In NASCAR, Is Racing Talent Inherited Or Developed Randomly?

Richard Petty carried on the family racing heritage begun by his father Lee and enhanced it greatly with 200 victories and seven championships. The Petty racing legacy continued with Richard's son Kyle and his son, Adam.

I often wonder about talent, whether it is an inherited gift, or pops up randomly in families – especially as it pertains to race car drivers.

In the Petty family it was clearly evident that driving prowess existed throughout the lineage, albeit to varying degrees.

Lee Petty, the patriarch of the family, experienced success out of the gate in the fledgling NASCAR Grand National Series. From 1949 – 1964 Petty won 54 times.  Additionally, he collected three championships.

Petty’s son Richard has a most impressive, rock solid list of statistics prove his talent. From 1958-1992 Richard won 200 races and seven championships, achievements that earned him the moniker of “King” in NASCAR.

Talent continued to flow from the Petty family when Richard’s son Kyle became a driver in NASCAR. Although he won only eight races in his nearly 30-year career (1979-2008), Kyle possessed an aptitude for driving.

Finally, the Petty Family had a burgeoning talent with Kyle’s son Adam, a 19-year-old boy who got his shot in a Cup car at this tender age with the goal of continuing the Petty heritage.

Tragically, Adam’s life was cut short in an accident at New Hampshire International Speedway while he was practicing for a Busch Series race.

Clearly there is an argument that the formula for racing genius lies somewhat in the genes, to varying degrees.

Other families in NASCAR can support that.

Ralph Earnhardt had a modicum of success as a driver in NASCAR’s top series. But he was well respected as a short track racer, who worked hard for every dollar he earned.

Earnhardt definitely had “something” when it came to racing, he was a short-track master and national champion, but he never experienced great success at the Cup level.

Earnhardt’s son Dale was a scrappy kid who couldn’t seem to get a foothold in racing until 1979, when he won rookie of the year honors in NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit.

The very next year Dale won the championship. This started a string of successes that led to 76 wins and seven championships – which ties him with Richard Petty.

Dale’s son Dale Jr. certainly has had a modest career in his 13 years in Cup to date. He has earned 19 wins and is still vying for more.

His two Busch Series championships were the catalyst that propelled him to Sprint Cup competition. With Dale Jr.’s career still going at full speed, there is no telling how many more wins he can accrue – and if there may be a championship in his future.

Other families in NASCAR have rich racing legacies.

Darrell Waltrip was the first member of his family to become successful in NASCAR. He won 84 races and six championships. Younger brother Michael struggled until he found success with DEI. He is now a top team owner.

The Allison dynasty comes to mind instantly. Bobby and Donnie Allison, brothers, won 84 and 10 races, respectively, in NASCAR’s top series. They earned scores of other victories throughout their racing careers.

Bobby’s son Davey won 19 times before his life was cut short by a helicopter accident in 1993. Bobby’s other son Clifford lost his life in 1992 at Michigan International Speedway while practicing for a race. He had a promising career but was struck down before it got under way in earnest.

Ned Jarrett earned 50 wins and two championships. Jarrett’s son Dale won 32 races and one title.

David Pearson has 105 wins to his credit and three championships. His son, Larry, found success in the Busch Series winning championships in 1986 and 1987. Although Larry never had a win in the Cup series, he certainly had a knack for winning in the lesser series posting 15 victories.

Coo Coo Marlin and his boy Sterling found some success at NASCAR’s top level. The elder Marlin never won a points race in his career, but did win a twin qualifier at Daytona in 1973 and earned several top fives and top 10s.

The younger Marlin strung together 10 wins in NASCAR’s Cup series in his 33-year career.

The Labonte brothers are other siblings who show talent in the gene pool. Oldest brother Terry earned 22 wins in Cup racing along with two championships. Younger brother Bobby earned 21 victories and has one championship to his credit.

Darrell Waltrip set NASCAR aflame with 84 victories and three championships. His younger brother Michael struggled until Dale Earnhardt became his team owner at DEI.

Michael now has four checks in the win column and has become a successful team owner in his own right.

The Bodine brothers, the Wallace brothers and the Busch brothers have all proven that talent can, and does, run in a family – again, to varying degrees.

But it doesn’t prove that talent springs only from families.

Junior Johnson and Jimmie Johnson may share a last name, but they are not related and appear to be the one-offs in racing talent in their families.

 

Tim Richmond, Jeff Gordon and Cale Yarborough seem to be standalones who show talent may just be random but no less incredibly potent.

