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"All it will take to retire a Pearson or even a Petty is a couple of bad years," he says. "Or maybe even one bad year. I can't see them hanging around and enduring a loss of prestige. I think racing dictates that, at their age, you've got to win or you've got to get out, and they should know when it's time to get out."
"You can tell everyone in the world you're the smartest and the fastest, but they ain't gonna believe you unless you can prove it," says Waltrip. It is a dilemma that frustrates him, because Waltrip figures he is the smartest and the fastest driver going, but he still hasn't proved it. He has a lot of faith in himself, so much so that he also seems to recognize that unless you can prove it, chances are you ain't it.
In 1973 Lennie Pond edged Waltrip for Rookie of the Year, and Waltrip felt robbed. "I would have liked to get Rookie of the Year," he says. "It would have been another thorn in my crown." ( Waltrip frequently confuses things like thorns and crowns with feathers and caps. There's no telling what an eager psychiatrist might do with that particular malapropism.) " NASCAR gave it to Lennie because he was a good boy and I was 'outspoken.' "
NASCAR officials still think of Waltrip as outspoken, and some of the other drivers think he is cocky. But it's the same thing; they just have different words for it. Waltrip thinks he's misunderstood.
"I've never said anything about myself or anybody else that I didn't think was true," he says. "I just say things everybody else knows but won't say. My 'cockiness' is just that I won't deny things everybody knows."
The crux, of course, is whether what Waltrip says is what everyone else knows. Still, his candor is needed around stock-car racing, whether NASCAR welcomes it or not. One of the biggest reasons it takes so long to make it in Grand National racing is that NASCAR makes young drivers pay their dues. Officials deliberately make it rough on newcomers—but they try to stop short of making it so rough that newcomers don't come back. The means are many. Most apparent is NASCAR's technical inspection system: you can't race unless you have a legal car, and what constitutes "legal" is at the sole discretion of NASCAR. Consequently, NASCAR can keep its drivers in line by inconsistent enforcement of rules that are subject to interpretation. And the rulebook is notoriously vague, which makes for a lot of judgment calls, many of which go against young drivers. Particularly, an outspoken young driver. More subtly, NASCAR also has a powerful influence over sponsors, the sugar daddies of all racers, but especially of young ones with reputations still to be made. The initiation rite is tough, and when NASCAR sees a driver has the talent to be around a few years, it can just about make sure he has the "right" attitude. "Darrell's problem is he just doesn't know his place," says a man close to NASCAR officialdom.
"They want to put a little fear in the new guy," says Waltrip. "It's like prison: when you stop bucking the system, they ease up. Pretty soon they let you get away with candy in your cell. But it's always their ball game. They only ease up when they want to. If you play by their rules and do everything the way they want you to, you'll never be in trouble."
Waltrip has the system pegged perfectly, and he is one of the few drivers who have called it. Says NASCAR's competition director, Bill Gazaway, a man Waltrip irreverently calls the Great White Father of the Garage, "I'm jes' as nice to these boys as they'll let me be."
However despotic the system may seem, one thing cannot be argued: it works. NASCAR racing is the most competitive—i.e., exciting—automobile racing in the world. When a race has 63 lead changes, as did the Winston 500 won by Waltrip in May, and a multi-car sprint to the finish line on the final lap, as happens more often than not in NASCAR races, the lack of democracy in the ranks somehow seems validated.