Waltrip gives voice to NASCAR

Darrell Waltrip was rolling down U.S. 93 in a motorcoach on Monday. He was saying how beautiful the Arizona desert is, and that he was surrounded by cactus. He had just started to tell me about his emergency gallbladder surgery when he rolled into radio-free Arizona, or at least Verizon-free Arizona.

He called back when he got to Kingman.

He said he would have called from Wikieup but Jimbo, his driver, thought it was a race from Phoenix to Las Vegas, so he refused to pull over for right-side rubber, or even to stretch their legs.

D.W. said it was a hell of a Daytona 500 on the track, a hellish Daytona 500 off it for the Fox broadcast team. The rain had little to do with it.

Waltrip’s wife, Stevie, had talked him into seeing a doctor about his stomach pain when he thought a couple of Tums would take care of it. He wound up having his gallbladder removed, that day, before it burst like an old Goodyear.

“They sucked it right out of my belly button,” he said in the way you would expect Darrell Waltrip to describe the procedure.

So Waltrip, Fox’s lead NASCAR analyst, missed the Feb. 15 Sprint Unlimited. He was replaced by Michael Waltrip, his brother with the unruly hair.

Matt Yocum, the pit reporter, had back surgery. He also missed the Unlimited and some Daytona 500 practice sessions.

Steve Byrnes, another pit reporter, is fighting throat cancer. Lots of chemo and radiation. He gets tired easily, as one might imagine. Byrnes, too, missed some Daytona practice.

The Fox people, who keep records on everything, said when Waltrip missed the Sprint Unlimited it marked the first time in 14 years the broadcast team of Mike Joy, Waltrip and Larry McReynolds “hisself” weren’t together as a unit.

“I mean, we were the walking wounded,” Waltrip said. “One day last week, I watched the whole thing all over again. It was a great race but I thought overall, as a group, it was one of the best 500s we’ve ever done. I love what we did and how we covered it, the rain delay and the whole thing.”

Waltrip, 67, said if the Fox guys had unruly hair, they could be like brothers to him, though he says likening them to a race team might be the better analogy.

“From 2001 when we started this deal, we always felt like a race team,” he said. “Mike was the owner, Larry was the crew chief, I was the driver. We kind of played out our roles. Then the pit people we have, they’re the most knowledgeable in the business. Steve Byrne, Matt Yocum; they live the sport, they’ve been around it most of their life, Chris Hammond, everybody that’s on our team are racers.

“We’re not journalists. We didn’t go to school to learn how to do this. But we know the rules, we know the people, we know the tracks. In a way that makes it easy; in another way it makes it a whole lot of fun.”

So you don’t mind when Larry McReynolds says “hisself” because that sort of makes it authentic, and you don’t mind when Waltrip says “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” at the start of every race, because that sort of makes it fun. And then when Mike Joy says to crank it up, you turn up the volume (unless you have dropped the remote between the couch cushions and can’t find it).

Waltrip still was coming in loud and clear, so we chatted about some of the storylines for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Two exciting races to open the season, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s resurgence, Kevin Harvick hitting it off with Tony Stewart’s team by winning at Phoenix, rule changes to which Jimmie Johnson and some of the other teams haven’t adjusted, Danica Patrick spinning her wheels, that Jeff Gordon Pepsi Max commercial.

When I asked if it bothered him that despite winning 84 Cup races and three series championships and all the rest, that there’s a generation of stock car fans that knows him only as the “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” guy — and perhaps as a voice in those animated “Cars” movies — he laughed. He said no, though sometimes he has to remind people that he once drove a racecar.

“I was in the golden age; I think I raced with the greatest drivers that have ever been in this sport,” Waltrip said, having come along when Richard Petty still was racing, and guys named Earnhardt and Allison, Yarborough and Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Benny Parsons.

But there was very little media coverage. People didn’t collect diecast race cars then, or line up at home improvement stores for guys’ autographs.

“You had a newspaper, and that was about it,” Waltrip said. “You had very little TV.

“People say to me it looks like your era has ended, but I say at least I had one.”

That’s right, I told ol’ D.W. I also said that people still listen to what he has to say — like on driver safety and whatnot — even during rain delays that never seem to end.

Then I mostly heard engine sounds, like Jimbo was putting the hammer down on the other side of Kingman.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.