Athlon Sports sits down with one of the sport's legends who now serves as its voice
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
When the 2005 Nextel Cup season kicks off at Daytona during Speedweeks, Fox Sports will be on hand to broadcast all of the action to NASCAR fans across the country.
That means that Darrell Waltrip, Mr. Boogity, Boogity, Boogity himself, will be back in fans’ homes each week sharing with them what he’s learned and seen in a long, legendary career in the sport. Waltrip doesn’t just analyze what he sees on the track during the Fox broadcasts, though. He’s one of the most thoughtful and, as he has been throughout his career, outspoken people there is about NASCAR and stock-car racing.
So we sat down and had a good, long talk with Ol’ DW about what’s going on, and what should be going on, in the sport he’s been so much a part of for so long.
Athlon Sports: There certainly have been major changes in the sport in the past year or so, with the new title sponsor, Nextel, the new Chase for the Nextel Cup system, schedule realignment and, coming up for 2005, another significant change in the rules package for Nextel Cup cars with shorter spoilers. In general, do you think NASCAR has done a good job in working through all of that?
Darrell Waltrip: Our (Fox’s) half of the season in 2004 was a nightmare with all of the changes that were going on — freezing the field and the lucky dog and so much going on. You had so much going on under the caution, thinking back to Dover and some of those races where half the race was run under the caution. It was hard trying to explain that to the people at home. As time went by, they got it smoothed out and things got better. You look at the Chase, I was certainly not a fan of the changes they made. But when the season was over with and you looked at what it did, I still don’t think it’s necessarily the right way to pick a champion, but it’s a great way to create some excitement on television.
When I look back at my career, I talk about the “modern era.” That’s how I judge my career. Twenty years from now, when we look back at what they did with the changes to the format, we’ll talk about this era. Last year was not the closest championship, in my opinion, in NASCAR history because it was done under a totally different format.
I know Brian France is steering the ship, he’s at the head of it so he gets the good news and the bad news. But I think the Chase format had a lot more people involved in it than just Brian waking up one morning and saying, “Here’s what I am going to do.” I have to think NBC had a whole lot of input into what they thought would make it exciting. They did make a lot of changes and we got through 2004 with it being a pretty successful year. I think any time you make changes and look back and say, “Well, we made all of the changes and gained more than we lost,” that’s good.
AS: So you were not sold on the Chase format from the start and still aren’t a big fan of it?
DW: I am never going to be happy, personally, until the guy who wins the most races wins the Championship. I am just never going to be happy until that happens. I just think there’s still that premium on being consistent, and that’s important. But I think if I am a fan and I am sitting at home I want the guy who has won the most races to be the guy who should win the Championship. You win the most games in any other series that I am aware of, you’re more than likely going to win the Championship.
AS: Rockingham is gone, Darlington is down to one race and may not be able to hold on to that. Changes like that can be hard. Do you think they’re necessary?
DW: That is just progress. We’re in a performance business, and I don’t care what aspect of this sport you want to look at, you have to perform. If you’re going to racetracks that are not performing, not living up to standards of the other tracks, you have no choice. You have to move on. Every racetrack that has ever lost a date, dating back into ’70s, has lost it because it couldn’t keep up. I think the bar had to be raised, and it has to be raised more than once every 20 years. I think it has to be raised every year. There are some other racetracks out there that need to conform to some of what the newer tracks are doing.
Scheduling, races and dates, all of those things are the issue of the hour in my opinion. NASCAR makes a lot of rules regulating cars and procedures; it needs to make some rules that regulate tracks and pits and specifications of that nature. The burden shouldn’t always fall on the competitors and the car owners. The burden has to fall on some other shoulders occasionally.
AS: So are you saying that, for instance, at places like Daytona and Talladega, where NASCAR has tried all kinds of changes to rules governing the cars to slow them down and break up the big packs that seem so dangerous, changing those tracks should be an option that’s considered?
DW: There was a time in our sport when we needed extremely big, high-banked racetracks to make exciting racing, but we’re not there any more. We seem to need tracks that are smaller, not bigger.
I am not going to get my dog in a fight about whether we need to go to Daytona and Talladega. I do think there are some things they need to do to improve the racing at those places. I am not a fan of pack racing, and that’s what you have when you go there. I liked it better the way it used to be when we could draft and slingshot and make moves on people and not just block and switch around spots in the middle of the field. I don’t know what the answer to that one is. The restrictor plate is the most simple solution. It seems like we have to have a special car for every track — one for Daytona and Talladega and one for the road courses. I wish we could get down to where we just had one car for everywhere.
