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It's about time.
Racing is all about time. It can't be described any easier. Finish a certain distance-300 miles, whatever the distance-in less time than everyone else. If you can do that, you win. It's as simple as that.
But the truth is, it's anything but simple. Racing is like a world-title chess match or high-stakes poker game taking place at warp speed, and the stopwatch never lies.
When racers talk about a good lap, we rarely talk about miles per hour or top speed. While the fans might be impressed when they hear 200 miles per hour, to a racer that number really doesn't mean a lot, because no matter what, it's all about the stopwatch. Everything a team does is focused on one thing: getting around the track in less time than anyone else.
The stopwatch is great, because it doesn't take anything into consideration. It doesn't care about big egos or how nice a car may have looked in the garage. If something doesn't make the car go quicker around the track, it's worthless. Improving one-tenth of a second per lap can be huge. It might mean the difference between winning and finishing at the back of the pack. It can mean the difference between a horrible crash and sliding past untouched. You can say "in the blink of an eye," but a normal blink takes about three-tenths of a second. In racing, that's an eternity. And that's way too long.
When I look at my life on and off the track, the same thought keeps coming back to me: timing. It defined what I did as a race car driver, but I've also been blessed with great timing all my life (well, most of my life, anyway).
So many things outside of my control fell into place at just the right moment that much of my own good fortune has been about being in the right place at the right time. It's been about getting opportunity after opportunity, and taking advantage of what was available when it was available. Some say it was luck, but I've always been told luck is when your hard work and effort successfully collide. So in the end, you make your own luck.
I grew up watching races with my grandmother, but racing was something I always enjoyed with my whole family. My dad and I raced go-karts on the weekends, and my family came to the track and we always had a great time.
The 1960s were a great time for cars in this country. America has always been car-crazy, but my coming of age coincided perfectly with the "golden era of muscle cars." There were great, American-made monster machines everywhere. And there were no worries about gas shortages or oil embargoes. The louder, the faster, the better was all that mattered.
When I was 16 years old, my dad and I put together my own race car-a 1936 Chevy coupe. "The Wild Child" was painted on the side. The first night out, at a little dirt track in Newman, Kentucky, I was so excited about driving my own race car. Problem was, I didn't know what I was doing on a dirt track, because all I'd ever driven was a go-kart. I didn't realize there was a "slide factor" on dirt. I probably held that accelerator pedal to the floor until the moment I slid right into the wall. Smashed that sucker bad. The Wild Child didn't even make a full lap. My first night was smashing, not a smashing success. I thought my career was over before it had even begun. But in typical Waltrip fashion, Dad and I took the car home and beat it back into shape with a hammer. We returned the next week with a better attitude and better results.
It didn't take us long to realize that we didn't have the finances to keep our own car going. Luckily, there were some guys in my hometown of Owensboro who had a fast race car, and they offered me a tryout. I had learned how to drive smoothly on asphalt in karts, and I soon discovered I could do the same in a full-size race car. I made the most of that chance and got the ride. I was in the right place at the right time, and it was a stepping-stone to bigger things.
P. B. Crowell was one of the best racers in the area then, and he was always helpful to me. When P. B. hurt his back in a crash at Nashville and needed someone to drive his car, he gave me a call. I was there, ready to go and seize another opportunity.
Speaking of opportunities, when Stevie and I were dating, her parents wanted her to go to Southern Methodist University. I knew that if she left for SMU, I might never get her back. So before she could go I asked her to marry me. I must have had the right timing, because she said "Yes" and has been with me ever since.
One night at a cocktail party, the chairman of the board of Texas Gas, where my father-in-law was the president, asked, "What would it take to sponsor a race car at Daytona?" He was a man who could write a check to make it happen, so that question was music to my ears.
Timing was everything, because when I came into Winston Cup, there were no other new or young faces showing up on the scene. I was anywhere from 10 to 15 years younger than the big stars like Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, and David Pearson. As they were nearing the end of their careers, I was starting mine. I looked at them and said, "You know, time is on my side. I'm not scared of those cats. I guarantee I can wear 'em out." I thought, "When they're gone, I'll still be here." (Of course, the thing I didn't realize is that when I got older, there were going to be a lot of young guys saying the same thing about me!)