For every familial link of talent there is a case of uniqueness in a brood where racing prowess had not existed.

Perhaps there is no more talent in “racing families” than in other ones. Maybe the skill has taken more time to be found and developed.

Do you believe racing aptitude is inherited or do you think it is random and racing families merely have the means to identify talent more readily?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JUNIOR JOHNSON: With The 1986 Season Came Winds Of Change

In 1986, Junior Johnson's teams struggled. It wasn't until June that Darrell Waltrip finally won a race and that made it much more difficult for him to challenge Dale Earnhardt for the championship.

The tone of the 1986 season was set, at least for Junior Johnson & Associates and driver Darrell Waltrip, after an incident at Richmond in February.

Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt were involved in a frightening crash while racing for the lead. Theirs were two of four cars eliminated from the race, which was won by Kyle Petty.

Junior fumed over the incident for some time. But he also realized that if his team was to win another championship, it was going to have to beat Earnhardt.

That, indeed, turned out to be the case.

Although Waltrip spent most of the remainder of the season second in points to Earnhardt he could not overtake him.

In fact, the season was almost half complete before Waltrip won a race. He won only three times in 29 starts. Teammate Neil Bonnet won just once.

It was one of the most lackluster performances for either of Johnson’s teams since the two-car operation began in 1984.

But then, there seemed to be a very good reason for that.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

When I recall the Richmond incident, even today, I still can’t help but feel that Dale caused it. I think he did it on purpose.

Dale just couldn’t stand for Darrell to beat him with a pass that late in the race. So he pulled an old dirt-track trick.

Dale had been a good dirt-track racer in his early days. He learned a lot from his daddy, Ralph, who was as tough as there was on dirt.

When Darrell was almost past him, Dale just kept his left front wheel at a point where Darrell’s car wouldn’t take a set to get through the corner.

You have to cock the rear end out to get the car to turn, but Dale held his ground. Darrell couldn’t get the rear out.

So to me, as much as I had raced on dirt, it was clearly deliberate. Heck, in the early years I had done the same thing myself.

NASCAR handed out punishments to Dale – fines, probation, that sort of stuff. But I really don’t think he cared anything about that.

He was in his third season with team owner Richard Childress and their union had reached the point where Dale was confident in his cars.

He felt he could win anywhere. And he felt so confident in his ability that, well, I wonder if he sometimes thought he could get away with anything.

I was certain of one thing: He was the man we all had to beat.

Neil Bonnett won just one race for Junior in 1986 and finished 13th in the point standings. Well before season's end he announced that he was leaving the team - Waltrip did likewise.

For months after Richmond, Junior Johnson & Associates didn’t come close to beating Dale.

He won three of the nine races following Richmond. During that time, neither Darrell nor Neil won anything. As the 1986 season moved into June my teams were winless.

We had never gone that deep into a season without a victory. Even at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville – the short tracks on which we always seemed to do well – we came away winless.

It was puzzling and frustrating.

Finally, on June 1, Darrell got a victory. And it wasn’t easy. On the road course at Riverside, Calif., Darrell and Tim Richmond – a talented kid who drove for Rick Hendrick – were beating and banging on each other pretty hard during the closing laps.

At the end a race-closing  caution period began and Darrell managed to slip past Tim to win by four feet.

We needed that victory for a couple of reasons: First we had to restore our usual – and expected – level of performance. Riverside was a start.

Second, we had to keep some sort of pace with Dale. Even though it took us almost five full months to get the first win in 1986, Darrell was still second to Dale in the point standings.

After Riverside Darrell was 119 points behind. We had plenty of work to do, but then, there was time.

Remember I said Dale was the man to beat in ’86? After Riverside, it sure looked like that was not the case at all.

Tim went on a tear. He won four of the next six races and was the runnerup in one other. He was on one heckuva hot streak.

Darrell cooled him down, just a bit, with a victory over Terry Labonte at Bristol on Aug. 23. Hey, we won on a short track – now that was more like it.

We were still in the championship hunt. Dale finished fourth after an accident with Bobby Hillin Jr. So we came away 121 points behind Dale with nine races remaining.

We could do it. We’d made up more points than that with fewer races remaining.

Remarkably, Tim won the next two races at Darlington and Richmond – which dropped Darrell to third in points.

Darrell won at North Wilkesboro in September and was back in second place in points, 122 behind Earnhardt.

Darrell was feeling good about it so he pulled out the stops – at least verbally. He tried mind games on Dale. He said, “I would try to put some psychological stuff in the newspapers, but Dale and his boys can’t read.”

