NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip has shifted his success on the track into a second career in the TV booth “” and he’s having the time of his life.
By Lazelle D. Jones
To racing fans, Darrell Waltrip is an American icon, a modern-day folk hero, and a three-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion. And now, Darrell Waltrip, or DW as he’s known to friends and fans, has become a TV celebrity. Now in his fourth year, on race weekends from February to July, Waltrip provides expert analysis and interesting observations to FOX Television’s broadcasts of NASCAR Busch and Nextel Cup (formerly Winston Cup) races. As the popularity of stock car racing has escalated in recent years, Waltrip has stepped in to become the perfect personality to provide insight during these races.
Waltrip brings to the booth a vast knowledge of racing history, nearly 30 years of on-track experience, and an affable style that has endeared him to millions of viewers. The colorful stories and the good-old-boy dialogue that lace every telecast, and the fact that he’s accepted across America as being a “regular guy,” have catapulted him from the driver’s seat to near stardom. And the fact that he’s been a dyed-in-the-wool motorhome enthusiast for the past 15 years makes Waltrip a perfect candidate for prime time in FMC.
During his racing days, which included 84 Winston Cup victories (tied for third all-time) and three championship titles, Waltrip was one of NASCAR’s best racers. He also was one of its brashest when interviewed by reporters, creating a stir among fans and other drivers for his quick wit, interesting use of the English language, and proclivity for speaking his mind. At one point Cale Yarborough “” a fierce competitor who won three straight Winston Cup titles in the 1970s and 83 races during his career “” had heard so much from the up-and-coming Waltrip that he nicknamed him “Jaws.”
Several years ago when I visited Karl and Alice Blade, the owners of Newell Coach Corporation, from whom Waltrip has purchased several motorhomes, Alice recalled a quip Waltrip made during a Winston Cup race he was broadcasting. She recalled that as one car screamed past another on the racetrack, Darrell commented that the faster of the two cars “had just pulled a Linda Ronstadt.”
Larry McReynolds, his TV partner, took the bait, asking, “Okay, DW, what is a Linda Ronstadt?”
Waltrip responded by singing in an offkey tone, “He blew by you,” to the tune of Ronstadt’s 1977 hit song “Blue Bayou.” Corny? Yes. But a classic slice of Waltrip humor.
Waltrip’s glib style also has spawned a phrase he’s now renowned for using at the start of every NASCAR race that is televised on FOX: “Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!”
Inside his motorhome prior to the 2003 Auto Parts 500 at the California Speedway in Fontana, California, Waltrip talked about how he got started in racing; what prompted him to make the transition from the racetrack to the broadcast booth; and his affinity for motorhoming, among other topics. Just as he is on TV, Waltrip turned out to be earthy, charming, and just plain fun to talk to.
FMC: You made your Winston Cup debut at Talladega Superspeedway in 1972, but you began racing many years before that. What are your earliest recollections about racing?
DW: I grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky. I was 6 when my grandma started taking me to the local speedway on weekends. My grandpa was the deputy sheriff, and while he was busy directing traffic at the speedway, I kept my grandma company. Those are my earliest recollections about racing. Since then racing has been an integral part in my life. I knew then that I wanted to be a race car driver.
I started racing go-karts when I was 12. When I was 16 some friends gave me a tryout and I flew around the track. I was a lot quicker than the man who had been driving the car, so they gave me the ride. Then Dad and I built my first car, a 1936 Chevrolet Coupe. It had “Wild Child” painted on the side, because I was only 16 years old. I raced that coupe several times and pretty soon people began to say, “Put that kid in a good car and he’ll be tough to beat.” Well, I got a chance to drive a good car and the first year I drove it I won 14 out of 18 races. I’ve been racing ever since.
FMC: You retired from racing following the 2000 season. When you did, you made what appears to be a totally natural transition into the broadcast booth. Tell our readers about that.
DW: I was very fortunate. I didn’t quit driving because I couldn’t drive any longer or wasn’t capable of being competitive. I quit driving because there were no teams that wanted to invest in an older driver who was 52 years old. And even though I had a lot of experience and I felt I had a lot to offer a team, the youth movement had hit the sport. There just wasn’t any place for a three-time Winston Cup champion with 84 Winston Cup victories to go.
I started worrying about what I was going to do. I didn’t want to just walk away from this sport. My vision was to own my own team and stay in this sport as a car owner. But the sponsors didn’t come through the way they were supposed to, and it ended up costing me some money. I know how teams operate. If you give them a million dollars they’ll spend it. If you give them 10 million dollars they’ll spend that, too. I knew I’d go down that road if I stayed as a car owner, so I sold the team.
About the same time Mr. Bill France Jr. (chairman of NASCAR) came to me and said, “How much longer are you going to keep messing around, driving these race cars? You need to get out of that car. We’re getting ready to put together a TV deal and telecasting NASCAR events is what you’ve been groomed for. That’s where we need you. We don’t need you out there on the racetrack anymore. We need you in the TV booth.”
Well, I took his advice, and after meeting with the people at FOX Sports, I knew it was the thing to do. In 2001 I started that gig, and it’s the best thing I’ve done in a long, long time. I still get to be at the track. I get to go in the garage area. I get to hang out and be with the drivers and teams. I get to stay in the driver’s/owner’s motorhome compound with the families and friends I’ve had all my life.
