In the Race to Be Nascar's King of the Road, Darrell Waltrip Is the Man in the Driver's Seat

updated 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Not so long ago most of the big-name racers on the stock-car circuit were just redneck grease monkeys who liked courting death at high speed; the founding fathers of the sport were whiskey runners. Now a new breed is taking their place. Drivers still hurl themselves around asphalt tracks—at up to 200 miles per hour currently—but they celebrate afterward in Guccis and designer jeans. These men are the royalty of the stock-car circuit, and first among them is Darrell Waltrip, 34. He is the odds-on favorite to win his first NASCAR title this week as the 31-race season comes to a close at California's Riverside International Raceway.

Waltrip's rise to the top of the stock-car world has not dimmed his reputation for shooting from the lip. He has criticized NASCAR for what he regards as its dictatorial control of his sport, feuded with car owners, chastised pit crew members ("I hate being handicapped by other people," he has observed), and even locked horns occasionally with such fellow drivers as Cale Yarborough. It was Yarborough who once nicknamed Darrell "Jaws" for mouthing off against NASCAR. Darrell says there are no hard feelings. "My relationship with Cale is okay," says Waltrip. "Just stop and think about it. In 1977, 1978 and 1979 I was the guy Cale had to beat. I was a young kid and I wasn't showing him any respect. Now I feel like the old man and I don't get no respect from these young kids." And frequently not from the fans either. Once Darrell began overtaking popular favorite Bobby Allison in the NASCAR standings earlier this year, "Anybody But Waltrip" bumper stickers started sprouting in parking lots all over the circuit.

Still, nobody but Waltrip is doing much winning. He captured seven of his last 13 races and last month tied Yarborough's record of four straight first-place finishes. He has accumulated $543,750 in prize money this year and is 83 points ahead of his nearest rival, Allison, in current NASCAR competition. Barring disaster, he seems certain to win the title. "Darrell just has a natural instinct for driving stock cars," says legendary driver Junior Johnson, who now builds the cars Waltrip races. "He's the kind of driver who'll never give up. That's what it takes." Richard Petty, 44, winner of seven Grand National Championships, regards Darrell as a logical successor. "He is the link between my generation of drivers and the younger ones coming along, like Dale Earnhardt and my son Kyle," Petty says. "And he has finally learned that he can't be a sore loser." A couple of years ago Darrell was happy to talk to reporters if he won but if he lost would only snarl, "No comment."

Born in Owensboro, Ky., Waltrip grew up going to the stock-car races with his grandparents. "I would come home and tear the hell out of my tricycle," he recalls. "I told them I was going to be a racer and I was dead serious." At 12 he persuaded his father, a Dr Pepper salesman, to buy him a go-cart and at 16 bought his first race car, a 1936 Chevrolet he rebuilt himself. "It sort of looked like somebody threw up on it," he says. "We didn't have enough black, brown or red paint, so we poured everything together and it came out beige."

In 1969 Darrell married a high school friend, Stephanie Rader, and began his big-time racing career. "There was a little bit of a problem there," he explains. "Her family was very well-to-do, and her father was not overjoyed by the idea that his sweet little innocent daughter was messing around with a race-car driver. He almost had a heart attack." But after watching Darrell win a race, his father-in-law changed his mind and lined up an important corporate sponsor—a move some of the older drivers resented. "A lot of people," says Waltrip, "especially Cale Yarborough, have said I had everything handed to me. Well, he can't say that because he doesn't know me. I've been down all the roads. I've built race cars. I've had my own team. I've made the plane reservations. I've driven the truck to the tracks. I've worked on a car day and night for 24 hours. I don't expect anybody who works for me to do anything I wouldn't do myself."

Darrell and Stevie, a teacher of the mentally and visually handicapped, live in a two-story brick home in Franklin, Tenn., where they keep four dogs and three cars: a 1980 Olds, a 1980 Honda and a 1979 Corvette. Waltrip flies to most of his races in his own eight-passenger Navajo Chieftain. If all goes well, he will have an extra piece of baggage on the way back from California this week—the Winston Cup, symbol of the NASCAR championship. "This year has been a lot of fun," he says. "I was so tired of spending all my time involved in controversy over my image and personality that it was making an old man out of me. This year it's 180 degrees in the other direction."

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