Darrell Waltrip has never been afraid to speak his mind, which is why he was nicknamed “Jaws” during his hall of fame career as a driver and why he has starred for 17 straight seasons in a Fox Sports broadcast booth as part of the network’s NASCAR coverage.
I had an entertaining, 45-minute conversation with the man most everyone calls “DW” in his office near Charlotte Motor Speedway this week. The part I found most enlightening?
That came when I asked the five-time Coca-Cola 600 winner what he would change if he woke up one day and was named the commissioner in charge of fixing NASCAR, which has struggled with declining track attendance and TV ratings for years.
Here were four of Waltrip’s key points:
Don’t beat the ‘bad’ out of the bad guys
Waltrip, 70, told me an interesting story about how his introduction to racing as a child was at a dirt track in Owensboro, Ky. A nice-guy driver named G.C. Spencer, whom Waltrip’s grandmother adored, competed each week against a rough driver whose nickname was “Brute.”
Waltrip’s grandmother – cigarette in one hand, cup of coffee in the other and “cussing like a sailor,” Waltrip said – would get so incensed with “Brute” every week that she would literally argue with Brute when she could track him down in the pits after the race. (Yes, times were different then.)
Waltrip believes this sort of rivalry is absolutely necessary every week in the NASCAR Cup series. He was a former NASCAR villain himself, and pulled off the “heel” act on purpose to make sure fans remembered him.
“I embraced that role,” Waltrip said. “I said, ‘If there’s already a good guy, I’ll be the bad guy.’ What I wanted to do for myself and my career was to stand out. And so if they are all wearing white hats, I’ll wear a black hat.”
These days, though, Waltrip believes drivers who would have a natural inclination to be the “black hat” – following in the footsteps of Dale Earnhardt Sr., the most famous of all NASCAR outlaws – are told to soften their rough edges by too many people.
Said Waltrip: “I had a driver tell me not long ago when I asked why he didn’t confront another driver: ‘I don’t want the headaches. I don’t want the problems. I don’t want the fans mad at me, I don’t want the media on me, I don’t want my owner upset with me, I don’t want a call from my sponsor. So I avoid situations.’”
That is a shame, Waltrip said, because there are opportunities for rivalries in the sport that are being missed.
“We need good guys and bad guys today,” Waltrip said, “and we have them. Kevin Harvick is a bad guy. Kyle Busch is a bad guy. Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch can be – although they’ve calmed down quite a bit. Joey Logano can be. … They all have that in them. But they’ve been beat down so bad. They just don’t want to deal with it.”
Waltrip said everyone associated with the sport is somewhat to blame for this trend, including fans who say they want controversy but then rip every driver who is involved in one on social media.
“As much as we want to have that rivalry,” Waltrip said, “when we do have it, we kill the guy that’s created it. We say: ‘What a jerk! They should run him out of the sport!’”
Slice the schedule by six races
Waltrip has long been on the “Cup season is too long” bandwagon.
“The schedule needs to be modified and shortened,” Waltrip said. “We have 36 (points) races. We need 30.”
So what would you take out?
“Aww, if I tell you, they’ll be mad and I won’t have a place to park when I get there,” Waltrip laughed. “People will be hot.”
Waltrip, in fact, isn’t quite sure of what he would take out. He would keep a few “iconic” races in the schedule exactly where they are, he said, such as the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
For most of the rest, though, Waltrip said: “I’d open it up to a bidding process. You want to race? Good. Here are the dates we have open. The highest bidders – that’s who gets the race. If Iowa wants a race and bids more than New Hampshire does, than Iowa gets that race.”
Waltrip also would like to group similar races into similar places in the schedule. He would like to see the road-course races on consecutive weeks, and the short-track races bunched together and so on. (NASCAR did announce some modifications to its 2018 schedule this week, but the changes were mostly unrelated to what Waltrip advocates.)
“If you put three short-track races together, that means three straight tracks where you can get p----- off and get even with somebody,” Waltrip said. “You put races together like that and you create some synergy.”
End the season in Las Vegas
As of now, each of NASCAR’s top three series ends in Homestead, Fla., on the same weekend in mid-November. Waltrip would change that immediately, switching all the season-ending races across the country to Las Vegas.
“I would move it to Vegas and here’s why,” Waltrip said. “We stretch everything out. ... We think more is more. Less is more. We finish the season out there – all three series – and we have the (traditional season-ending awards) banquet out there on Monday. We’re already in Vegas. We don’t need to go back to Vegas (for the banquet after ending the playoffs in Homestead). That’s what makes the most sense.”
Fewer rules, more passing
Waltrip believes NASCAR over-legislates itself, particularly in regard to the rigorous car-inspection process that requires a Laser Inspection Station (LIS) that Waltrip believes is mostly unnecessary.
“We constantly change the rules on the cars and obviously that doesn’t make any difference,” Waltrip said. “We’re going to make more rules. We’ve got too many rules already, trying to enforce things that are almost unenforceable. ... We’ve taken a sport that is blue-collar and are trying to do things with it that I think sometimes are asking more of the sport than it’s capable of doing.”
Waltrip believes fewer rules might lead to more passing, and he realizes that some races have become tedious in the view of race fans. He favors breaking each race into several stages that award points, as NASCAR has already done this year, and understands that some tracks may need even more rules modifications to make the races more exciting.
“Now Indy – there’s a track where we’ve got to do something,” Waltrip said. “We have no appeal there. We did when we went there to start with. It was something different… . (Now) the race is not very good. It’s a big old race track (2.5 miles). They (the cars) get all strung out. It’s not very exciting.”
For all that, Waltrip remains bullish on the future of his sport. He said NASCAR is currently at a crossroads, with drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all having recently retired or, in Earnhardt’s case, retiring at the end of this season. But he likes the new crop of drivers, led by Kyle Larson (who is currently in first place in the Cup standings).
“It’s not like this is the first time this has ever happened,” Waltrip said. “It’s not like it’s the end of the world. We’re in transition. We’re at a crossroads, from the old to the new. But we go through this every now and then. And it usually turns out better.”