After 29 years of racing and 19 years of announcing, Darrell Waltrip will say goodbye Sunday to one of his favorite events, the Coca-Cola 600.
The NASCAR great and current FOX Sports analyst announced his plan to retire at the end of the racing season. The Hall of Famer is a three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, winner of 84 cup series races, and has won the most Coca-Cola 600s of any driver in history (five).
Ahead of Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Waltrip spoke with the Observer about how pivotal Charlotte and the speedway have been to him and his career. He shared stories of past races — both the highs and the lows — and memorable Charlotte-based moments from his career.
His answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. Why were you so strong in Charlotte, and do you have any tips or secrets on how to race this track?
A. The way racing has evolved, it’s changed so much over the years. When I drove, equipment was fragile, and you didn’t necessarily have to pace yourself as a driver, but you had to know your equipment. You couldn’t push your car to 100 percent, 600 miles for instance because the car wouldn’t take it. You had to have a game plan when you started running this race, this four-and-half-hour race.
I think what always made me good here was I won some Saturday races. It’s just a track I always had a good setup for. My car always ran well here, and it was always a race I got excited about.
Q. How instrumental was the 1985 All-Star race to your career?
A. ‘85 was a funny year because I was driving a Budweiser car and Bill Elliott was dominating the sport at the time. Bill won 10-12 races that year. He won a million dollars in Winston that year. Bill was the star of the show all year long, so he would win and we would run second.
In the latter part of the year, what kind of kick-started our season was when we won the All-Star race and then turned around and won the 600 the next day. From May on, Bill had a 300-point lead at one time, and we were able to close that lead down. He had some trouble and we didn’t. We didn’t win a lot of races that year, but we were consistent.That consistency is what won us the championship.
Q. Can you walk me through the 2001 Daytona 500?
A. It was an incredible race. It was lead changes, people fighting to lead, and there was a big wreck. A whole bunch of people crashed on the back straight away. It was an exciting race to cover, an exciting race to watch, an exciting race to be a part of. And then, they stopped that race when they had the big wreck.
We go back to racing with 20 or so laps to go. My brother is leading, Dale Jr. is second, and Dale Sr. is kind of blocking, making sure nobody got up and messed with the two of them. I was so nervous (for my brother) because he had never won a race. The white flag goes in the air, and I say, ‘My god. I just don’t know if he can make it or not.’ They come off turn two and he’s starting down in the back. Dale Jr. pushed Michael to the finish. Senior is all over the place, keeping people from getting to them.
We’re in the third turn and Dale cuts Sterling (Marlin) off. Sterling clips Dale, and Dale goes up at the wall. Here comes my brother to win the race, and I’m excited, screaming for my brother.
He wins the race, and we look back at the wreck. I had this knot in my stomach. As I saw what happened to Dale, I told (announcer) Larry Mike, ‘This isn’t good.’ He said, ‘He hit the wall. He’ll be alright.’ We watched and watched, and I said, ‘I think there’s a problem down there. I don’t feel good about this.’ That’s kind of how the race ended. One of the saddest things I ever saw in my life was the ambulance going up the highway there headed for Halifax Hospital. Dale was in that ambulance. .
Q. What have the last few months been like for you since you announced your retirement?
A. It’s been okay. It’s not something I necessarily planned or something I necessarily wanted to do, but it just felt like it was time. The sport is going through a big transition right now with a lot of young drivers and young talent coming in, making names for themselves. A lot of the established drivers like myself have retired. I’m 72 years old, and at best, I might work another couple years if I wanted to push it. But, I just felt like it was the right time to step aside.
Q. Who have been the most impactful people in your career?
A. I loved driving for Junior Johnson. Junior taught me a lot. I loved driving for Rick Hendrick. David Hill in the TV industry and my current boss Eric Shanks, those are people who have helped me, nurtured me, coached me, been mentors to me. I learned so much from all of them. Those are great friends, and I can’t imagine not seeing them every week at the track or talking on our conference calls.
Q. Are you going to miss saying your iconic “boogity boogity boogity?”
A. It’s funny you say that because I asked my boss Eric Shanks, ‘Who is going to be the guy that says, ‘Boogity, boogity, boogity?’’ He said, ‘When you go, that goes. That’s yours. You created it, you keep it. Whoever comes in after you will have to find their own.’