Sunday marks the end of an era in stock car racing. The bigger question lies in what replaces it.
This weekend, Fox Sports will conclude its half of the season broadcasting NASCAR’s premier racing series. When Fox Sports’ broadcast season concludes, so will the commentating career of Darrell Waltrip. The Hall of Fame driver, and three-time Cup champion, announced earlier this year he would step away from the booth after 19 years as a broadcaster.
A recent ESPN article profiling Waltrip on his impending retirement noted that “for the first time in 47 years, [he] doesn’t know what’s next.” The analogy could apply to the entire sport.
Waltrip’s first race in the broadcast booth, in 2001, proved memorable in ways both good and bad. Most tragically, Dale Earnhardt, Sr.—a seven-time champion and icon of the sport—died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. While celebrating his brother Michael Waltrip’s first Cup victory in that race, Darrell couldn’t stop thinking about Earnhardt’s wrecked car, hoping against hope that his dear friend would emerge from it unscathed.
The 2001 Daytona 500 also served as a milestone for why Waltrip entered the broadcast booth. Fox Sports had for the first time won the rights to televise NASCAR races, and hired Waltrip as one of its analysts. Observers saw the move as solidifying stock car racing’s rise to compete with the “Big Four” traditional North American sports, an expansion of the sport beyond its roots in the rural South.
Yet even as NASCAR spent the 1990s and 2000s extending its footprint nationwide—adding races in locales like New Hampshire and California, while eliminating some events held in the Carolinas—Waltrip still hearkened back to the sport’s roots. The Owensboro, Kentucky native started racing in 1972. While he continued racing until 2000, most of Waltrip’s success, along with his three championships (1981, 1982, and 1985) came far earlier.
Waltrip’s southern twang, and frequent stories about old-time legends like David Pearson and Richard Petty, grated on some. His signature call at the start of each race—“Boogity! Boogity! Boogity! Let’s go racin,’ boys!”—won imitators (including one of the most, umm, spirited pre-race prayers ever) but also detractors. Just before Waltrip announced his retirement, an Associated Press column encouraged his departure, arguing that his “carnival-like yukkfest is stale.”
Case in point: From time to time, crew members fail to attach all the lug nuts to a tire, causing the tire to fall from a car during a race. This would generally prompt Waltrip to hum, to no one in particular: “You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel.”
One can certainly make an argument for an end to Waltrip’s brand of down-home humor, as part of another attempt to broaden NASCAR’s audience. But how—and to what end?
The sport has tried rules changes over the past several years, in the hopes of generating better racing and more sustained fan interest. But the changes have only confused long-standing fans. Also, the tens of thousands of empty seats at races demonstrate the sport has yet to regain many of the fans it lost during the Great Recession. The week Waltrip announced his retirement, the event at Bristol Motor Speedway, long a track on any NASCAR fan’s bucket list, showed fans filling barely one-quarter of its 146,000 seats.
Waltrip admitted the problem in his interview with ESPN last month: “I’ve had so many crossroads in my career, and that’s where NASCAR is, at a crossroads….We’re at a crossroads with drivers, with sponsors, everything. And when you’re at a crossroads, it’s up to leadership to decide, are we going up or down? I question decisions every day that are made by NASCAR.”
Ultimately, the sport can only attempt to put the best racing product on the track, and hope that fans respond. But even Waltrip admitted that those efforts might result in some changes that he—and perhaps some of NASCAR’s traditional fan base—might not fully embrace: “It’s probably a good time for me to step aside. Because I’m old-school and it will never be the way it was. And I don’t think I can tolerate it the way it’s going to be.”