AS: What do you think of the idea of moving qualifying to Saturday at some tracks in 2005, then impounding the cars after that until the race?
DW: I don’t like that, because I don’t see benefit. I know what they say the benefit is. But what are those crews going to do all Saturday afternoon? They’re going to be there at the hotel, they’re going to be away from home just like they always were. You’re still there on Friday, which means you still have to get there Thursday night.
I don’t see where it saves anybody anything. The places they need it the most — Daytona and Talladega, where you spend a fortune trying to make two laps — they’re not going to do it. I would impound cars there before I would even think about doing it anywhere else. So you have more special rules and more special cars.
AS: The Chase produced a 26-year-old champion named Kurt Busch, and it seems that some fans aren’t quite sure what to make of him. What are your impressions of Busch and what kind of champion do you think he’ll make?
DW: My gut feeling is, based on what I’ve seen happen in the past, winning a Championship makes a difference in a person. It’s a really good wakeup call. I think it helped Tony Stewart. It helped me in 1981 when I won my first Championship. I saw that I had a different role to play. I had responsibilities that I didn’t have before, some of them were appointed to me and some I just took on my own. I think it helps you grow up. And I think people look at you a little bit differently and they’re willing to give you a second chance. What you do with that second chance will determine what kind of champion you will be.
I told Kurt Busch in New York, “Don’t change. Don’t start trying to be somebody you’re not. You’re a smart kid, you know where you’ve made mistakes and know what you’ve done wrong. Improve on those.” He can drive the wheels off a car. I said all during 2004 he could win every week, they had that kind of team and that kind of car. He has the driving part down and the team part down. That’s your platform. You let your driving do your talking.
AS: Busch has been forced to wear the “bad guy” label at times already in his career. You got saddled with that for at least parts of your career. Do you think it’d be harder to carry that kind of reputation now than it was back then, and how was it to have to deal with that everywhere you went?
DW: In my era, when I was in my prime, we didn’t even have television. I know it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but in the early 1980s there were very few races on from flag to flag. I had a different audience. The only people who were mad at me were the 30,000 who showed up at Bristol or maybe 10 or 15 drivers who liked me or didn’t like me. It was a whole different environment.
The world was different. Rivalries were big in every sport. You had Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, in golf you had Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, whatever it might have been. Sports were all about rivalries, like Earnhardt and me. But then somewhere along in the middle 1990s, the whole world changed. Everything had to be politically correct. You couldn’t say or do or act the way you used to. You had to act the way people wanted you to. You couldn’t be yourself. So from that point on, people had this prototype of what a guy’s supposed to act like and look like, and if you don’t live up to that, then they don’t like you.
AS: Was Jeff Gordon that prototype?
DW: You’ve got it. The racing world that we have known changed in 1992. That’s when most people think racing started. They don’t know anything before that, they only know after that. There’s AJ, and there’s BJ — after Jeff and before Jeff.
AS: With Busch being the third-youngest champion in the sport’s history, it raises the question about younger drivers playing such a prominent role in the sport the past couple of years. Do you buy into the line of thinking that young drivers bring younger fans into the sport, and will that change the structure of NASCAR in any way?
DW: One of the concerns that I would have if I were at the helm is losing the sport’s established stars, the guys who’ve been here for so long. There is a portion of that 150,000 people who are up there every weekend who come to see those guys race. Those guys bring in an audience that we need, just like young guys do. We obviously needed a youth movement because, as you can see, we’re losing all of our older drivers, the older stars. But I don’t like to see them all squeezed out at one time. I know in my last two or three years that I drove, people would not leave me alone. All I wanted to do was for people to leave me alone, I just wanted to have fun and enjoy it. I liked to race, I liked to be at the track. If I got lapped, big whoop. Give me my own personal little space here, and leave me alone. But people won’t do that. You set a standard and you have to live up to it, and when you don’t live up to it any more then you need to quit. That’s how people look at it.
It’s no fun just to be a part of the show, you want to be the show. But when you get to the point where you are just part of the show, in today’s racing environment, somebody’s going to be taking your place.
AS: Unquestionably, younger drivers are getting more opportunities earlier in their careers than ever before. What advice would you give to these 19- and 20-year-olds breaking into one of the top NASCAR series?