Now I’ve got the best of all worlds. My wife [Stevie] doesn’t have to worry about how I’m going to do and if everything is going to turn out all right. Now that I’m with FOX Sports, my wife and I have put all of that behind us. It’s freed us up in a lot of ways. I work half a year and then I’m off. I get to spend time with Stevie and our two daughters [Sarah, 11, and Jessica, 16], who are at an age when they really need to have their dad around.
When I was driving, my wife and daughters traveled every week with me. My girls were going to races when they were 2 weeks old. For 30 years my wife sat on a toolbox in the garage area and along pit road, watching me go around the track. She dedicated a big part of her life to what I love. She’s stuck by me through thick and thin. She’s done more than her share. Now that I’m televising the races my two girls are happy, because they no longer have to spend every weekend in the driver’s [motorhome] compound, and my wife is happy because she doesn’t have to sit on a toolbox anymore.
FMC: Through three years of televising NASCAR events, what have been some of the most poignant moments?
DW: My TV career started off in an unbelievable way. Our [FOX’s] first race was the 2001 Daytona 500, and I was down there doing my first telecast. My brother, Michael, had just signed on to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and he was excited. We’d been talking all winter long about how if he was going to win a race, this was an excellent opportunity. Mike had a great car, a great team. Earnhardt had given him everything he needed. I told him he needed to win his first Daytona 500 while I was doing my first telecast. That would be really cool.
When we got to Daytona, Mike and his car were really good. As we got down to the end of the Daytona 500 and it looked like Mike was going to win the race, which he did, that was a dream come true for both him and me. I’m televising the biggest race of my life. Mike was winning the biggest race of his life and the biggest race of our sport. He was coming to the line to take the checkered flag when Dale Earnhardt turned off in Turn 4, and you know the rest [Earnhardt died in the crash]. It was an incredible beginning to my new career. It was baptism by fire. Those were the best and the worst things that could possibly happen and they happened in the matter of a few seconds. One minute I was going to Victory Circle with my brother. The next I was on my way to the hospital to see how my friend was.
FMC: You’ve used a motorhome for many years. Give us some history on that.
DW: When our first daughter was born in 1987, I rented an entertainer’s bus to take to Daytona. When the bus driver showed up with the coach, we went inside it to check it out. It was dark like a dungeon. It had a couch and a table up front, a small kitchen area, and in the back were 12 bunk beds and a small bedroom. Stevie didn’t like it at all. It wasn’t light and comfortable like the coach we have today. When we got home, she said, “I don’t ever want to do that again.” However, I really liked the convenience of it. I liked being able to walk out of the garage and be where I was going to sleep and eat and then race. I told Stevie that I was going to pursue this a little bit further.
We used a small motorhome for a couple of years, then one day somebody showed up at the speedway with a Newell Coach and I thought, man that’s the way to go. So I got the name and number of Newell Coach and bought my first one in 1992. I’ve had a Newell Coach ever since. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing any better.
Some of my best memories at the track have been in my Newell. I could live in this thing all the time. I’ve got everything here I need. It’s got all of the amenities of an apartment in New York. I can walk to the garage area, come back in the evening and cook, watch TV, enjoy friends, and I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to beat traffic to the track. And they continue to improve these coaches. First they had no slideouts. Then they had a slideout and then two slideouts. I’ve just ordered my fifth Newell Coach and it will have four slideouts.
FMC: We’ve saved the most important question for last. Give our readers the origin of the three most famous words in racing: “Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!”
DW: At FOX we try to think outside the box, in a way that’s fun and entertaining. And because I’ve been in it for so long, as have [former crew chiefs] Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond, who are in the booth with me, or in the “Hollywood Hotel” on the infield televising the races, we know when to have fun, when to cut up, when to pick on somebody, and when to shut up and be serious. My brother Michael is always kidding me about how I am “old school.” Whenever I give him advice he says, “Oh, that’s old school. We don’t do it that way no more.”
Anyway, we were at a Winston Cup race in Bristol or Darlington, places where I get really pumped up at the start of the race. Watching the cars come around to take the green flag to start the race, my hands were sweating. My heart was pounding. I’ve been there and done that as a driver and I know how nervous they are until the green flag drops. Some people try to show the excitement of the moment by saying, “Green! Green! Green!” or “Go! Go! Go!” as the green flag drops, but that ain’t what this is all about. This is all about going down to the start line, “Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!” Those words just popped out. Little did I know it was going to take on a life of its own.
The first time I said it I didn’t think anything about it. Then the next week [FOX race announcer] Mike Joy looked at me in the telecast booth and said, “That boogity thing you said was pretty cool. You ought to do it again.” So I did it again and the first thing we knew it became a mandate, something I have to do. We can’t start a race unless I do it. It was one of those things. It just flew out of my mouth one day.
When I was growing up back in the 1960s we would talk about cars. If a car was fast we would say, “that car could really boogie.” I guess that boogity is a derivative of the word boogie. I’m not sure where I got it. All I know is that it just flew out of my mouth.