Dale pounced back after he won at Charlotte.

“I can read,” he said. “Just like in a kid’s early reading book, ‘See Darrell run his mouth. See Darrell fall.’”

Which, unfortunately, is exactly what Darrell did – make that what Junior Johnson & Associates did.

Dale won his second career championship by 288 points over Darrell.

Neil, who finally won at Rockingham in October, finished 13th in points.

There’s something I haven’t told you.

By June, everyone in racing knew that the 1986 season was going to be the last for Darrell and Neil at Junior Johnson & Associates.

I wasn’t surprised at all.

I had known for quite some time that it was coming.

JUNIOR SAYS: At Charlotte, Darrell Won At Last And ‘Awesome Bill’ Wasn’t So Awesome

Darrell Waltrip finally broke through a losing streak in 1985 with Junior when, at Charlotte, he not only won The Winston, but also the Coca-Cola World 600.

Darrell Waltrip won the first running of The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25, 1985, to get his first victory of any kind that season.

Until NASCAR’s version of an “all star” race, the only driver in the Junior Johnson & Associates stable to win a race was Neil Bonnett, who won twice in the year’s first 10 races at Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.

 Junior felt – knew – it was time for Waltrip and his team to pick up the pace if they wanted to earn a third Winston Cup championship.

But even that might not get the job done. Young Bill Elliott was on a tear. He won five superspeedway races through the early portion of the season and stood in first place in the point standings.

He was also poised to win a $1 million bonus. If he could win the Coca-Cola World 600, the final and most important event of race week at Charlotte, the money was his.

For Junior the perfect scenario at Charlotte would be for Waltrip to win the race and, in so doing, take the measure of Elliott.

It wouldn’t be easy – if at all possible.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com

 will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

I don’t care how controversial the finish was – the engine in Darrell’s Chevrolet blew just after he crossed the finish line – winning the inaugural The Winston was a real tonic for Junior Johnson & Associates.

Darrell finally won a race in 1985 and while it wasn’t a points-paying event, it removed any doubts that he could get the job done and the team could prepare a winning car for him.

I reckon the only concern I had was if we could provide a car that would let Darrell win a 500-mile race instead of one that lasted just 105 miles.

It turns out we couldn’t – seems we gave him a car that won a 600-mile race.

When Waltrip swept Charlotte in his Budweiser Chevrolet, he not only provided momentum for Junior's team, he also stalled, briefly, Bill Elliott's dominance.

That race was the Coca-Cola World 600, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, the day after The Winston.

The atmosphere for that race was unlike any other I had experienced. It seems the media, fans – heck, everybody – had a very strong interest in the outcome.

That’s because Bill Elliott came to CMS with the chance to win The Winston Million, which was a program that awarded $1 million to any driver who could win three of four selected races.

Bill had already won five superspeedway races coming into Charlotte and among them were the Daytona 500 and the Talladega 500.

If he won at Charlotte he’d pocket that $1 million before the season was half over.

So all eyes were on Bill. I felt some sympathy for the guy. He told everyone he dreaded coming to Charlotte and I could see why.

He didn’t get a minute’s peace. He was hounded by the media and his fans almost everywhere he went – pits, garage area, you name it. I don’t think he had much private time at all.

Now, while I felt a little bit sorry for him, I wasn’t all that sorry. After all, the guy was No. 1 in points. He was the driver we had to beat to win another championship and, through the first 10 races of the season, we hadn’t come close to doing it. No one else had either, for that matter.

I thought that all the distractions he endured at Charlotte might just take away from his race preparation. Of course, I wasn’t sure. But I was sure that if Darrell was in the same position, well, it wouldn’t be a good thing.

Danged if Bill didn’t win the pole. So much for distractions.

I had never seen as many fans attend a Charlotte race as I did when the 600 began. I don’t think there was an empty seat in the place and the infield was full. I was told later there were 155,000 or more in attendance.

Bill sure had strong drawing power, I’ll say that.

But those that came to see Bill win $1 million were disappointed, and in very short order.

He did lead the first 13 laps but he quickly fell off the pace – which was something no one had seen so far in 1985.

Bill had to drop out of the race with brake failure. And by the time his team made repairs and got him back on the track he was 21 laps down.

He wasn’t going to earn a million bucks that day.

Meanwhile, Darrell raced to the front and was quickly in contention for the victory.

Harry Gant – it seemed that guy was always up front – led laps 328-390 of the race’s 400 laps and then pitted for fuel. That gave Darrell the lead.

