He was my “first” favorite driver. As a little girl, I loved the guy who drove the “Tide” sponsored car, not because of the sponsor, but because of how good the driver was. Not to mention those blue eyes (more on that later).
I followed his career when I was quite young, and still follow it until this day. I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet him a couple times – once as a little girl in a foggy, soaked and closed garage area at Pocono International Raceway, and once while covering the races for the media.
Let me start out by telling you a little bit about how I became a race fan. It’s a quick story – and an easy one to remember.
My DAD. Yes, my father. He was and is the biggest NASCAR fan I’ve ever known.
Even covering the sport for years in the media, I still resort to him when I have a question about something (“Dad, who won the Daytona 500 in 2010?” or, “Dad, how many races exactly did Richard Petty win?”).
The man is a wealth of knowledge, and even though I may be able to rattle off NASCAR stats that would make your head spin, I’m no where close to my Dad.
Needless to say, I grew up around NASCAR. Sundays were not only sacred days because they were the Sabbath and we are Catholic, but they were sacred because they were all about NASCAR.
So, since they were all about NASCAR and I couldn’t watch cartoons, I watched the races. Being my Dad’s only child, and a girl at that, I wanted to make him proud of having a “cheerleader” and not a “football player.”
I liked racing. I looked forward to it.
And – I ALWAYS liked that “Tide” car, because it went fast, and yes, it won a lot. The name Darrell Waltrip was one of the first I uttered when I watched NASCAR, and it stuck. Like Super Glue.
So, when my Dad took me to Pocono one year – I couldn’t have been more than 12 -, we got into the garage area (my Dad’s best friend worked in the garage).
It was a foggy, rainy day in June on a Friday (at Pocono – imagine that), and practice and qualifying were rained out. We walked around the garage area, and met some amazing people: Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Dale Earnhardt were among them. I have autographs, and there are pictures somewhere in storage, too.
I know you know where I am going with this. Walking up to his hauler, I prayed that Darrell was there, and he was. He saw me with my binder full of NASCAR trading cards, and invited me in. ME!
The driver of the No. 17 spent quite a bit of time with me. I was so nervous – I just couldn’t believe that I was with HIM.
He autographed EVERY card (I must have had 100, no kidding), and asked me about myself… what grade I was in, what subjects I liked… It was an incredible moment.
I always say that THAT was the moment that roped me into the NASCAR world forever. Still to this day, that was one of the best moments of my life. I met my hero. I spent time with him. He was as interested in me as I was in him.
When I got home that day, my Mom asked me what was the most memorable thing about meeting Darrell Waltrip, and my response?
“His blue eyes… Mom, they were so blue.”
And, they are.
What else is notable is the career he had behind the wheel in NASCAR.
He is a Daytona 500 winner, and a three time Winston Cup Champion. He also finished second three times in Cup, too.
Waltrip had 84 wins during his tenure as a NASCAR Winston Cup driver, and several wins in the other series he raced in, including the Busch and ARCA Series.
Darrell Waltrip retired from racing in 2000, but his career in NASCAR didn’t end there.
After retiring, he signed with FOX as the lead commentator and analyst for the NASCAR Sprint Cup races.
During his time in the broadcast booth, he coined the phrase even non-NASCAR fans know: “Boogity, boogity, boogity! Let’s go racing, boys!”
For all of his incredible accomplishments (I didn’t even get into the meat of it all), Darrell was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the third class, and “class” is what he has.
He always handles himself professionally, and is a class act at what he does… but he will always remain in my memory as the driver who opened up my eyes to the world of NASCAR in a way no one else did – those bright, blue eyes interested in me, as a young girl, who met her hero that day.