The other day I called Darrell Waltrip to get a quote or two about James Hylton, a 78-year-old driver about whom I’m writing an "American Profile" feature.
DW provided a wealth of words – as he has for the past 40 years that I’ve been covering him.
Darrell provided an amusing anecdote about an encounter with Hylton back in the late 1960s when DW was moving up from Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway to NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup) Series.
Darrell wanted to keep his No. 48. However, Hylton had the number in the Grand National series and refused to give it up.
“Hard-headed as usual,” joked Waltrip.
When I told Hylton what he said, he laughed and agreed.
Their paths crossed again in 1972 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Waltrip was dominating the Talladega 500 when his engine expired, opening the door for Hylton’s biggest career victory.
“If I had to lose,” Darrell reflected, “I’d rather lose to James than anyone else. He’s paid a lot of dues in this sport.”
When the subject is racing, nobody can put it into words better than Waltrip, now in his 13th season as a Fox Sports commentator.
When Darrell hung up his helmet at the end of the 2000 season to pursue his “second career” as a broadcaster, I predicted that he would become the best ever – the John Madden of NASCAR – as influential in the booth as he had been on the racetrack.
I believe the results support that proposition. Waltrip, at 66, has become the face and the voice of NASCAR.
During his three decades as driver Waltrip won three championships and 84 races, tying him with Bobby Allison for fourth behind Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon.
Darrell’s impact on the sport transcends his asphalt accomplishments.
His glory years coincided with television’s venture into the sport, and Waltrip has a made-for-TV personality.
Back then, Richard Petty had the most fans but I think Darrell appealed more to the new TV audience who weren’t necessarily hardcore motor-freaks with Southern allegiances.
Waltrip looked, talked and acted more like a suburban golf pro than a stereotypical stock car racer.
He was (and is) articulate, brash and witty, and, as someone noted at the time, “he never met a TV camera he didn’t like.”
He was the ideal person to escort NASCAR into mainstream America’s living rooms.
He continues to play a similar role as a TV commentator. He doesn’t just talk to gear-heads, explaining why a sway bar is important to a race car – he brings the human element to the discussion.
He discusses personalities and passions.
Not all viewers are DW fans, of course, just as they weren’t all fans of his driving.
Detractors say he gabs too much, that he’s too self-promoting, that he’s too this and too that.
Some of that may be true to an extent.
But he’s also informative and entertaining, and that’s a hard combination to beat.
In his personal life Darrell is an inspiration, deeply involved in various charities and spiritual outreach (he and wife Stevie inspired NASCAR’s racetrack chapel services.) He has a generous heart.
I’ve covered DW for 40 years, and over that time he’s provided reams of great stories.
More than that, he’s been a great friend.
Yesterday Waltrip was one of the sport’s greatest drivers, and today’s he’s arguably its greatest good-will ambassador.
Just because he parked his race car doesn’t mean he slowed down.
DW still has a knack for yak.