Then, after Darrell’s stop for gas, his wife Stevie, who was in our pits figuring gas mileage, got real concerned. She said she didn’t think Darrell had enough fuel to finish the race. He was going to be three or four laps short.

Here we go again, I thought. Once more we may lose a race we should win.

I decided to let Darrell remain on the track. If he was gonna run out of gas, durn it, it would be while going for the win.

I thought he could make it. Well, let’s say I hoped he could make it.

He did, barely. He beat Harry and then ran out of gas on the cool-down lap. That’s cutting it close.

The victory was a real relief for Darrell and me. It was our first points-paying victory of the season. It ended an early-season slump and gave us some real momentum for the remainder of the year.

By sweeping the weekend at Charlotte, we earned nearly $500,000. It ain’t a million bucks, but it’s big-time money. I didn’t mind that a bit.

Like I said, the 600 victory was a big boost for us.

But then, while he might not have been able to do much at Charlotte, I had the strong feeling we hadn’t seen the last of Bill Elliott.

 

JUNIOR SAYS: The Winston Of 1985 Proved A Much-Needed Tonic For Waltrip And Team

While Darrell Waltrip had already won several races and two championships with Junior, he got off to a slow start in 1985. He was winless one-third of the way into the season while teammate Neil Bonnett won twice.

The 1985 NASCAR Winston Cup season was going well enough for Junior Johnson & Associates.

By the 10th race of the season it had already won twice. But, oddly enough, Neil Bonnett, who became the team’s second driver a year earlier, earned both victories.

Darrell Waltrip, who had already won many races and two championships with Junior, was winless.

It was a situation that caused Junior some concern.

He had no doubt Waltrip would win but there was a major obstacle that hadn’t been present in previous seasons.

Bill Elliott was thrashing the competition. The young Georgia driver was dominant on the superspeedways, so much so that every Winston Cup team knew that to win a major event meant taking the measure of Elliott, something that was seemingly impossible to do through the first third of the 1985 season.

It was indeed small, but at Charlotte in May,Waltrip and Junior took one step toward doing just that.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.comwill appear every other Friday throughout the season.

After 10 races in 1985 – one-third of the season – I had some mixed feelings about my two-car team.

Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t doubt the fact that two operations would work. I knew that was entirely possible if for no other reason than Junior Johnson & Associates had done very well in 1984.

It’s just that I was very pleased with one team and a little concerned about the other.

Neil didn’t win with me in 1984 but he quickly made up for that with two victories in 10 races in 1985. I had no worries about his team because it was clear progress was being made.

On the other hand, Darrell had not won a single race through a third of the season. He won seven races a year earlier so I had reason to be a bit puzzled.

Also, Darrell and I had enjoyed so much success in the past I think it was just logical that I was a little concerned about what was going on, so far, in 1985.

Speaking of being concerned, every team in NASCAR, including mine, was concerned about Bill Elliott.

He was wearing us all out. By May he had already won seven races – all on superspeedways.

Additionally, he had already won two of four selected races that made up the inaugural Winston Million program.

If any driver won three of those races, which were the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington, he would collect a $1 million bonus.

Bill had already won at Daytona and Talladega. The 10th race of the season was at Charlotte. The bonus money was all but in his hands.

The Coca-Cola 600 was scheduled for May 26. The Winston, the new “all star” event open to 1984 race winners only, was set for a day earlier, also at Charlotte.

It was going to be a very special weekend for NASCAR.

And, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also going to be very special for Junior Johnson & Associates.

Darrell’s team was one of only 12 that could enter

The Winston. It was a 70-lap race that paid $200,000 to the winner.

I made special plans to assure that Darrell was that winner.

And he was.

Although at first it didn’t appear that was going to be the case. With 10 laps to go, Darrell trailed leader Harry Gant by 3.1 seconds.

Bill Elliott was easily the hottest driver of 1985. He won seven times in the first 10 races of the year and was well on his way toward winning a bonus of $1 million in the new Winston Million program.

I got on the radio and said to Darrell, “Boy, do you want that $200,000 or $75,000 for second place?”

I thought that would fire him up and sure enough, Darrell made up the distance and got past Harry in the fourth turn just as the white flag flew. Darrell won by less than a second.

He had barely crossed the finish line when the engine blew. I thought to myself, “Man, we got lucky.”

Here’s why:

Those “special plans” I told you about were basically this: I had told my engine guys to construct a motor that would last a little over 100 miles. It was supposed to be built for horsepower and not endurance.

