I was just a kid when I first heard of ol’ D.W. terrorizing the short tracks around my native Tennessee. He was the equivalent of pro wrestling’s (or rasslin’s) “bad guy”, running his mouth while ruining the nights of the local good ol’ boys. He was the first Muhammad Ali in a sport filled with Sonny Listons.
Waltrip relished in the boos when he visited victory lane back then and he talked trash to sell tickets. That was the way NASCAR was back in the day, when racin’ (and rasslin’) were real, before the million-dollar sponsors turned it into flavorless figure skating.
Waltrip used his showmanship to work his way up the NASCAR ranks, ruffling feathers all the way. His infamous feuds with the Allisons, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and anyone else who was winning races allowed him make a name for himself as an antagonistic loud mouth that helped fuel the sport’s popularity boom, and he relished the role.
But whether it was the Tennessee short tracks or NASCAR’s top level, where Waltrip did the Icky Shuffle to celebrate his victory in the 1989 Daytona 500, he was just ol’ D.W. He cracked jokes, often at the expense of rivals, to make a name for himself and made millions of fans either curse his name or laugh.
My first sportswriting job came in his hometown of Franklin Tenn., in 1992, just as ol’ D.W. was starting to ease into the slow lane. I wrote a story about him after his 84th and final Winston Cup victory in the 1992 Southern 500 and visited him at his shop/home.
Waltrip could tell this straight-out-of-college kid didn’t know NASCAR from the NASDAQ. Rather than taking offense, he held my hand through the interview, and we spent more time talking as people than interviewer-subject. My 30-minute trip turned into a four-hour bull session in which I left feeling like I had made a new friend.
I got to cover Waltrip a lot more closely when I moved to Myrtle Beach in 1995 and covered NASCAR more closely. He always remembered me, and never failed to fire off the same one-liner when he saw me – “What are you doing here? There ain’t nobody playing with a stick and ball around here.”
It was painful to watch his final feeble attempts to compete at the top level, driving cars that couldn’t cut it against the new high-tech era of NASCAR, but he has gone on to gain as much fame with his broadcasting as his driving abilities. Either way, it was his personality that helped land him in the Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Thanks for the memories, D-Dub, and keep on boogity, boogity, boogitying.