Three-quarters of the way through dinner, Waltrip does his version of Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau. A pity Sellers isn't alive to hear it: There's nothing in this world quite like Clouseau with a Kentucky-Tennessee accent. Waltrip is shaking his leg, as if he has a pit bull hanging off his calf. "Ah thawt yew said yawr dawg didn't bite," Waltrip says, looking appropriately offended. Then he pauses and delivers the punch line. "But...but that's not mah dawg." The place breaks up.
In these relaxed moments Waltrip reveals a side few see. What comes through most often is the lippy competitor, and that's not hard to understand. Waltrip has been talking a blue streak and trying to win races from the time he was this high. "It's worse than that," LeRoy says. "I mean, Darrell was competitive from the first day he could walk."
That was in Owensboro, Ky. Darrell was the oldest of five children, three boys and two girls. The year he turned 12, he discovered go-karts, along with the fact that folks actually raced them—and before anybody realized quite what was happening, he was hammering the other kids. "There's nothing quite like a go-kart," Waltrip says, "to teach you the fundamentals of racing. It taught me everything I still use today."
Waltrip moved up to a '36 Chevy straight six and the bullrings, those quarter-mile dirt tracks dotted around the southland. At the same time, fittingly, he became a whiz on another kind of track, setting the Kentucky high school 880 record in 1964. "Actually, it was pretty easy," Waltrip says. "See, before the start of the race, somebody threw me a hubcap and hollered, 'Here come the cops!' and I just took off. I did it in 2:02.04."
It was in 1968 that Waltrip met Stephanie Rader—Stevie. "She had a brand-new Olds 442. You know, four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission and two tailpipes—that's why it was called a 442," Waltrip says. "Imagine it, this really cute girl who couldn't drive a lick, and she had this super car. And there I was with a '53 Ford flathead." Thus is true love born: They were married less than a year later. Stevie has learned enough about driving and racing to work on Darrell's crew from time to time, keeping the lap charts.
The Waltrips live in a huge new house not far from Nashville in Franklin, Tenn., complete with barn, swimming pool and two sinfully pampered bassets. There's also a cat named Tigger. Not too long ago, Darrell accidentally ran over Tigger with the family Honda. But the cat graciously forgave him—in spite of the fact that he still walks a little sideways—which also says a lot about Waltrip's winning ways.
If someone were to do a movie on Waltrip's career, it would no doubt show a succession of steady racing advances—on to paved asphalt tracks, the Sportsman class and, at last, the Grand National circuit. None of it was exactly easy: At one time early on, he owed Stevie's dad $125,000 for backing him, and as recently as two years ago he felt uncomfortable in a five-year contract with an outfit called DiGard. Waltrip came up with $225,000 of his own and borrowed another $100,000 to buy his way out. Other drivers would have given an arm and a leg to get the same deal Waltrip escaped—after all, he had just won the second of his two titles when he went into hock to jump ship.
But now, glory be, Waltrip drives for the foxy old master himself, Junior Johnson, and Budweiser's big bucks. In late 1982, Johnson sold a half interest in his racing operation to a California tycoon named Warner Hodgdon, and now there are two Budweiser Chevys, the other driven by Neil Bonnett. The cars are both prepared by Johnson and are matching images; that is, they look alike and they sound alike. But Bonnett has not won a race this year and is eighth in the points race—a condition that clearly irritates the hell out of Hodgdon. Junior just shrugs.
This situation, too, may end one day: Two-car teams rarely fare well in NASCAR—even the Pettys gave up on the idea, and they had been putting father Richard in one car and son Kyle in another. Waltrip and Bonnett aren't quite father and son, but they get along fine. Still, Waltrip just isn't equipped with the diplomacy it takes in a two-car setup over the long haul. But no matter. He's in a spot now where he can sidestep in most any direction he wants to go. At last.
Says Waltrip. "We're all sort of one big family in this sport. Sometimes we snap at each other a bit, you know, but we're all working for the same thing. I mean, I figure I owe the fans a win because they've put so much into the sport. The other drivers do, too, but there's a small difference." He pauses. "With me, man, I hate to lose."