NASCAR: Waltrip loved dominating Bristol
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 27, 2011
By Teresa M. Walker
FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Darrell Waltrip has one regret from his Hall of Fame racing career. He never made a bumper sticker to sum up his domination at Bristol Motor Speedway.
And he knows what he would’ve put out on it.
“Follow me in Tennessee,” Waltrip said with a laugh. “I’m from Nashville, and people knew me at the Fairgrounds. But when you went to Bristol, that was a place I wanted everybody to follow me, and based on all these numbers I didn’t realize I had compiled, I did a pretty good job of it.”
That might be an understatement.
Of his 84 career victories, Waltrip won seven straight and 12 overall at Bristol, the most by any driver at the bullring of a track in upper East Tennessee. The late Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough are tied with nine apiece.
Bristol is the half-mile track where drivers rub and race, bumping someone out of the way to run to victory. Tempers boil over so much that Waltrip quips that drivers have to take numbers to report to the NASCAR hauler for discipline.
The racing might look slow compared to a superspeedway such as Talladega, but Waltrip swears Bristol is faster than it looks.
“I owned that joint,” said Waltrip, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in June.
He sat down recently at his car dealership to recall some of his favorite memories to help commemorate the 50th anniversary at Bristol, where the first race run was July 30, 1961. Waltrip ran his first race there in 1973 in his own car and finished 30th. His last win came in 1992, also in his own car.
He credits his success at the track to his ability to think his way through the 43 cars crammed onto it, finding enough room between packs to give him space to avoid being collected in crashes. A photographic memory also helped on a track where the banks on the curves are so high that drivers can’t see that far ahead.
Waltrip’s favorite part of Bristol? Racing right next to the wall after cars had worn down a fast groove up near the edge of the track.
“That was thrilling. It was like a high-speed rollercoaster ride,” he said. “The track had some bumps in it. The car would bounce around, and you’d work the wheel, back in the gas and off in the corner. As the guys say today … the track had character.”
He started 52 races at Bristol and finished in the top five 26 times with 32 total top-10s. There were only five races he didn’t finish.
Waltrip attributes his success to the lessons he learned at other short tracks and especially the Fairgrounds in Nashville, another short track with high banks that hosted NASCAR races until 1984.
“That was a big advantage I had then,” Waltrip said.
He already had won twice at Bristol when the pressure was ratcheted up in 1981 after Hall of Famer Junior Johnson signed him as his driver over Earnhardt. Comparing the pressure of being hired by Johnson to a football player getting the chance to play for Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno, Waltrip said he didn’t want to disappoint his new boss.
He didn’t. They won their first race together at Bristol, the first of those seven straight, and Waltrip learned a few new tricks about a track he thought he already knew well.
“There’s guys right now that’ll tell you I’d just like to finish seven in a row because that’s one of the most difficult tracks there is to run,” Waltrip said. “That’s 3,500 laps of, I won’t say perfection because there were probably some things that happened in there that weren’t perfect, but at the end of the day that’s 3,500 laps of driving at a track that is unquestionably the most difficult on the circuit.”
For all his success, the man nicknamed Jaws because of how much he talked wasn’t very popular at times.
“I told Kurt Busch and Kyle both we have something in common. I’ve been booed by the entire grandstand before, too. The difference between me and you, there was only 30,000 here when they booed me, and there’s 100,000 here when they boo you so big difference,” Waltrip said.
His strongest memory from Bristol is the race he lost in 1984 to snap his string of seven straight wins. The man who can’t remember all of his 84 wins knows he should have won that race because he had the best car on the track.
“I may have even had a lap on the field. I came down in the pits for a pit stop, and when I popped the clutch, the gear broke. And we had to go behind the wall and change the gear. That was the one that got away,” Waltrip said.
That likely makes up for Aug. 23, 1983, when he stole a win from Earnhardt. He had been chasing Earnhardt all night long after a rain delay. With lightning nearby, Waltrip said Johnson told him he better beat Earnhardt in and out of the pits on a caution if he wanted to win.
Waltrip said he hit pit road going faster than he wanted, hit water near his pit box and got sideways before sliding to a perfect stop in his pit for a quick tire change. He beat Earnhardt out for the first time all night.
“As we go into the third turn, it starts raining and it rains the race out. They didn’t finish the race, and I won. He was livid. He wanted to fight. He was mad as a hornet,” Waltrip said.
Waltrip’s confidence heading to Bristol grew early when he heard Richard Petty and Bobby Allison on a Knoxville radio station complain about how the race was too long with no passing and felt like racing in a bowl. He realized he could win with a positive attitude and decided then to talk about how much he loved the high banks and wished the race went 1,000 laps.
“All through my career that was sort of my philosophy,” Waltrip said.
“I always thought I was better than the other guys, always thought I could beat the other guys. Bristol is the ultimate proving ground.”