DW: The one word that never left any of us as drivers and is the one thing fans appreciate is respect. If drivers would just respect each other, respect the sport, and respect the people who’ve made it what it is, that will go a long way in my book.
I like young drivers, and that’s one thing I like about guys like Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler, any number of those guys, they call me DW, that’s what people know me as, but they also call me Mr. Waltrip. That shows a lot of respect.
What does a young guy have to do? He has to earn the respect of the old guys on and off the racetrack. You don’t have to pull over for them, but you have to race them clean and show them the proper respect. And the fans are the same way, respect the fans. Somebody had to build this, and it wasn’t you. It’s your job to maintain it, but somebody had to build it, and the guy who had to build it is the guy who had to work the hardest.
AS: Is there a driver out there today, aside from your brother, Michael, who reminds you of yourself?
DW: I guess at one time Jeff Gordon reminded me of myself, but now I think Kurt Busch does. I was arrogant and obnoxious and irreverent, and I guess in some people’s minds you could say the same things about Kurt. That’s why I think he’ll be OK (laughter).
AS: In the ESPN movie about Dale Earnhardt, you were portrayed as a rival and as somebody who didn’t have a very good relationship with him. How was your relationship with him, really?
DW: Dale and I spent a lot of time together in the early years. We worked out of his father-in-law Robert Gee’s shop, worked on cars together and messed around and we were really good buddies at that time because neither one of us had anything. I mean, I was broke and he was borrowing money from me.
But then, like all relationships, it changed. Bobby Allison loved me until I got to where I could beat him all of the time and he didn’t like me any more. That’s kind of like Dale and I were. Dale and I got along just fine because we were not in the same league. But once we got to be in the same league and where we were looking at each other eye-to-eye all of the time, there were things about each other that we didn’t like.
AS: You raced for years and years, but because of television do the fans seem to know you better now, or at least feel closer to you, than they ever did when you were competing?
DW: What I love about race fans, whether they’re mine or whoever they pull for, is that they only remember the good times. They don’t remember the bad times. That’s why, God love them, on your worst day they’re still right there beside you. You can finish 43rd and they will come up and say, “Man, DW, you had a heck of a day. Great job.” And they pat you on your back and send you on your way.
AS: You’ve been known to say that if somebody offered you the chance to run NASCAR for one day, the first thing you’d do is ask for more time because it’d take longer than that to fix what you think is wrong. If you had that chance, what would be the first changes you’d make?
DW: The biggest problem with the cars, as we all know, is they are too aero-dependent. That could be cured so easily. You could take the car they have right now and mandate a spring rule to where the cars would get up off the track. I mean, they look like vacuum cleaners going around the racetrack. Mandate a spring rule to get the cars up off the track and that would take away some of that aero dependency.
The cars are not mechanically dependent like they were in all the years I raced. It’s not about springs and shocks and swaybars, it’s more about getting the aero package. I think that’s what hurts racing. I think if we took off those sloopy noses they’ve got on them now — they look like snowplows — and get the things looking more like a street car I think you would see better racing. I wouldn’t reinvent the race car, I would just square it up some. The cars of the past had character lines, and off those lines is where you made your templates and everything else. The cars now are like footballs. The rounder they get, the harder they are to police. So I’d try to get the cars back more like they were in the early 1990s, and that’s easy to do.
That’s one thing I would do. And I would do everything in my power (and I know that there are some things that people don’t like about what I am going to say) I would try to make my schedule more friendly. Rather than crisscrossing the country all the time, if they want to save money and make the sport a little friendlier for the competitors, I would have a West Coast swing and I would have an East Coast swing. I would try to do it in a way where the teams wouldn’t have to have a truck meeting them in Memphis to take something out west and something back to the east.
I would limit the tires they use. There’s way too many pit stops. They want to slow down pit stops, but you don’t need to slow them down — we just need to have less of them. I would come up with a number like they have in the Busch Series and that’s the tires you’d have for the weekend. That would save the teams a lot of money.
One of my favorite quotes from the past, and I can’t even tell you who it was, but one of the car owners told NASCAR one time, “I can’t afford for y’all to save me any more money.” That’s a classic quote. One other thing I would do? No testing, and no wind tunnel testing unless NASCAR wants to take a series of cars to the wind tunnel to get some numbers off them. I would open the racetracks a day early for a day of practice. A team could run two cars or three cars, but at the end of the day whatever car you present for inspection, that’s your car for the weekend. Everybody gets there at the same time and we’re all there together. You don’t have cars running all over the country trying to find places to test.