|This article is taken from NASCAR Winston Cup Illustrated, December 1997. Congratulations Jeff and Darrell.||
with Waltrip, Gordon
arguably the driver who is taking the sport into the year
2000 and beyond. Not since Richard Petty or Dale
Earnhardt has there been a driver who commandeers the
spotlight so completely due to his on-track successes.
The award is
particularly timely for Waltrip, 50, since 1997 marks his
25th year in NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Waltrip, a
throwback to the early 1970s, became noticed due to a
brash, often-overbearing style that rubbed more than just
his fellow competitors the wrong way.
BOTH OF YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN AS THE NASCAR WINSTON CUP ILLUSTRATED PERSON(S) OF THE YEAR PRESENTED BY MCI. CAN YOU PUT INTO WORDS WHAT THIS HONOR MEANS TO YOU?
GORDON: "It feels great,
especially with the year I've had on the race track. It's
been interesting off the race track, as far as the type
of reaction that I've gotten from the fans, to know
there's enough fans out there that are cheering for me.
WALTRIP: "From my perspective, what he was alluding to a little is that we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. When it's all said and done, I think our careers will parallel each other very well. They already have. If you look at the early years when I started, the fans didn't necessary approve of me even though I won every week. You would think that's what they would want, to rally around the guy who was on top, and it doesn't necessarily go that way. It also shows the diversity of the sport right now."
DARRELL, THOUGH YOU HAVEN'T WON A RACE SINCE 1992, YOU ARE AS POPULAR AS EVER. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY THAT POPULARITY IS STILL SO STRONG?
WALTRIP: "Here's a guy who's winning every week and the championship and he is respected by the fans, and here's another guy over here who hasn't won in quite some time who has had a tremendous career. Jeff has his impact on the race track and I feel like even though I think I can still win a race and still think I will, I'm having an impact off the race track. That's not my desire to be successful off the race track but by the same token, it shows you can have a hero on the track and a hero off the track. We can both represent the same thing. He represents winning in NASCAR and I represent winning in a different kind of way. I'm not taking the checkered flag necessarily, but I'm still considered to be a winner. That's important to me, and it should be important to young guys starting in this sport to see the success he's had."
JEFF, HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO LEARN SOME THINGS FROM DARRELL CONCERNING WHAT TO DO AND WHAT NOT TO DO AS FAR AS THE PUBLIC IS CONCERNED?
GORDON: "I think the biggest mistake that newcomers and rookies commit coming into this sport is they don't ask enough questions. I think that's the biggest thing I've learned in the past couple of years. These guys want you to ask them questions. They want to lead you down a path and teach you just like a parent does, and they know by helping you out it's only going to help the sport. So now I'm starting to learn more questions. It's as much the things off the race track, dealing with the fans, dealing with the media. That's not to say dealing with it is a bad thing, it just takes some work and knowing how to go in the right direction and go about it the right way. Those are the things I look at when I talk to Darrell or Dale Earnhardt or whoever has been in the sport for a while. I'm like, 'How do I deal with this situation?' Darrell is a great sounding board whom I really respect a lot. He has given me a lot of input as how to do certain things at the race track."
DARRELL, WHEN YOU CAME INTO THE SPORT IN 1972, THINGS WERE QUITE A BIT DIFFERENT.
WALTRIP: "I think the
difference then was we didn't have 150,000 fans at a
race. You would go to Martinsville Speedway and there
might be 25,000 people. Or you'd go to Bristol, maybe
25,000 there, and maybe 75,000 at Charlotte. With the
increased popularity of the sport, it's become an
increasingly large demand on the guys involved in it.
There are still only 40 of us. Back then, there were 40
guys taking care of 30,000 fans. Now, it's 40 guys taking
care of 150,000 fans. So obviously, we are now being
pulled in a lot of different directions that I didn't
have to deal with in the beginning. Everybody didn't have
a TV show, everybody didn't have a radio show, there were
fewer halls of fame -- all these things that go on away
from the actual racing -- so it was a lot easier and you
could focus on your race car. That's all you did. You
worked on your race car. You worked on it all day and all
night, you drove to the track, you worked on the car, you
raced the car, you were part of the crew. Today, drivers
are celebrities and they are treated as celebrities and
they should be because they are on the same plateau as
other athletes in other sports.