That’s exactly what my guys did – and they did it almost to the very foot. No question we were extremely lucky because failure could have happened one, two or more laps earlier.

Of course the timing of that failure made the other teams upset. They claimed I had ordered Darrell to mash the clutch and kill what they thought was an illegal engine as soon as he took the checkered flag.

Johnny Hayes, Harry’s team owner, complained loudest, saying I was up to my usual tricks. There was plenty more grousing, too.

OK, I agree it looked suspicious.

But Harry said he had smelled something when Darrell passed him and he thought it was his own engine getting ready to blow.

And, although Darrell’s engine was destroyed, there was enough of it left for NASCAR to inspect, which it did.

NASCAR checked out the bore and stroke and said that the engine was legal.

Case closed, as far as I was concerned.

The Winston eased a lot of my concerns. It might not have been a points race but at least Darrell won – at last – and we made a lot of money.

Oh, and we beat the guy now known as “Awesome Bill.” He finished in seventh place.

So I knew Darrell’s team could get the job done.

The only way to strengthen my belief was to win a points-paying race and, as a bonus, beat red-hot Bill in so doing.

I would never have imagined it at the time, but that would happen just one day after The Winston.

JUNIOR SAYS: The 1985 Season Was The Coming Of ‘Awesome Bill’

Junior Johnson

Junior Johnson

Even though Darrell Waltrip did not approve of a two-car team, he and teammate Neil Bonnett combined to produce a good 1984 season for Junior Johnson & Associates.

At the beginning of 1985 there was no reason to make any changes. Budweiser sponsorship was assured for another season and, from all appearances, Waltrip and Bonnett, and their teams, worked together harmoniously.

But for Junior, 1985 got off to a rocky start. Warner Hodgdon, who had been a financial partner and a man who prolifically spread money around NASCAR, was in serious legal trouble. He had to file for bankruptcy.

Junior faced the daunting task of rescuing his team from financial ruin.

Fortunately that was accomplished.

Both Waltrip and Bonnett started the season competitively and shaped themselves into championship contenders.

But it didn’t take long for them, and everyone else, to learn that to win a title meant to stop an unexpectedly strong, relatively new, driver and team – both poised to make NASCAR history.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

In1984, my two-car experiment worked out pretty well, I thought.

Darrell won seven races but finished fifth in points behind Terry Labonte, who won the championship driving for Billy Hagan.

In his first year with me, Neil didn’t win, but he wound up eighth in points. I thought, overall, we delivered a pretty good one-two punch for the season.

As far as I was concerned the two-car operation was full-speed ahead for the 1985 season. I was determined that performance would be even better.

But I had to attend to not-so-small problem.

Warner Hodgdon, whom I had taken on as a financial partner, was in serious trouble.

He was a real estate developer and he became embroiled in a bid-rigging scheme that, as I recall, was triggered by an unfaithful employee.

Warner faced lawsuits totaling $53 million. He had to dispose of all his NASCAR interests – track and teams included – and file for bankruptcy.

He owed me a considerable amount of money so I had no choice but to file foreclosure papers.

On a bitter, cold day in January 1985, the Wilkes County clerk of court auctioned off Warner’s portion of Junior Johnson & Associates on the courthouse steps. I was the first one there.

I paid about $200,000 to regain full control of my team.

Warner’s intentions were honest. He played a key role in getting me backed by Anheuser-Busch in a two-car operation. And I think he helped the tracks with which he was involved, too. I was sorry for what happened to him.

That issue aside, we were ready for the 1985 season. Darrell and Neil were back on board, of course, and, as usual, there was confidence that we could win yet another title.

I didn’t know it at the time but the 1985 Winston Cup season was going to be one of the most memorable in NASCAR’s history. And my team would play a role in it.

For the second year in a row, popular Neil Bonnett drove for Junior as a teammate to Darrell Waltrip. Bonnett won his first two races for Junior in the first 10 events of the 1985 season, which helped his team get off to a good season start.

To set the stage, during the offseason, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. announced two new projects.

The first was The Winston, called an “all star” race because only race winners could compete. It offered no points but a heckuva lot of money.

The second was The Winston Million. It offered a $1 million prize to any driver who could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coca-Cola World 600 and the Southern 500.

I was intrigued. Darrell? Well, his mouth was watering. He knew we were in The Winston – scheduled for May in Charlotte – and he also felt he had a solid shot at that $1 million.

Let’s put it this way: I sure didn’t have to motivate him. Not at all.