Man, I looked at Winston Cup and all I could see were opportunities and possibilities. I wanted to shout "I've arrived!" I wanted to make an impression.
I'd come to the track, and I'd see these guys in cowboy boots and big ol' belt buckles and chewin' tobacco (and there's not anything wrong with that), but I thought, "What is this?! This is supposed to be the big leagues!" I wasn't GQ, but I looked at how they dressed and I thought, "Man, the direction this sport is going, with corporate America starting to pay attention, I can blow these guys off the track. All I gotta do is show up in a polo shirt, slacks, and a pair of loafers, and talk with something other than a slow southern drawl.... Heck, I'm gonna be something new and improved."
Everywhere I looked: opportunity.
In 1972, NASCAR entered what's been called "the modern era." R. J. Reynolds with its Winston brand of cigarettes came on board as the series sponsor, and they brought well-conceived, coordinated ideas about how to market and promote the sport to a national audience. Best of all, they had the cash to make it happen and introduce Winston Cup to more than a southern audience. The government had banned cigarette advertising on television, so suddenly the tobacco companies had all of this money they needed to spend elsewhere. Winston chose NASCAR, and a great partnership evolved, helping make the sport what it is today.
It was new, almost as if they wiped the slate clean, and here I was about to start my career. Bill France Jr. had just taken over from his father, "Big Bill" France, who had ruled with an iron hand since founding NASCAR in 1949. It was perfect timing for me to make my Winston Cup debut.
When cable television came along, they needed to fill those channels 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A little sports network named ESPN began televising NASCAR races live in the early 1980s, when I was in the prime of my career. In 1981, '82, and '83, I won most of the races and two championships, and ESPN was right there, showing races live across the nation. Now, even if you lived somewhere other than Daytona, Talladega, or Darlington, you could become a Darrell Waltrip fan in your living room. Again, it was perfect timing.
Cale Yarborough won three straight championships for car owner Junior Johnson from 1976 through 1978. Junior is like a folk hero in our sport-the last of the original bootleggers who took their "liquor cars" and started racing them on small tracks in the South. Don't let his backwoods, aw-shucks accent fool you: Junior is a brilliant guy, and this sport would be nowhere near what it is today without people like him.
When Cale decided the time was right for him to quit driving for Junior Johnson, he told me Junior was interested in me, and if I was smart, I'd figure a way to get the ride. I was miserable on the team I was with, and all of a sudden, Junior Johnson wanted me to drive his car. I was able to get out of my contract and go to work with the greatest car owner of the era. Junior taught me how to win more than just races-he taught me how to win championships. With Junior as my team owner, I won Winston Cup titles in 1981, 1982, and 1985.
When NASCAR said "We're gonna take our awards banquet to New York," you can guess who was the first guy who sat at the head table. Me! Yeah, perfect timing. NASCAR moved its postseason banquet from the little Plaza Hotel in Daytona to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1981. I was the first champion to be honored in New York City, and it was big time!
The Winston, NASCAR's all-star race, was created in 1985. I won't even give you three guesses about who won the first one. They're still talking about that one, because the engine in my car exploded as soon as I crossed the finish line. I'll tell you the rest of that story a little later. As I mentioned in the introduction, there's always an "oh, by the way" to every story.
The examples of great timing in my life are almost endless. Many of the stories behind the stories are in the following pages. Stories about how I signed to drive for Rick Hendrick, who is still one of my closest friends and the man who taught me about the business of racing. Stories about how I decided to leave Hendrick to start my own team, how I signed a deal with Western Auto as a sponsor, even though I was hurt so badly from a crash at Daytona that I couldn't stand up or move out from behind my desk. They said "Yes," and we were off and running.
I retired as a full-time driver in 2000, and I stepped right into the TV booth in 2001 when FOX TV began its network contract to televise NASCAR races. Timing is everything, because I went from one perfect job to another.