JEFF, CAN YOU ADDRESS WHAT CHANGES YOU'VE SEEN SINCE COMING INTO NASCAR WINSTON CUP IN THE FINAL RACE OF THE 1992 SEASON?
GORDON: "There's one unique thing that I've realized. All the racing I did 15 years ago to the quarter-midget days, the racing has always been the same. Now, it's a lot more competitive. Other than that, you're driving hard every lap and you're still trying to get the car to work better and better. You have a team you have to communicate with, but the racing is still the same. When you get out of that car is when things are a whole lot different."
WALTRIP: "You know, (in Victory Lane) we used to just have to deal with the hats. (Union 76 motorsports representative) Bill Brodrick and the hats. Now, the reporters, the interviews and all the things that happen after the race is a lot. The race is on the track but when it's over with, there's a whole new race that happens off the track as well."
DARRELL, JEFF WAS NINE MONTHS OLD WHEN YOU STARTED RACING IN THE NASCAR WINSTON CUP DIVISION AND ...
WALTRIP: "(Laughs) I had
nothing to do with that! I didn't know him! I didn't know
his family! I didn't know his mother! That's a great
question, but don't pull me into that trap! Talk to
somebody else! Maybe he can help you ..."
OK DARRELL, WE KNOW YOU AREN'T THE FATHER. NOW, JEFF, WHEN DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT DARRELL AND WHAT HE HAD ACCOMPLISHED IN NASCAR WINSTON CUP RACING?
GORDON: "It was really
strange for me, especially when I first started learning
about NASCAR Busch Grand National and Winston Cup racing.
I had been racing just about every weekend since I was 5
or 6 years old. So sitting at home watching races on
television wasn't what I did. Once I got into sprint car
racing, "Speed Sport News" was what I read.
They didn't used to do a whole lot on NASCAR. I guess it
wasn't until 1985 or '86 when I first heard of Darrell. I
remember in my quarter-midget days, I would say, 'I want
to grow up and race in the Daytona 500 or Indy 500.' I
didn't even know what the Daytona 500 was. I just knew
that was the biggest race. I watched a little bit of it
on TV, but I don't remember actually watching NASCAR
until 1985 or '86. I was 14 or 15 years old.
WALTRIP: (Impishly) "What he's trying to say is he's rewriting the record book as we speak, so it really doesn't matter if he studies it or not. It's going to be what's in there from now on."
GORDON: "Well, I think if I had grown up in the Midwest, and especially the Southeast, then I would have eaten, breathed, slept NASCAR and the drivers and the cars. But I didn't. I grew up on the West Coast. We are just now starting to get reaction from the fans and building a really big base out there."
WALTRIP: "When I was a kid
growing up in Owensboro, Ky., I didn't know anything
about stock car racing. I went to all the sprint car
races, but I never went to the Indianapolis 500 because I
was always racing. When you're truly a racer and that's
all you've ever done -- and that's all I've ever done or
he's ever done -- you don't really pay any attention to
heroes or develop what you might call heroes. You follow
people who win races and you want to know how they did
maybe, but as far as being a hero, you're on you're own
hero path, if you will.
GORDON: "That's what happened to me. I was much more around sprint cars with Steve Kinser and Doug Wolfgang and all the good sprint car drivers. That's where, when I wasn't racing, I was at one of those races. So (NASCAR Winston Cup racing) is a lot more than what I saw myself doing."
WALTRIP: "See, I think
that's one of the reasons why I wasn't very popular in
the beginning, because people didn't know me. They didn't
know where I came from. I came from Kentucky. I just
kinda wandered in and fell off a turnip truck and here I
was. The same way with Jeff. Where did he come from? They
didn't see him running sprint cars at Eldora or midgets
at Indianapolis. They didn't know who he was. Besides,
there was another guy who had the same (last) name that
he did (Robby Gordon). He could have been that other guy,
for all they knew.
