Looking To The Future
Even in the early years of his career, when Waltrip was winning races and championships for Junior Johnson, he was one of NASCAR's forward thinkers. He predicted great things for the sport. He just always thought he would still be an active participant when those great things came true.
"I've always felt this sport would someday be greater than the other professional sports, mainly because of the people," Waltrip says. "Everybody looks at our sport as a mechanical thing where you have cars and gears, and they make noise. This sport is not about that. It's part of the show. But it's the people that make the difference. Here, unlike other professional sports, and I've seen it since way back when, you have people who play by the rules, even those that aren't even written. Unwritten rules. There are very few violators of the rules and the code of ethics that go with this sport.
"Unlike watching a football game where a guy gets tackled out of bounds and doesn't like it, he steps on top of the guy when he walks back on the field. We don't have that problem in our sport. There is a respect that all of us have for each other and a respect for what we do, and that makes a huge difference in the appeal of this sport; I think that is one of the reasons why it is as successful as it is.
"It's not about marketing and NASCAR and anything else; it's about the people and the quality of people that the guy at home sees on the racetrack every Sunday.
"You have to have good guys and bad guys, the established drivers, the old drivers with the new drivers coming up, the quicker gun in town, the faster guy on the draw. You always have to have those kinds of rivalries going on, and we have all those things. We are in the midst of a bunch of old drivers defending their territory against a bunch of younger drivers. We are right in the midst of a bunch of good guys against some bad guys. You couldn't write a better script for television. This is prime-time stuff, man. 'As the Wheel Turns' is a great show."
Bad Boy Of Racing
At one time in his career, Waltrip was perceived as one of the bad guys. He was Jaws, a man the fans loved to boo. Not only was he cocky; he had the same quality as Muhammad Ali by being able to talk trash and back it up at the same time.
But by the end of his career, Waltrip became one of racing's good guys-someone the fans cheer and adore.
"I believe, had I stayed Jaws and continued down that path and continued to exploit that name and that reputation, probably from a standpoint of being profitable, that would have been a more profitable way for me to have gone," Waltrip says. "People that follow sports like an athlete with an image of some kind. That was my image-I chewed people up and spat them out. If I didn't do it on the track, then I did it off the track. That is who I was. If I had wanted to continue down that road, I could have. I think it would have been very profitable for me. I think that reputation would have probably done me very well as far as the fans were concerned, because there would have been those who loved that image and loved that character and would have loved to have seen Jaws out there eating everybody up.
"But I didn't like that name, I didn't like that role, I didn't like that image. I created that, so I had to work very hard to disassemble it, and I did.
"I didn't want to be known as Jaws. I didn't want to be known as a guy who would do anything and chew up cars and people to win a race. I didn't want to be known that way.
"Some drivers can have a bad image or a bad reputation, or there can be some athletes who have bad images and bad reputations who can exploit them and do very well, but that just wasn't for me. I was sick of that.
"I had done everything in this sport I wanted to do, and I had accomplished things that no one else had accomplished at the time, and I wanted to be appreciated for that, not for some stupid name that somebody had given me."