Darrell Waltrip has been NASCAR's most conspicuous young lion for five years now, a situation that raises a few questions about both Waltrip and stock-car racing. The most obvious, of course, is just how long can a racer qualify as a "young" lion? After all, shouldn't five years and 123 Grand National races qualify him more as a middle-aged lion, even if he is only 30? Why hasn't a new young lion come along and replaced him? Where are the new young lions of stock-car racing?
The answer to all those questions lies in the fact that stock-car racing is a sport in which experience counts at least as much as talent. Look at the ages of the masters: Richard Petty, 40; David Pearson, 42; Bobby Allison, 39; Cale Yarborough, 38. Young lions don't come along every day, and when they do they usually don't last long. They come with dreams in their heads and leave with their IOUs in a lot of other pockets. Making it to young lionhood is easy; the hard part is going on.
"If a young driver is fast and brave and ambitious, he can make some quick progress in other types of racing," says Waltrip. "It just ain't that way in NASCAR. When I got into this thing, I made up my mind to ride the tide no matter what happened. For a few years it's nothing but hard work; the money's not there, the glamour's not there, and glory's not there." He drops his head and rubs the back of his neck. "This NASCAR racing is tough. I guess it's the toughest racing there is."
Waltrip drives for the Digard/ Gatorade team. He finished eighth in the point standings last year and won $191,501, about $40,000 of which he got to keep. He currently stands fourth in the 1977 points championship, and has won $205,193 in 25 races this year. His wins in Nashville, Darlington, Talladega, Michigan and North Wilkesboro are two more than his total number of victories before this year, and have led to an invitation to participate in the International Race of Champions series.
Waltrip first gained renown as a 25-year-old rookie in the 1972 Talladega 500 when, driving in only his fourth Grand National event, he led for seven laps. Then his engine blew. No one could recall a rookie leading a superspeedway race before. It took Waltrip three more years and 49 races to win his first NASCAR race on the five-eighths-mile oval at Nashville, his home track. It was a full-fledged Grand National, but "short tracks" carry less prestige and attract less attention than superspeedways despite the fact that a driver really has to work for his success on the tight ovals.
"Superspeedways—that's the important thing," Waltrip said, looking back on that win. "Major races—500-mile races. There have been some good race drivers who never won on a superspeedway. I certainly don't want that to happen to me. And I'm not talking about winning when everyone falls out. I'm talking about winning with guys like Petty second, Pearson third. Then you've won yourself a race."
About two years later Waltrip won himself a race. It was his first 500-mile victory, and it came at Darlington, the original superspeedway, a difficult 1.366-mile lopsided oval. If a driver can win at Darlington, he can win anywhere, it is often said. With six laps remaining in the Rebel 500, Waltrip was running up front in heavy company: Allison and Pearson just in front of him, Petty on his tail. As they drafted one another through Turn Two, there was a messy crash in Turn Four. The pit crews shouted warnings over the radios before the four drivers even saw the oily smoke. Pearson immediately lifted his foot, but Waltrip didn't; he realized the crash would effectively end the race because a yellow flag would be called and the cleanup crews couldn't possibly finish the job before the 500 miles had been run. This was suddenly the last lap. Petty saw the same opportunity. Both drivers blew past Pearson on the backstretch and headed full bore toward the thick of the trouble. As they reached the turn, Waltrip dived down across the track below Allison and squeezed through a hole; Allison stayed high, so close to the wall he scraped it. They split the wreckage while Petty followed Waltrip through the fourth turn. Waltrip beat Allison and Petty to the starting line by feet, and thus the other drivers, prevented by the rules from passing so long as the yellow caution flag stayed out, paraded behind Waltrip's Chevy for the remaining five laps. The hungry young lion had charged.
A month later Waltrip won the Winston 500 at Talladega in a similar manner, only without the confusion. On the last lap he fought off Yarborough, Benny Parsons and Donnie Allison. "There I was, out front with them three breathing down my collar," he says. "But when the four of us came down to the finish line, the kid came out first. I snookered 'em at Darlington, but I didn't snooker 'em at Talladega, I just outrun 'em."
Three days after the race Governor Ray B. Blanton proclaimed Darrell Waltrip Week in Tennessee. Waltrip grew up in Owensboro, Ky. but in 1970 moved to Franklin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, where he now lives with his wife Stevie, who has just received her B.S. in special education from Peabody University and expects soon to be teaching the visually handicapped.
Waltrip is at the head of a very short line to become the next superstar of stock-car racing and he is in a hurry. "I want to set some records," he says. "That's why I'd like to win some more races before those guys retire. Then people won't be able to say I couldn't beat 'em." On one hand, he wants to beat the superstars before they go; on the other, he wants them to go so he can be king sooner.