GORDON: "I'll tell you how I realized I should make stock cars an option. I had a guy helping me and his name was Larry Nuber (formerly an announcer with ESPN). Larry wasn't doing any more commentating, but he knew racing because he would come down and do a lot of the ESPN races. He said, 'You need to go down there and check out Busch Grand National racing and go to a driving school.' So I went to Buck Baker's Driving School and I'm thinking, 'I don't think I'm going to like these stock cars. I've been in the open-wheel cars and I'm just not going to like it.' I got in that thing and I loved it! I would say, 'Man, I didn't know you could drive these cars this hard and this fast!' I loved the tracks and the high-banked mile or mile-and-a-half race tracks, and I'm saying, 'I like this! I like to go fast.' Boom, I was sold right then. That's when I started making time to watch stock-car racing and started taping races and got interested in them."
WALTRIP: "While he was saying that, something just dawned on me. The Earnhardts, or the Wallaces even, or the Jarretts, have a heritage in the sport and they are expected to kind of follow along in their father's footsteps, and they've been around stock car racing and dirt tracks all their lives down here in this part of the country. When the fans hear those names, they are familiar names to them. Like guys from the outside trying to make their way in, we don't have that. Jeff's dad wasn't a great stock car driver and my dad wasn't a great stock car driver. I think it takes a while to get to know us to get to realize, 'Hey, they're good ol' boys at heart.'"
GORDON: "I've seen where the fans in this sport have grown up with the 'good ol' boys' and stuff. I might attract a lot more newer fans. The good ol' boys have been around forever and have been watching this sport for a long time. I don't know if I ever expect them to follow Jeff Gordon. That's where it all starts with the cheers here and the boos there. There are some folks out there who are never going to respect me because I didn't come up that way.
LIKE WHAT YOU SAID IN A PRIOR INTERVIEW, "BOO IF YOU LOVE JEFF GORDON?"
GORDON: (Laughs) "I can't wait! We don't introduce ourselves anymore so I can't say that."
WALTRIP: (Laughs) "It works! He learned that from me!"
GORDON: (Laughs) "The problem is they are making so much noise when I get up there they couldn't hear me anyway."
WALTRIP: "Again, say there are 100,000 fans -- a number we can use -- and 40 drivers. Some of the drivers have been here a long time and they have their fans. If there are 100,000 people up there and 50,000 - half of them - were Jeff Gordon fans, and the others were other drivers' fans, he's going to get one whale of a reaction. Half are going to being cheering and half are going to be booing. That's the way I always tried to look at it. We aren't like other sports. If you're Ken Griffey Jr. and you go up to bat, the whole stadium cheers for you because it's your home stadium. You're only pulling for one team. Here, there are 40 teams and 40 drivers. (Fans) can't all be for the same guy. There's a lot to be said for the noise. As long as you can tolerate it, there's a lot to be said for how much noise they make.
IN OTHER PROFESSIONAL SPORTS, WE SEE THOSE WHO ARE CONSTANTLY IN TROUBLE WITH DRUGS OR SCANDALS AND NUMEROUS CHARGES OF PERSONAL WRONGDOING. HOW HAS NASCAR ESCAPED HAVING SUCH PROBLEMS CONSUME THE SPORT IN THE PAST 50 YEARS?
WALTRIP: "First of all, we just don't tolerate it. If you were to be that kind of a person, it's known through the garage area. We just wouldn't tolerate it. That's the only way I know how to say it."
GORDON: "It's kind of like going to a small school somewhere in the Midwest. Everybody knows your business. Everybody knows what's going on and it's going to get out."
WALTRIP: "Plus, it's the family atmosphere. Again, I pick up on the heritage of this sport. It's come through the families: The father, the son, the grandson. It just continues to be a family sport. Not necessarily in terms of like a big picnic or anything. The family is the part of it. I think there is a quality in this sport that there is to no other. We spend 35 weekends together a year, the same group of people. We compete against the same guys each Sunday and know each other all too well. You almost know what the other guy is thinking. If asked if an incident was accidental or intentional, we know. Just tell us who it was. We can tell you if it was accidental or intentional."
