Chances are, that if you’ve ever heard me speak more than once, you’ve heard me tell the inspiring story of working with Darrell Waltrip in 1989 when he won his only Daytona 500 by taking a big gulp of a risk.
Here’s a sub-chapter of that story, which I rarely tell but it’s every bit as good:
Stevie Waltrip, Darrell’s wife, is one of the dearest friends I’ve ever had. Our friendship goes back over 30 years. Stevie, sweet and kind-mannered, has always been terrifically amused by me which encouraged my storytelling. I cherish her.
The week leading up to that Daytona 500 was dominated by Kenny Schrader who won the pole position with a stunning speed. Darrell qualified second. There’s not near as much pressure when your speed is the second fastest. Schrader controlled the week, winning every race possible and easily outpacing the field in daily practice.
On Tuesday, before the 500, I stopped by the Waltrips’ motor coach. Without knocking, because they’re like family, I opened the door and climbed the steps. Stevie was tearing cushions off the two sofas and frantically thrusting her hands in the crevices.
“What are you doin’?” I asked, closing the door behind me.
“Trying to find Darrell’s ’85 championship ring. He’s lost it.”
I joined the search. Darrell remembered having it on a couple of days earlier but couldn’t remember exactly the last time he had it. In a bit, he came over from the garage.
“Have you had any luck?” he asked, worriedly.
Stevie shook her head. “We’ve looked everywhere.”
Sadness clouded his face. My heart hurt for him. Winning that championship had been a miracle because that year, Darrell had been David going up against the Goliath force of Bill Elliott and his family team. The Melling-owned Elliott race team had won 11 races, 11 pole positions and a million-dollar bonus. The circuit left Darlington’s Labor Day race with Bill as a newly-minted millionaire and Darrell trailing in the championship race by 11 points.
Darrell didn’t just race his way into that championship, he talked his way in. He was so sharp, so funny, so cunning that he was able to use that witty advantage to psychologically sidetrack any other competitors.
Two weeks after the season ended, we gathered at the Waldorf Astoria in New York to honor the new champion. I remember the pale green dress with embroidery that I wore. I think I still have it. When Bill France Jr. presented Darrell with the ring, he spoke of his admiration for Stevie then surprised her with a matching necklace.
On the Daytona 500 race day, Stevie and I were settling down for the race atop the six-foot-high toolbox when she began digging into her sack-like purse for her calculator — she scored for fuel — and a pencil. Suddenly, she froze. Her eyes widened.
“Are you listening to me?” I asked, stopping in the middle of the story. Her frozen expression melted into a wide smile and she pulled her hand from her purse.
“Look!” she screamed. She held up the ring that had been missing for a week.
“Oh, my gosh!” I exclaimed as Stevie scurried down from the toolbox.
“I’ve got to tell Darrell!” She ran over to the crew chief and excitedly explained. He radioed Darrell with the news. Moments later when he eased down pit road, Stevie was waving the ring at him. He stuck a gloved hand out of the net and waved. Putting pieces together, we theorized that their toddler had taken the ring from the dresser where he had laid it then dropped in her mama’s purse.
Stevie turned to me, smiling happily.
“This is a sign,” I declared. “Darrell’s going to win today.” She took the words lightly but I trailed behind her back to the toolbox. “I’m serious. Just wait and see. He’s gonna win the Daytona 500.”
And, he did.