NASHVILLE, Tennessee — After living life in the fast lane for the last 60 years, Darrell Waltrip is backing off the throttle.
The 72-year-old NASCAR legend and resident of Franklin, Tennessee, says he will wrap up his television broadcasting career at the end of Fox Sports’ NASCAR race coverage this season. His final call will be June 23 with the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, California.
Waltrip, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame who has been in the booth since 2001, picked this week to make the announcement as he prepares to call the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he experienced his greatest success as a driver.
What better place for a memorable occasion than where some of his fondest memories took place? Waltrip won 12 times, including seven consecutive races from 1981-84, at Bristol.
“Bristol is my house. I’ve got 12 wins at Bristol, I’ve got a grandstand that has 43,000 seats in my honor at Bristol,” Waltrip said. “It’s in Tennessee. I love that racetrack. It’s been good to me. I could’ve waited until Charlotte or somewhere else down the road, but it’s been hanging over my head. I just wanted to clear the air, let people know what my plans are and then other people can make plans accordingly. Like who’s going to take my place or is somebody going to take my place?”
Replacing Waltrip, who shares the booth with Mike Joy and former NASCAR driver and fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, won’t be easy. His familiar catchphrase “Boogity, boogity, boogity — let’s go racing, boys!” will be missed as much as his witty commentary and wealth of NASCAR knowledge.
“Darrell has been the heart and soul of the Fox NASCAR booth since day one, so it’s incredibly bittersweet to know this is his final season,” said Fox Sports CEO & executive producer Eric Shanks. “DW’s unmatched charisma and passion helped Fox Sports build its fan base when we first arrived at Daytona in 2001, and he has been the cornerstone of our NASCAR coverage ever since.”
Success on the track and in the booth
Waltrip admitted he never expected to experience the same satisfaction in the booth as he did on the track.
He was a three-time NASCAR Cup champion and three-time runner-up. He won of 84 Cup races and earned the Most Popular Driver Award in 1989 and 1990.
His 29-year NASCAR career ended on Nov. 20, 2000 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
And yet his time as a broadcaster, he said, was just as gratifying.
“To have had the job I’ve had for the last 19 years is pretty incredible,” Waltrip said. “I thought when I got out of the car and walked off the track at Atlanta that day that it was over. That was my platform; I was a race car driver. Where do I go from here? And David Hill hired me to come to work for Fox Sports and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the opportunity to take what I had accomplished in racing and apply it somewhere else.”
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Waltrip, who is from Owensboro, Ky., said he first considered retiring in 2017. The number 17 was his preferred car number.
“My dream had been that I was going to retire in 2017 because I love 17,” he said. “Well ’17 came and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, bad decision, no, no, no. I’m not quite ready for that.’ “
He worked through 2018 before the desire to call it a career returned at the start of this season.
Waltrip said he has simply grown tired of trying to be the best in the business either on the track or in the booth.
“This is 60 years of my life I’ve devoted to this sport one way or the other and ever since I was 12 years old I’ve been holding on to something,” he said. “I held onto a dream that someday I might be really successful at racing and that dream came true. When I went into the TV booth, I was holding onto that microphone thinking that maybe someday I could be considered one of the best broadcasters there’s ever been. So I’ve always been holding onto something. At some point in your life you have to say enough’s enough.”
Taking care of grandbaby
One regret Waltrip had as a driver was not being able to spend more time with his daughters, Jessica and Sarah. The hectic NASCAR schedule gobbled up too much of his time.
He realized the same thing was happening after Jessica’s first child, Luisa, was born.
“A big wake-up call for me was when our first grandchild was born 14 months ago and I would come and go and it was just like when I’d watched my girls grow up,” Waltrip said. “They grew up at the racetrack and they were grown and married before I hardly knew it.”
Waltrip has found that one of his favorite activities today is babysitting with his wife, Stevie.
“Luisa is the sweetest little thing in the world and I love being at home helping take care of her,” Waltrip said. “But the way the schedule is, you’re just not home that much.”
The Jeff Gordon factor
Jeff Gordon’s decision to retire from racing and join Waltrip in the booth also played a role in Waltrip’s decision.
It reminded him that he wasn’t quite as hip as he once was.
“Jeff Gordon coming along beside of me has just made me aware of what I know I know — that I’m old school,” Waltrip said. “I grew up in this sport in one era and Jeff grew up in a totally different era. When he talks to the drivers they talk a different language than I ever talked. When he relates to the drivers he relates to them in a different way than I do. And so it just became obvious to me it’s a young man’s sport. I’m not a young man anymore.”
Still, Waltrip insists he was not pressured into retirement.
“My boss Eric Shanks has been great,” Waltrip said. “He’s never pushed me, he’s never forced me, he’s never said, ‘You’ve got to quit now.’ It’s been ‘What do you think about next year and then next year and then the next year?’ “
Waltrip has felt a sense of nostalgia at each stop since deciding to retire.
It hit him hard in February at the Daytona 500, where he proved he was still a contender when he won in 1989. It’s sure to hit him even harder this weekend in Bristol.
“I’ve known since the beginning of the season this would be my last year and so while I was standing in the booth at Daytona looking at the cars go around the track in my mind I was thinking ‘Enjoy this,’ ” Waltrip said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do, enjoy this, because you won’t be back here anymore. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Daytona again. Every week I go to a track I look (at) it and say, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here.’ This may be the last time I’m in Fontana (California), my last time to go to Martinsville (Virginia), my last time to ever go back to Bristol.’ I don’t have a picture of what the future is going to look like.”
Other than vowing to spend more time with his family, Waltrip is open-minded while waiting to see what might come up before saying what he will do.
He is not opposed to embarking on another career.
Along with racing and broadcasting he’s written three books, appeared in several movies and been a motivational speaker.
Waltrip also is chairman of Motor Racing Outreach, a NASCAR ministry he helped establish in 1988.
“I don’t want to be on the road every weekend,” Waltrip said. “Even though our job is a nice job and we only work from January to July normally, I still don’t want to be tied down by a schedule.”
So how will he go about discovering what opportunities might be out there?
“By making this announcement and letting people know that this is my last year, that may open doors I never thought about,” he said. “There may be someone out there that says, ‘Wow, now that you’re not doing that, maybe you’d like to do this.’ “
Waltrip learned long ago to embrace change rather than fear it.
“Every time I’ve made a change in my career or in my life I thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me,” Waltrip said. “And then next thing you know it was actually the best thing that ever happened to me. So I’m optimistic about (the) future.”