I look back at all of it and I think how fortunate I am. Whatever it took, I was doing the right things at the right time. And I had a good time doing it. And that's an important thing. Was I lucky? Yes. But what is luck?
When Jeff Gordon came to Winston Cup, there was a lot of talk about how lucky he was to come in at a young age and win so many races and championships. They said it had to be the equipment he was in, or the sponsorship he had, or his crew chief, or ... They wanted to point to every variable in that equation except Jeff.
"I agree with you," he said. "I have been lucky. But the last time I looked around, I'm the only driver in the car that keeps winning all of the races."
I feel the same way. It may have looked easy, but I can assure you, it wasn't.
I always wonder how to define luck. I have driven into Victory Lane more than once with a tire going flat. One more lap, and I would have been rolling on the rim. When the engine blew at The Winston, it could have blown up going down the back straightaway just as easily as it blew crossing the finish line. After 17 tries, I finally won the Daytona 500 in 1989, with no gas left in the tank. We won on strategy and fuel mileage, and people said we were lucky.
I won my first superspeedway race in 1977 at Darlington, the grand ol' track with a glorious history. I took the lead by driving like a madman through the debris of a crash to beat Bobby Allison, David Pearson, and Richard Petty to the line. The race finished under caution, and I had my first superspeedway win.
I believe there are angels among us, but you make your own luck. I was able to take advantage of those situations. That's what luck is: Something is presented to you and you are able to take advantage of it. You have to put yourself in a position to capitalize on what's been given to you. When I look back on things that happened, good and bad, I was in a good position more often than not. But, my 'sperience has taught me, if you go to the Luck Bank too many times, you'll be overdrawn. So I always tried to use my luck sparingly.
It's like buying stock. If you pay attention to Wall Street, and you buy stock for $2, then it goes up to $200, is that luck? The stock market is where a lot of people think they can get rich quick. Most of them don't. Racing holds much of the same allure: Victory! Riches! Checkered flags! Pretty girls in the Winner's Circle!
The dream of winning big is what keeps people in racing. Drivers, owners, and even sponsors who have never won a race think they're going to win the next one because they've seen it happen to other people. It's like the lottery. One guy is going to win, and millions of people who thought they were going to win go home unhappy.
So many elements go into a winning race team. It's like a huge puzzle: If any piece of that puzzle is wrong or doesn't fit, you'll never win. If you think you won't. But if you are committed to doing whatever it takes to win, if you surround yourself with people who believe the same thing and are willing to work just as hard, you just might hit the lottery like I did. Oh yeah-and a little luck along the way doesn't hurt, either.
I had to hold Granny's hand, but at least it meant I could go to the races. I first saw an auto race at Legion Park, an old half-mile dirt track in Owensboro, Kentucky, when I was six years old. It was the most magical thing I had ever seen. How could I not get hooked?
I can close my eyes and still smell the hot dogs and the popcorn and the fuel the cars were burning. I can see the people climbing trees along the backstretch so they wouldn't have to pay to get in. I can see the pond in the middle of the track. The whole place was dusty, and the wooden grandstands weren't very comfortable. I can hear the roar of the engines as they slid and strained around the track, slinging mud and dirt into and over the stands. I was enchanted. I was enthralled. I was in love with racing. It was like the state fair, but ten times more exciting.
Granny was like a feisty rooster, smoking cigarettes and always scratching around. She was a little ol' thing, full of energy and spirit, and not shy about standing up at the races and yelling at someone if she didn't agree with something they did.
My grandfather, Lee Phillips, was a deputy sheriff in Owensboro, and he would direct traffic at the tracks on weekends. My grandmother, Oda Palestein (dontcha love that name? Now you know why we just called her "Granny"!), liked going to the races when he worked, but she didn't like going by herself, so she would take me. I could go, but only if she called to invite me.
Excerpted from Dw by Darrell Waltrip Copyright © 2005 by Darrell Waltrip. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 18, 2009