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Waltrip: Fox TV gig is a fun 'sperience'

Even liberties with language have endeared "Jaws'' to viewers.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 23, 2001


His career drawing to an inauspicious conclusion, Darrell Waltrip at one point decided he would shut down his fan club when he retired from Winston Cup racing.

Though he had won more races (84) than all but two other drivers in the history of the sport, he had struggled in recent years and saw his popularity eroding as his rankings plummeted. Over the last five years of his career, Waltrip finished no better than 24th in Winston Cup points. His last victory was in 1992, eight years before he retired.

But Fox Sports president Ed Goren, in the market for an analyst for his network's NASCAR coverage, wasn't going to let Waltrip become the answer to a "Whatever happened to. . . ?" trivia question.

"How could you not go after a guy whose nickname is "Jaws'?" Goren said this year.

And so Waltrip, who earned his nickname not just for salient quotes but the often-merciless way he delivered them, became a star. Again.

Now, as Fox prepares to wrap up its half of the broadcast season Sunday, Waltrip says his fan club gets 5,000 e-mails a week. Some request "Darrell Waltrip on Fox" merchandise. While he knew he'd have no problem making a living with his mouth, even he is stunned at the fan reaction since his Winston Cup analyst debut at the Daytona 500.

"I'm trying to say this politically correctly," said Waltrip, 54. "I've always been a fairly popular guy, but I've never been as popular as I am right now."

Even fans who once loved to hate him can't resist his tell-it-like-it-is, English-language-be-durned approach. Neither can media critics, who almost without exception are happy to quote Goren, Fox Sports chairman David Hill or even drivers like Ricky Craven, who all describe Waltrip as the John Madden of his sport.

"Unfortunately, I've been out of a few races early enough so I've watched the end of events, and I think Darrell is doing a great job," Craven said. "I love the insight that he brings to the table."

Said Hill: "He's honest, he's opinionated, he's experienced. He's a communicator."

Waltrip never has trouble coming up with things to say; if anything, he said, he has been making an effort to be fair, not just outspoken. One topic he has not minced words on is driver safety. Since the death of good friend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, he has criticized NASCAR for not doing enough to protect the very people who have made the sport so popular.

It was at Daytona, his first major race as an analyst, where Waltrip made his mark as a broadcaster. In the kind of on-air stunt few could get away with, he cheered his brother Michael to his first Winston Cup victory. Then within minutes he provided the kind of insight Fox hired him for, relaying to viewers and colleagues just how serious Earnhardt's crash might be.

"We were on," Waltrip recalled. "It was a great telecast, you could feel it. (The race) was going well, a lot of passing, a lot of excitement. ... (I was thinking), "Man, I love this gig, it's so much fun. My brother's going to win the race! My brother is going to win the first race I've ever done, the first race he's ever won in his life. And I'm going to call it, and man, I get to watch!'

"And he wins the race, and one of America's greatest heroes gets killed 100 yards from the finish line. As a driver, as a father, as a husband, as a friend, I've never experienced anything like that in my whole life. I don't care how many races we do in the future. That race will always be for me a day I'll never forget. It's a day I'll take to my grave."

Even now, Waltrip can't talk about it without emotion clogging his voice. He said he has mixed feelings about stepping out of the booth just as NASCAR returns to Daytona on July7 for the Pepsi400. Waltrip will be in England as NBC kicks off the second half of the season.

But he won't be out of the limelight for long. Fox, which will pay him an estimated $9-million over six years, will keep him busy with assignments for Fox Sports Net's weekday show and other programming yet to be announced.

Even as he seeks improvement, Waltrip said it is unlikely he will change his down-home style.

"When I talk about "sperience' and when I talk about "munication,' " he said, poking fun at his sometimes sloppy pronunciation, "I'd like to think the audience out there has a sense of humor. I say a lot of dumb things, but I believe I offset them with a lot of intelligent things too. It's all in fun, all in jest. It's part of the telecast.

"I'm enjoying the heck out of it. ... If I could sit in the tower with the NASCAR guys every Sunday, that's probably where I would be."

- Staff writer Kevin Kelly and other news organizations contributed to this report.

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