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"What I dislike is that so much is based on politics," says Waltrip. "But they're getting easier on me now, and I'm getting to dislike the system less and less now that I seem to be over the hump. I may not be showing it right now, but one thing I've learned is how to talk elusive."
The man who helped teach Waltrip how to "talk elusive," among other things, is J. C. Elder, Waltrip's first Grand National crew chief, now crew chief for Benny Parsons. He says, "I understand Darrell, because I'm high-strung like him. I knew how to approach him; I knew how to work him, which is like a racehorse.
"First race I took him to was Atlanta, only his second ever. He hadn't never even been to Atlanta. He didn't know how rough that place is. He said to me, 'This is gonna be fun,' and I told him, 'You run 500 miles first, and then you tell me how much fun it is.' The kid finished eighth, which was damn terrific for his second Grand National race."
"J.C. taught me pretty much everything I know about the game," says Waltrip. "He taught me about the racetracks, taught me how to wheel and deal with promoters, taught me how to cheat, which of course you have to do to stay competitive and everyone knows it. I was really fortunate to be able to take advantage of his knowledge. He was one of the reasons I was as successful as I was early on. He kept me from getting messed up. A lot of young drivers come to a superspeedway and are lost. They can't handle it. They don't know anything about setting a car up one way for qualifying and another way for racing. If you've never been there before, if you haven't got an experienced crew, it's so confusing, no way you can keep up. You end up driving so slow no one knows you're there, or end up in a wreck. But if you got a guy like J.C. telling you what's going on and bragging you up to people, you got an ace in the hole. Things progressed probably three times faster for me because of him."
Not many people understand Waltrip the way Elder does. Waltrip is not easy to work with because he is extremely sensitive about looking bad through no fault of his own. It is a trait that causes him as much grief as his outspokenness. As one might imagine, such treatment doesn't settle easily with a crew. It's a classic case of an intense performer demanding a lot from himself and as much from those he works with. Those who understand that like Waltrip; those who don't understand don't like him.
"People point the accusing finger at the driver," Waltrip says. "He's the one who's supposed to have it together. You hate it when your efforts are tarnished because someone lets you down. I hate being handicapped by other people."
The Digard team has a reputation for going through employees faster than any other team on the NASCAR circuit. Last year Waltrip publicly criticized his crew chief, Mario Rossi, and eventually got him fired. The man who replaced him, David Ifft, quit two days after Waltrip won at Talladega in May. Ifft's replacement, ex-driver Darel Dieringer, lasted three months. The current crew chief is Buddy Parrot.
Ifft, the best and longest-lasting—and, at 28, the youngest—of the bunch, did not quit because Waltrip is difficult, however. Ifft quit primarily because the pace and the pressure of the Digard team were something he could live without. Ifft is basically a country boy. He is now crew chief for 38-year-old rookie Sam Sommers and lives in the Georgia countryside near Savannah, in a house with a chicken under the porch. He also has a smile on his face a lot more often than he used to.
"Darrell's the next superspeedway star no matter what," says Ifft. "I never seen anyone with so much determination to win, and I've worked for guys like Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Parnelli Jones and Peter Revson. Darrell will step on anybody to win—and, don't get me wrong, I think that's good, at least in this game. He's a hot son of a gun when he loses, but if he ever stops squawking, you know he's not trying to win anymore."
"He's got a light temper, all right—like me," says Elder. "He wants to run in the front bad, but Darrell don't quite always understand the circumstances why he's not running in front. That's when he flies off the handle and throws those temper tantrums."