Well, an issue has cropped up that has been on my mind for a while so I figure it’s time for me to jump smack in the middle of it. God help me.
The issue I’m referring to is that of Darrell Waltrip the broadcaster and his imminent retirement. Rumors had been circulating that he may be shutting off his proverbial microphone after the Fox Sports part of the season ends at Sonoma, and then Jenna Fryer wrote an AP story about it. The racing internet promptly exploded. Twitter went wild. Then the rumors became truth and it looks look old DW will in fact ride off into retirement after the end of the Fox broadcast season.
Ms. Fryers’ story was, in my opinion, sharp but accurate. She pointed out that Mr. Waltrip’s race coverage is a bit dated and out of touch with newer fans; that he has a good old country-boy persona that used to play well with the NASCAR fan base of the past but does not mix with the “new” NASCAR of 2019. The way she made her point REALLY pissed some people off. Fellow broadcasters and lots of fans immediately jumped on the story defending DW and his career. The story was termed everything from disrespectful to mean, and other words to nasty to recount here. I’m trying to be nice ok? But then many fans (but no broadcasters that I am aware of) chimed in with support for Jenna’s opinions. It didn’t help that she used terms like “carnival-like yukfest” and “cornpone” to describe the level of broadcasting that occurs in the booth with Waltrip waxing poetic about somewhat irrelevant yarns and bits of information. She didn’t intend to be downright mean to a NASCAR icon’s legacy (what writer would?), but it came off that way. The real issue is that however clumsy the analysis may have been it was, in my opinion, correct.
Now as a full disclaimer I personally have never been a huge DW fan. I’m just not in sync with his down home, country boy delivery. Not my style. But I do respect his place in the sport. Hell the man won 84 races and 3 NASCAR Cup Series championships. It’s not like he’s an idiot. But that was a long time ago for most NASCAR fans. My biggest issue with Mr. Waltrip as an analyst is that he always seems to make things about himself. No matter the subject he seems to end up relating it to himself, usually with a story he was involved with from years ago. Some fans love that but a lot either don’t relate to it, or have just had enough. He’s a bit egotistical for my taste. But again, no disrespect intended. That’s who he is and he’s honest about it. I give him big points for that.
NASCAR is in an unenviable spot in many ways right now. Although seemingly plateauing this year, viewership, attendance and overall interest has been in freefall since the salad days of the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s. Back then NASCAR could do no wrong. Race tracks were adding seats as fast as they could to accommodate ticket demand. Big sponsors were walking around the garage with checks in hand looking for cars to sponsor. TV viewership was growing fast. Things were good. And easy. The fan base back then was still mostly NASCAR’s traditional folks. Those who mostly lean country, who grew up idolizing Richard Petty, the Allisons, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. The kind of fans who show up the Thursday before a race and camp out through Monday. That has always been NASCAR’s core. And that was the main reason that Fox Sports snapped up Waltrip for their shiny, new, big money broadcast of NASCAR races back then. It was important to connect with the audience that made NASCAR so big. But that was then. Since that time a lot of things changed.
The momentous and tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 (Waltrip’s first race as a broadcaster) seemed to start a slow downward slide of interest from the old school fan base. A lot of other factors over the ensuing 18 years have been eroding that base, and new fans have not been coming in to follow NASCAR to replace them. So, the sport is changing in all areas in an attempt to bolster the business side of things and keep the money flowing because, after all, it is an entertainment business and it takes a LOT of money to participate. It’s racing’s life blood.
NASCAR itself has been trying all sorts of new things to spice up the show like group qualifying (read our own RaceFanChucks’ take on that mess here), changing the race schedule, and new rules designed to make the cars more equal and racier. Tracks have been removing grandstands that are empty during races because of lack of ticket sales. TV networks have been investing in new technical whiz-bang tools to cover races in more exciting ways. Teams have worked with smaller budgets. Is it really a surprise that the faces and voices that actually broadcast the races would need a makeover?
Look, we all get older. We all “lose a step” eventually. And if the job we’re doing requires new and different skill sets well, you have to keep up or move on. That’s really what has happened with Darrell Waltrip. If you watch the NASCAR coverage on NBC you see a much fresher, more accurate, and more entertaining product for most fans than what is coming out of the TV truck at Fox. It’s just a fact. Waltrip has even acknowledged it himself lately and the fact that he was considering retirement indicates that. And that’s ok.
So please race fans, let’s let a three-time NASCAR champion, the fourth winningest driver in NASCAR history (84 wins), a long-time proponent, influencer and supporter of the sport we all love, have the dignified and happy retirement tour that he deserves. Because it’s time. For him and for NASCAR.