GORDON: (Laughs) "Do you want to specify who you're talking about? I wonder where I fit into that category?"
WALTRIP: "There is an accountability here that I don't think is in any other sport. We don't go our separate ways. We go together. We travel together. We live together. It's not like other sports where the athletes go off in their own little towns all over America. We live in the same pretty general areas and go to the same places all the time. I don't want to let him down. He doesn't want to let me down. There's just that accountability there that we have that other sports don't have."
GORDON: "I'll tell you one
key aspect too, that I see in the major sports --
baseball, basketball, football. These kids come out of
high school or college not making a cent and all they're
looking for is that big check. They come out and a team
picks them up and the next thing you know, they are
making $10 or $15 million a year. And when a team is
paying somebody that much, yes, they expect a lot out of
their performance, but it's almost like they have turned
the control over to that person. Here's this person who's
making as much money or more than the team owner is, and
now they're trying to tell him what to do. The guy might
say, 'No, I've got every team out here that wants me and
will pay me just as much or more.' We make good money,
but it builds.
WALTRIP: "It's too much money and too much spare time. They only have to practice a little bit and might only play on Sunday. They are all individuals, but I'm accountable to my team, my sponsors. We earn what we get. The money I've earned in racing is just a return on an investment. When I was coming up through the ranks, I was spending my money and everybody else's to develop a career, and you get to a point and say, 'I have an income from racing. I may never ever make enough to pay back all I've invested.' It took a lot. It's like Jeff said. If you won $1,000, you spent $2,000 the next week on the race car. You paid back the $1,000 you borrowed and borrowed $2,000 more. (Laughs) It was like a pyramid scheme, except it didn't always pay out.
YOU ARE BOTH HIGHLY RESPECTED AS ROLE MODELS TO CHILDREN WHO FOLLOW NASCAR. WHAT COULD YOU SAY TO THE CHILDREN OF TODAY THAT MAY HELP GIVE THEM A GOOD FOUNDATION?
WALTRIP: (Laughs) "I know you have to be asking me, because I'm not sure this child right here knows yet or not."
GORDON: (Laughs) "I get to learn something!"
WALTRIP: "It's more than one
thing, but (the important thing is) respecting authority.
Again, that's part of being a Christian. Commitment,
whether it's to your job, to your family, to Jesus
Christ, whatever it is. And being committed to something.
So many young kids, they don't have a clue. They are
wandering around and saying, 'Well, I don't know what I'm
going to do. I don't have this and I don't have that. I
can't do this and I can't do that.' Jeff will tell you
and I will tell you, I think I'm a great example of what
stick-to-it will do for you. There is no reason I should
be where I am. I was the oldest of five kids. My dad was
a Pepsi-Cola salesman and my mom worked at the IGA store.
We weren't poor but we were just making it. I was
determined with all my heart to be a racer. I begged. I
borrowed. I won't say the other part of the equation, but
you can get the picture. Whatever it took to get to where
I wanted to go. That's commitment. I'm committed to my
wife. We've been married 28 years. I hope to be married
28 more years. It's not been easy being married to me and
what I've done and what's gone on in my career. That's
commitment. You've got to have that.
GORDON: "The majority of people, especially kids, are followers. Right now, there are so many people in the limelight out there in the public eye that people are following who aren't necessarily a good example. I think that's one thing that I'm very proud of: what NASCAR Winston Cup is. I wouldn't mind my child, if I had one -- when -- I have one, to follow just about anybody in that garage area. There are a lot of good people, hard-working people, dedicated people out there. We've seen out there where certain people have said, 'No, I don't choose to be a role model.' You don't have a choice. You are put into that position and that's part of being a celebrity or being where we are in our sport. You can't be somebody you're not, just to set an example for the kids. Hopefully, you are a good enough person where you can say, 'Hey kids, or whoever you are, listen. You can have fun, have a good life, but you can still go down the right path and make the right decisions.' It's so much easier to do the bad things and wrong things, but you're always going to look back and say, 'Gosh, I wish I hadn't done that.' I like to set an example and I've been through a lot at a young age, but now I'm able to make good decisions and follow the Lord."
