Idw Countdown:/I Just Six More Races

Darrell Waltrip, who has deposited some 20 million of NASCAR’s dollars in the bank in the past 28 years, remembers when he couldn’t afford a proper racing suit.

"The first time I went to Daytona to race, I didn’t own a fire-resistant uniform," Waltrip recalls. "I got down there and somebody told me I needed a fire-proof suit, so I went out and got some chemicals that were supposed to make cloth fire-retardant and soaked my uniform in them. Then I hung it on the fence to dry.

"So there I sat, having finally made the big-time, ready to race at Daytona, and having to wait for my uniform to dry after soaking it in some homemade stuff."

Daytona was daunting in even more ways for the self-described country boy from Owensboro, Ky.

"I looked around and I’d never seen anything like it," Waltrip says. "Over there was Richard Petty. And over there was David Pearson. And there was that big old track that looked wider than my hometown. I remember thinking, 'Boy, you ain’t in Owensboro any more!'"

Waltrip, who would go on to become one of the greatest drivers the sport has
ever known, is proud of his humble roots.

"My daddy drove a Pepsi truck," he says. "We were just an average, middle-class family in a small town. We didn’t have a lot, but my parents gave me the best things I ever got: love and support and the values I’ve carried with me all my life."

Waltrip was determined to be a stock-car driver back when stock-car racing wasn’t cool. It was dirty, dangerous work, with a rough and reckless reputation.

Back then, drivers often were brawling carousers who kept bad company and late hours. Not many mamas wanted their babies to grow up to be stock-car drivers.

But Waltrip didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. From the time he wriggled into his first go-kart, he had his heart set on being a racer.

He had no "inside" connection in the sport, no father or uncle or big brother to open doors for him. So he went out and kicked the doors in himself.

Waltrip cut his teeth on the tough little bull rings around rural Kentucky, racing against the likes of G.C. Spencer, who evolved into Darrell’s early hero.

"G.C. drove a car they called The Flying Saucer," Waltrip says. "It made the darndest whirring sound when it came around the track, but man, that thing would fly. Ol’ G.C. won just about everything he entered. He was the first 'name' driver to come out of Owensboro and I wanted to be just like him someday."

In the late 1960s, Waltrip migrated to Nashville Speedway where the lights were brighter and the competition tougher.

"The drivers who had been dominating Nashville didn’t much care for some hot-shot kid rolling in from Kentucky and trying to steal their thunder," he says. "They didn’t cut me any slack, to put it mildly."

Waltrip not only held his own, he took over the weekly Saturday night show. He won two championships, and his 55 victories still stand as the most feature wins in the track’s history.

It was during his Nashville days that Waltrip began to smooth the rough edges and hone his media skills. More and more he was finding himself in the spotlight, and the more he basked in it, the more he seemed to like it, drawn like a moth to a flame.

He was funny and glib back when most drivers were nothing but serious. He was entertaining, on and off the track.

Eventually, Nashville Speedway became too small for Waltrip. He made the jump into NASCAR’s big leagues and the rest, as they say, is history.

He won three Winston Cup championships and 84 races, and now he is almost through his final season.

It hasn’t been a fantastic finish for Waltrip; he is on the verge of ending his career with eight-straight winless seasons. Some might find bitter irony in the fact that a driver who rose from such a humble beginning seems destined for such a humble finish.

Then again, when Darrell paid his final visit to Daytona this year, it was evident how far he had come in 28 years. For starters, he didn’t have to dry his uniform on the fence. And instead of him being in awe of other racing stars, young drivers were clearly in awe of Waltrip, the sport’s winningest active driver.

He is an established champion and a national sports celebrity. His recent run of lean years has not changed that.

Waltrip, indeed, has come a long way from Owensboro.

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