” Waltrip said. “We learned we don’t have to have practice. And I haven’t noticed any effect on the races or in the quality of the races because we don’t have practice. The races are actually better, in my opinion, without practice.”
“We were spending way too much time at-track, showing up on Thursday and being there Friday, Saturday, Sunday, go home and then right back to the track again the next week. So we learned how to condense the schedule without all the practice.”
Waltrip also likes how the schedule has evolved.
“I’ve always said that the thing that needed the most attention was the schedule, and again, because of the pandemic, NASCAR took a hard look at it,” he said.
“I think we’re going to learn a lot about who we are, and how we do business. And it was because we were forced into it. Had we not been forced into doing some of the things we’re doing, I’m not sure we’d ever have done them. But because we have been forced into it. I think we’re learning a lot and I think it’ll really help us down the road. So I’m anxious to see where we go in the years to come.”
The Darrell Waltrip file:
* Age: 74
* Hometown: Owensboro, Ky. Has lived in suburban Nashville for more than three decades.
* NASCAR Cup career: 809 starts, 84 wins (tied for fourth on the all-time Cup wins list), 390 top-10 finishes (nearly half of his overall starts), three Cup championships (1981, 1982 and 1985)
* NASCAR Xfinity career: 95 starts, 13 wins, 53 top-10 finishes (more than half of his overall starts)
* Best NASCAR season: 1981 (31 starts, 12 wins, 21 top-five, 25 top-10 finishes, earned his first of three Cup championships)
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski, his @TheRacingBeat podcasts and his email newsletter, TheRacingBeat.substack.com.