It’s somehow appropriate that a driver who was once nicknamed “Jaws” is now known to a generation of fans because of his no-holds-barred race broadcasts. But it’s not Darrell Waltrip’s prowess behind the microphone that got him the nod to the third class of drivers to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but his prowess behind the wheel. Many of today’s fans don’t know the Waltrip that took to the track each week: aggressive and brash, he talked the talk all right, but he also walked the walk, racking up 84 wins and three championships in 809 races in what is now the Sprint Cup Series.
Almost from day one, Waltrip made his presence known on and off the track. His driving style was aggressive, with no apologies about it. If you didn’t like it, well, that was tough. But unlike many who can talk a good game, Waltrip backed it up. He won his first race in 1975 at North Wlikesboro, and throughout his career was a fearsome competitor at the series’ short tracks. He was crowned champion in 1981 after a season where he amassed a dozen wins and 25 top 10’s in 31 races, and he backed that up with a repeat in 1982 with twelve more victories and 20 top 10’s in 30 races. Waltrip’s third title came in 1985. In 1989, Waltrip finally took home the one win that eluded him throughout his career: the Daytona 500. Waltrip’s joyous dance in victory lane remains one of the sport’s memorable highlights.
After that Daytona win, Waltrip would win five times more in his career. He ended his racing days as an independent owner-driver, winning his final five races under his own banner in an era where the owner-driver was a dying breed. He began the 21st century in the broadcast booth, where he has brought races to life for fans since.
In his induction speech, Waltrip spoke of his appreciation of his place in NASCAR history, but also of the importance of his family. His wife Stevie was one of the first women to be allowed in the pits, after Waltrip had her named a car owner and crew member to get around a NASCAR rule that banned women. He told the story of his daughter Sarah, who flew 25 hours from a mission trip in the Phillipines on Thursday to surprise her father for his induction. And in what might have been his proudest moment of the evening, Waltrip announced that he’s starting a new chapter in his life-as a grandfather, as daughter Jessica and her husband are expecting their first child. It’s a far cry from the brash racer who earned the reputation of talking too much and driving too rough. But in Waltrip the two are truly one and the same.
Waltrip was inducted into the Hall of Fame by Jeff Hammond, his longtime crew chief and now his broadcast partner, who summed up Waltrip this way: “Our sport has never seen the likes of Darrell Waltrip-on or off the track,” said Hammond. And it’s entirely possible that it never will.