He drives with his mouth slightly open and his head cocked to the right. That's to fight off the centrifugal demons that come leaning on you at 195 mph or so on a banked racetrack. During pit stops, with his Grand National stock car perched up on a jack, he stares straight ahead, stone-faced, while his crew tips and shakes the racer violently and slams it back down. Ah, but then, as each race nears its end—usually he's within striking distance of winning—Darrell Waltrip starts talking to his car.
Nobody's supposed to know this. Now how in the world could anyone know this; a pack of stock cars at full blast rumbles like the inside of an avalanche. But one time Waltrip accidentally left the switch open on the radio mike hooked up to his crash helmet, and that gave it away. Ordinarily, there's a stern rule on Waltrip's crew: Absolutely no talking on the radio unless one has something pertinent to say—like perhaps pointing out that there's an 11-car smashup in the turn ahead. But this one time, the crew suddenly found itself listening to Waltrip sounding off.
Nothing obscene, mind you—though at a time like this a few cusswords would be understandable. As we tune in, Waltrip is rampaging down the back straight at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, tightly strapped into what looks like a sure-enough 1984 Chevy SS Monte Carlo, hitting 200 mph, easy. "O.K., let's all settle down now," he says, addressing the gauges on the dashboard, particularly the red needle of the tachometer, which is trembling slightly at 7.700 rpm. A reading like this in top gear means that he's using, say, [15/16] of everything the car's got to give him. And then, cutting through the traffic—all four wheels slipping slightly, making the car drift up high in Turn 4—he speaks firmly to the chassis: "Don't push," he says. "Come on. baby. Thaaaat's it. Be calm."
He talks his way right across the finish line as the race ends in a blur of motion. Waltrip rolls to his pit, flicks the toggle switch labeled KILL, and sits back and grins. His teeth are startlingly white in a rugged face that glistens at this moment with sweat and beads of oil tracking through a recently applied patina of tire dust. Another victory for Waltrip? Nope—and this tells you something about the way he races. In the 182nd lap of the 334-lap race he had crashed into the spinning car of Ken Ragan. The left front fender of Waltrip's car had to be torched off and its suspension rebuilt, and though he was 64 laps down to the leader when he got back into the race, there he was scufflin' and scratchin' to the end. Someone leans in and says, "Ah swear, Day-rull, you coulda throwed a blanket over them five cars at the finish, they was that close." Waltrip nods, knowing this kind of thing all too well. And after climbing out the window (stock cars have only pretend doors; in fact, they're only pretend "stock" cars), he goes through the familiar ritual that perhaps tells as much about him as anything he ever says aloud: He turns and for one long moment looks fondly back over his shoulder at his car, the same way old Tristan must have looked at Isolde. An hour or so later, sprawling in the back of the team's big red tractor-trailer provided by its principal sponsor, Budweiser, with a can of cold beer in one hand and honest-to-god boa constrictor cowboy boots on his feet, he allows, "Lord, I flat love all of this. Everything happens at the end of a race, and that's the best part. I mean, winning is one thing, but winning a race just right, at the end—that's the ultimate sting."
Waltrip lives for those stinging moments, and he has been rewarded with 64 of them, making him the winningest NASCAR driver of the past 10 years. He has been racing since the age of 12 when he was a rambunctious go-karter on supermarket parking lots and has spent all of his adult life with the pedal to the metal. He often snaps at the NASCAR hand that feeds him; it's a wonder there are any fingers left among officials in the sport. He relaxes maybe every Monday about lunchtime and then starts getting excited again about the next weekend's race.
Three quick views from different directions:
"Darrell's got brains and bravery in that order," says Jeff Hammond, Waltrip's crew chief of four years. "And sometimes, when it truly counts in a race, he's been known to reverse them two."
Says Darlene Puckett, an awesomely vivacious blonde in the marketing department at Charlotte Motor Speedway, "The women all just loooove him, because he's so handsome and all."
Aw, that stuffs true, all right, says Waltrip's father, LeRoy, but what also counts is that "Darrell's just a big ol' pussycat. That boy doesn't have a mean, bad bone in his body."
All three are fair enough assessments, but there's considerably more to consider in the life and fast times of Darrell Lee Waltrip, 6'1". 190 pounds, roguishly good-looking, a stand-up comic and nothing if not outspoken. He didn't plan it this way, but here he is at 37, caught up in contradictions: loved by fans, hated by fans; sometimes misunderstood and at other times understood all too well—and always at the center of a NASCAR storm.