The season started almost perfectly. Darrell was the runnerup in the Busch Clash and a Daytona 125-mile qualifier. He then finished third in the Daytona 500. Yes, we didn’t win, but we were already near the top of the point standings.

But for me, the real thrill came in the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, the third race of the season.

That’s when Neil got his first victory with me in a wild, exciting finish.

Neil was involved in a metal-swapping battle with Harry Gant and on the last lap, Neil made the pass to win by inches.

I thought the world of Harry, but it sure tickled me to see one of my drivers win like that.

It was great racing, a throwback to NASCAR’s early days.

Neil wasn’t through. In April at North Wilkesboro, he won again. And Darrell finished second by a car length.

It was a “double dip” for Junior Johnson & Associates and one of my proudest moments at my home track.

As good as that was, however, and as quick a start as we had, things could have been a lot better.

When the season’s 10th race came around my team had won only twice – with Neil. Despite a couple of solid runnerup finishes, Darrell had yet to win a race.

And he suffered a great disappointment at one of his favorite tracks, Martinsville, when his engine blew and he finished 23rd.

Nothing gripes me more than engine failure. While I know the occasional bad part can cause it, many more times it can be traced to a lack of preparation – and that I never tolerated.

I was going to get to the root of the problem.

But then, we had another problem. And for that matter, so did every other team on the Winston Cup circuit.

The problem? Bill Elliott.

The kid out of Georgia with his one-car, Harry Melling-owned team, was shredding the competition.

By late May he had won seven races, all on superspeedways. He was on course to break David Pearson’s record of 10 big-track wins in a single season.

He was also well on his way to a cool million bucks. He won the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500 at Talladega, which meant if he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the 10th race of the season, the money was his before the year was half completed.

The only way to stall Elliott was to beat him, of course.

But at that time it didn’t look as if anyone could.

Personal Recollections Of Two Newest HOF Inductees

Cale Yarborough (left) raced into the NASCAR Hall of Fame with multiple championships and victories, accomplished mainly by his driving style - tough, with no quarter given. Darrell Waltrip is also the winner of many races and championships and was perhaps the first vibrant and controversial personality racing had ever encountered.

Idling in a bit of a reflective mood the other day, it occurred to me that I have been lucky enough not only to have met, but also interacted with, most of the15 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In many instances my relationship with a few of them was mainly on a professional level. With men such as Bill France Sr., his son Bill France Jr., Lee Petty, and Modified superstar Richie Evans – whom I covered regularly at Martinsville – there wasn’t much personal interaction.

But it wasn’t that way with the Hall’s other 11 members. The media-athlete standard, one that decrees that mutual cooperation is good, but any personal relationship is bad, simply dissolved.

With some (Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt) it was easy to talk about politics, world affairs and life itself. With others (Bud Moore, David Pearson, Dale Inman, Junior Johnson) it was so natural to swap tall tales, jokes, anecdotes and laughs.

It was pretty much the same with others (Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison) but they also spoke their minds about the racing issues of the day. Often they were more blunt and direct than they would have been in public.

Throughout my career, I always practiced what I preached. When I said something was off the record, with me, it remained so.

Over time and increased trust, they all knew this. When I asked them if they wanted their opinions printed sometimes they said no.

At others, they told me to come out with my guns blazing, their words as bullets.

This wasn’t always the case. Inman and Wood, while always friendly, were very cautious with their words.

Ned Jarrett is the only Hall of Fame member with whom I actually worked. After his racing career he became established – and gained further notoriety – as a broadcaster.

In the late 1990s, it came to pass that I joined the panel of TNN’s “Inside NASCAR,” of which Ned was the host.

During the course of one summer we were the only panelists on camera and had to basically carry the show by ourselves.

Ned was the ultimate professional, ably orchestrating our discussions. Working those months alone with him ranks as one of the highlights of my career.

I have said all this not to suggest to you that I am anything special. Far from it.

I did so only to say that in my profession I have been, simply, very fortunate – no more and no less.

I would like to offer some personal observations about two of the incoming members of the Hall of Fame, and do the same for others at a later date.

My life as a motorsports writer had progressed only a few years when I was able to witness the launch of what would be two spectacular careers.

Well, to be honest, it wasn’t the inauguration of Yarborough’s career. By the early 1970’s he had already established himself as a NASCAR star, sweeping to victories with Holman-Moody and the Wood Brothers.

But Yarborough became charmed with Indy Car racing – then easily the dominant form of motorsports in the United States. He got an offer enter the sport and compete in the prestigious Indianapolis 500.

He took it and walked away from NASCAR.

