NASCAR's Waltrip: Why It 'Will Never Be The Same'

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NASCAR Hall Of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip has a new book, Sundays Will Never Be the Same. Waltrip discusses his long and successful career as a driver and his time afterward in the announcer's booth. Host Rachel Martin also speaks with Waltrip about the day his longtime friend and rival Dale Earnhart died in a crash.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This was the sound a lot of NASCAR drivers had to get used to in the 1980s: the sound of Darrell Waltrip as he barreled ahead towards first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Daytona 500 belongs to Franklin, Tennessee's Darrell Waltrip. He's done it. He's done it.

DARRELL WALTRIP: Oh, I won the Daytona 500. I won the Daytona 500.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Darrell, how long...

WALTRIP: Wait, wait. This is the Daytona 500, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You bet it is.

WALTRIP: Don't tell me it isn't.

MARTIN: That was Darrell Waltrip in 1989 as he won the Super Bowl of stock car racing, the Daytona 500. Wins like that cemented Waltrip's status as a NASCAR legend. Twelve years after that race in 2001, he was back at the Daytona 500, but this time not on the racetrack - in the announcer's booth calling the race for Fox Sports. It was a momentous day for the sport and for Darrell, and he writes about it in the new book called "Sundays Will Never Be the Same." I asked Darrell to describe NASCAR from a driver's point of view.

WALTRIP: It's hard to capture on television a car that's doing 210 miles an hour. But when you go around a Daytona track - a two-and-a-half-mile track like Daytona in about 46 seconds - that's where I like to say those cars are going boogety, boogety, boogety. They're going pretty darn fast.

MARTIN: What's going on inside the car? What can you hear? What can you see?

WALTRIP: See, that's part of the experience. As a driver, you hear that engine. And that engine is singing a song. You know, it's just kind of, like, notes are coming out of those tailpipes. If anything happens to that engine or if it starts to create or develop a problem, a driver usually hears it first or he can actually feel it. There's a lot of feedback the driver gets through the steering wheel - that's his connection to the car - the seat of your pants. So, feeling is important, hearing is important and then connecting all that with the seeing part, the eyes. You're using every sense you have available to you to make your way around a racetrack. When you're out there with 42 other guys, up in the middle of a bunch of, you know, a pack of cars, there's a lot of moving parts.

MARTIN: You and Dale Earnhardt had an intense rivalry. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?

WALTRIP: Well, Dale was really aggressive. From the first I ever met him, he was a young guy, nobody had ever heard of him, he was racing dirt tracks in North Carolina around Charlotte there. And he would put himself in situations that ended up wrecking someone and sometimes himself, and so he became known as the intimidator. Because when you saw him in your mirror, you knew he was going to hit you. Nonetheless, Dale - early on - and I were friends and I tried to help Dale. And I use the word frenemy, because we were friends part of the time, we were enemies part of the time. And we were friends in the beginning but as time went by, when I got to be at the top of the heap, Dale came after me, and that turned into a real rival.

MARTIN: I want to talk about that day, February 18, 2001. It was the morning of the Daytona 500. Your brother, Michael, actually ended up winning that race and you were up in the booth on the air. And you were coaching him, like he could hear you.

WALTRIP: That's what brothers do.

MARTIN: That's what brothers do. Even if they're on TV.

WALTRIP: That's what big brothers do to little brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

WALTRIP: Come on, man, come on now. Watch the mirror. He's going to make a run to the inside. Block him, block him. That a boy.

What was so cool about that was we spent all winter long, they had tested well at Daytona. It was the best ride Michael had ever had. And so Mikey and I are saying, Mikey, man, this is my first time in a TV booth to do a cup race. Man, Mikey, wouldn't it be cool if you won that race and I was in the booth. And so I was in shock. My little brother, who had never won a race, is going to win the biggest race we have. He's going to win our Super Bowl. And I was beside myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The last lap.

WALTRIP: One to go, buddy.

And here my brother comes off the corner and he's going to hold off Dale, Jr. and Dale, Sr. to win the Daytona 500.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

WALTRIP: Michael, you're in the best place you've ever been in, bud. Hold her there.

And then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black car and I knew it was Dale. I saw it shoot up the hill and I knew Dale had been in a wreck.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

WALTRIP: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Big trouble. Big wreck behind him.

WALTRIP: And initially, you know, we have wrecks all the time. And so initially it was like it's still all about Mikey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Michael Waltrip wins.

WALTRIP: All right. It's a dream come true.

And then we go to a replay of the wreck and I thought I was going to throw up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

WALTRIP: (unintelligible). I guess he's all right, isn't he?

All of the sudden, it wasn't about Mikey and winning his first race; it was about I hope Dale's OK. 'Cause I pretty much knew he wasn't.

MARTIN: You found out that he died. You went to the hospital and saw his wife there. So much of this is so difficult for the families. How important are the families to this sport?

WALTRIP: Well, you know, I don't, I just got to tell you - this is the honest truth - you don't think this way and you don't live this way but every now and then when you put those seatbelts on, put the helmet on, crank the engine and you look in your rearview mirror and you see your wife or your family, some every now and then think, God, I hope I make it back. Because, you know, all of us that have driven race cars through the years know that sometimes you don't. But as you get older, particularly, those things really register and stay with you a little bit longer.

MARTIN: The book is called "Sundays Will Never Be the Same." What changed after Dale Earnhardt died, for you, for the sport?

WALTRIP: There are turning points in a lot of sports, and when Dale got killed, NASCAR, I mean, they became very, very aggressive. They developed a new car that was much safer, they created safer walls. All these things became standard on the race cars and in NASCAR after Dale's death. And since Dale Earnhardt was killed in 2001 - and he has a great legacy - but I think the thing that other drivers will always be grateful for is the fact that since he got killed in 2001, no one else has died in a stock car in NASCAR. And that's a great legacy.

MARTIN: The anniversary of that day is coming up.

WALTRIP: Yup.

MARTIN: Do you remember it in any particular way?

WALTRIP: You know, well, I'll be back in Daytona and it's going to be a little later this year - the race is moved up to the 26th of February. I'll never be in Daytona that I don't have memories of not just Dale for sure but Neil Bonnett and a few other friends that have lost their lives at that track. I always hold my breath. Matter of fact, I'm more nervous watching and calling the race than I was when I was driving the cars. I worry about all the drivers. I just want it to be a safe race, want it to be a fun race. But it's different. I still long at times to be out there. You know, the old heart might say that I got the heart to get out there but the old brain says, yeah, but you don't have the body. So, you know, maybe - I'm fortunate to be doing what I'm doing. I'm fortunate to be able to be a part of the sport, share my love, share my passion and that at this point in my life is about as good as it can get.

MARTIN: The book is called "Sundays Will Never Be the Same: Racing, Tragedy and Redemption--My Life in America's Fastest Sport." Darrell Waltrip joined us from member station WPLN in Nashville. Darrell, it was a pleasure talking with you.

WALTRIP: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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