WALTRIP: "Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you're a nerd."
GORDON: "I want kids to find something they like, stick to it and work hard at it. Chances are they will be successful and find direction through it."
WALTRIP: "The thing is, I want people to be Darrell Waltrip fans, but I want them to see in me something they like and something they approve of and because of that, they want to be like me. I fall short. I want people to see qualities in me they would like to have in their own life. All the kids today are over here, and they want to get over here where Jeff Gordon is and not go through all the hard times it takes to get there. It doesn't work that way. People only see us at our best. And we've struggled. I remember when Earnhardt struggled. I remember when he had to borrow $2 to get a hamburger. I've seen him get used parts so he could go race. These guys who race didn't start out where they are. They worked all their lives to get there."
BOTH OF YOU ARE QUITE ACTIVE WITH SELECT CHARITIES. CAN YOU SHARE WITH US A FEW ORGANIZATIONS THAT ARE SPECIAL TO YOU?
GORDON: "Definitely, the
Leukemia Society is No. 1 and the Marrow Donors
Association another because of the situation with Rick
(Hendrick, Gordon's team owner). But you know,
unfortunately, we don't get involved with charities
unless it hits close to home, and I hope through the
things we are doing, it inspires others to get a lot more
involved when it doesn't necessarily hit close to home.
We need to really make it happen.
WALTRIP: "I think the fans
and some of the competitors need to have an education
about MRO (Motor Racing Outreach). It only runs off of
contributions. It has no sponsors. It has no major
corporations behind it. It runs totally off of
contributions. The work that is being done at MRO is
incredible. It has made such a huge difference in the
motorsports arena and the motorsports family. In Winston
Cup, but also in other areas. It's incredible. I'm on the
administrative board and it's incredible. All the other
(motorsports) areas are hungry for a ministry like MRO.
They hear about it. They've seen the results of it.
NASCAR supports it. Any time anyone asks me about a
favorite charity, I always tell them to support MRO
because they are supporting some really good causes.
IN THE PAST THREE OR FOUR YEARS, NASCAR HAS EXPERIENCED SOME OF ITS BIGGEST CHANGES BECAUSE OF NEW AWARENESS AND EXPOSURE. WHAT DO YOU SEE IN NASCAR'S FUTURE?
GORDON: (Laughs) "I feel
like I just got here. I've seen it change a lot just
since I've been here. Seeing the facilities, seeing the
growth of the number of fans that are supporting it, to
see these sponsors get behind it more and see it as a
sport that they either can be a part of and can increase
their sales with, that's exciting to be a part of it. And
to see all the people who have heard about it and follow
it! Seeing it spread out all over the country. I know
there is awareness outside the country, but as far being
a stronger following, that's the next step. It's
international. I think when you get a crowd like we had
in Southern California in an awesome facility like that,
that says a lot about where we are and where it's going.
I think you'll see new talent come along.
WALTRIP: (Laughs) "A young 50. A very young 50."
GORDON: "I would say a very young 50."
WALTRIP: "To tell you the truth, I had to lie about my age way back when and I never adjusted it. I'm really not 50."
GORDON: "I thought you looked young for your age."
WALTRIP: "I think what we
are seeing is the old NASCAR and the new NASCAR. The old
NASCAR, if you want to look at drivers and all of those
I've competed against all these years all the way to the
year 2000 on...you're going to see a whole new core of
drivers. Jeffrey will be leading the way, with Kenny
Irwin and Tony Stewart stepping in and the Burton boys,
Ward and Jeff, stepping in, and others. For many years,
it was, 'When Richard (Petty) retires, what are we going
to do? The sport will die.' We've learned the sport
doesn't revolve around one guy. It revolves around all 40
drivers out there on the race track, with some guys a
little stronger than others.
GORDON: "We should. I'd like that very much."
WALTRIP: "Yes, we really should. That would be great."
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