The experience was a disaster.

In only a couple of years Yarborough was out and hunting, again, for a NASCAR ride.

As fate would have it in 1973, there was a good one available. Allison had driven for Johnson in 1972 but their competitively successful yet personally unsatisfactory relationship had some to an end.

Johnson didn’t waste any time. He snatched Yarborough immediately. And, as they say, the rest is history.

You know all about their numerous victories together and the domination that led to three consecutive Winston Cup championships from 1976-78.

It was a perfect fit. As a driver Johnson never coddled a car. Yarborough didn’t either. He didn’t know how.

He was short, stocky and barrel-chested. When he finished a race he was red-faced and sweating profusely – because of the heat, for sure – but many times also because he had wrestled with an uncooperative car over 500 miles and made it win.

He was a tough guy who came from a tough background. It didn’t take long for the media – with whom Yarborough was comfortable – to print stories of his football and boxing days, or how he came to unwillingly wrestle an alligator when he dove into a river, or got bit on the toe by a rattlesnake and the snake was found dead the next day (Yarborough was just fine) or how he survived a hit from a bolt of lightning.

He was the perfect example of the stereotypical stock car driver of the day – rugged, tough and unafraid.

He was much more than that, of course, as I learned over the years. But during his time no other driver was considered tougher by fans and peers alike.

It would be well into the 1980s before anyone suggested there was a driver who could match Yarborough – and his name was Earnhardt.

During the years Yarborough was heating his career to a boil, 1973-1976, another driver began his and operated pretty much out of the limelight.

Waltrip was barely noticed when he came out of Kentucky by way of Tennessee to start a Winston Cup career. He had only his own, one-car team.

But he won with it in 1975, at Nashville, and began to attract attention – probably enough to lure DiGard Racing Co. to hire him as a replacement for Donnie Allison later that season.

As you might expect, Waltrip won again and that set loose upon the NASCAR world something it had never before seen.

It was a man who was bold, candid and irreverent. If he had respect for the stalwarts of the day he didn’t show it. He touted himself, constantly, and said he was the man who would beat the establishment.

You have to understand that during this time to affront the five or six superstars that dominated the sport – or to make snide remarks about virtually anything – was unheard of.

So when Waltrip did it, boldly and willingly, fans and competitors were astonished.

Some hated him for it – Yarborough was no fan – while others relished it. In Waltrip they saw the sport’s first refreshing presence in years. They began to cheer for him, even if they spelled his name “Waldrop.”

As much as many would have loved to see this brash upstart shut up and, more important, fail on the track, neither happened.

Waltrip began to win regularly. He became a consistent championship challenger and in that role, as you might imagine, he was a master at baiting his rivals.

With Johnson, he earned three championships and his ascension to superstardom was complete.

Many might have considered him something of a loudmouth but with his success, and time, he became accepted and respected.

He never shut up. But, interestingly, he spoke more often about what could be done to improve NASCAR and its races than to question the ancestry of another driver.

Yes, he mellowed with age.

He has parlayed his experience, wit and gift of gab into his successful television career.

With your kind tolerance, there’s a bit more to come.

Some New Twists For 1983 And, Yes, Another Slugfest With Allison

Darrell Waltrip won his second consecutive career Winston Cup championship with Junior in 1982 and both he and Junior determined there was no reason they couldn’t earn yet another title.

However, things weren’t quite the same in 1983. Junior decided to take on a business partner; a team co-owner who would provide an infusion of money needed during a time when NASCAR organizations were clawing for sponsorships.

And, as had been in seasons past, the year did not start off well. Waltrip was involved in a serious crash at Daytona that left him virtually a shell of himself for a few weeks. Junior believes his driver never fully recovered from the incident.

A strong challenge was issued early from Bobby Allison, a long-time rival for Waltrip and Junior Johnson & Associates.

For much of the season, Junior’s team was up to the challenge – at least it was within striking distance of Allison’s DiGard Racing Co. team, which raced its way to No. 1 in the point standings.

The scenario seemed to be much the same as it was in 1982, when Allison and Waltrip fought it out in a memorable battle for the championship.

But then, the season wasn’t over.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

I know that many folks were stunned with a decision I made prior to the start of the 1983 season, but I did it because the offer was good and NASCAR was enduring a time when teams were scrapping for sponsors – and I didn’t want mine to be one of them.

When California businessman Warner Hodgdon – a real estate developer – came to me in late summer or early fall of 1982, he asked me about buying into my name and into Junior Johnson & Associates.

I took the offer because it was sound. It gave the team additional financial backing and it added to our sponsorship packages. It made Hodgdon my partner.

I had done something like this before, with Carling Brewery, almost a decade earlier. It didn’t last long but it proved worthwhile for me.

I thought it could be the same, even better, with Hodgdon. He had a half-interest in the Bristol, Nashville, North Wilkesboro and Richmond tracks. He sponsored both races at Rockingham and was a co-owner of the Rahmoc Enterprises team and driver Neil Bonnett.

So we began the 1983 season infused with new money, which, as you might think, raised our hopes for yet another championship with Darrell.

I have to admit I thought about how special it would be to win three consecutive titles with two different drivers. That would make NASCAR history.

But it seemed we were doomed almost from the start.

At Daytona, Darrell was involved in serious crash that began after Dale Earnhardt suffered a blown engine. Darrell hit the inside wall along turn four really hard. He was taken to Halifax Hospital where it was learned he had suffered a concussion. He was kept overnight and released.

Darrell couldn’t remember anything about Daytona but he returned to race the next week at Richmond. Looking back, he shouldn’t have done that. He was hurt far more than we suspected. He qualified fourth but dropped out of the race before the halfway point with a mechanical failure.

I thought Darrell was in a fog for the whole Richmond weekend. Sometime afterward he admitted to me that, just like Daytona, he didn’t remember a thing about the race.

I think his injury kept Darrell from accomplishing a lot more in future years. I think he would have done much more if that hadn’t happened.

Darrell has downplayed that over the years but does admit that to race at Richmond so soon after the crash was probably a fool thing to do.

“Hindsight makes you a lot smarter,” he said.

Waltrip

Junior Johnson & Associates sported Pepsi as a sponsor for the Chevrolets driven by Darrell Waltrip in 1983. The team also added a new co-owner when Junior surprisingly agreed to take on Warner Hodgdon as a partner.

After Richmond, it certainly appeared things were going to be just fine. Darrell ran third a week later at Rockingham. He then won for the first time in 1983 at North Wilkesboro to start a streak of four victories in six races, adding victories at Martinsville, Nashville and Bristol.

But we couldn’t get the points lead. After Darrell won at Bristol, for his 15th victory in 20 short-track races, he was just hanging on to the top-five in the standings.

The leader? Do I really have to tell you? After two seasons of head-to-head battles with Darrell, and losing them both, out in front was Bobby Allison, our old nemesis. He was still driving for DiGard Racing Co.

Bobby admitted he was miserable after losing the championship, closely, over the previous two seasons. He said that in 1983 he was going for the title harder than ever and that, sooner or later, he would win one.

I never doubted his resolve.

So the situation was simple: If Darrell and I were to win a third-straight title we’d have to beat Bobby.

Certainly Bobby knew he’d have to beat us to win the championship. And he was going to do everything he could to do just that – even running his mouth.

When Bobby won at Dover in May, he said that we had been cheating all along and that he had won the race because he had been given our “secrets” from a former Johnson-Hodgdon employee. Funny thing, but he wouldn’t divulge exactly what those “secrets” were.

Bobby started a war of words. I knew he was going to lose it and I wouldn’t have to say a thing.

The very next week Darrell won at Bristol. He beat Bobby and they were the only two drivers on the lead lap. As I thought he would, Darrell pounced.

“Obviously we haven’t given away all of our secrets, have we?” he said in victory lane. I loved it.

Unfortunately, Darrell didn’t have the chance to fire off a few more verbal salvos for the next three months. We didn’t win a race. Bobby won only once but his other finishes were good enough to keep him ahead of us in the point standings.

Reckon I knew just how badly Bobby wanted to win the championship at the Talladega 500 in July. Darrell and Dale were fighting for the lead. On the last lap, Bobby tucked in behind Dale and gave him the push he needed to win the race.

Thing about it was, Bobby was a lap down. He had no business getting involved. He shouldn’t have been sticking his nose into it – hey, he was in ninth place with no chance to win. He should have let Darrell and Dale decide it between them.

“No doubt about it,” Darrell said. “Bobby won his one for Dale.”

It showed just how much Bobby coveted the championship; how much he wanted to, at last, take the measure of Darrell and our team. He would do whatever it took. That was obvious.

After Talladega, Darrell was 170 points behind Bobby in the standings. There were 11 races remaining in the season.

There was plenty of time left to make up the difference.

I certainly didn’t know it then, but there was also plenty of time for some of the most unusual events in NASCAR’s history to unfold.


In A Real Slugfest, Darrell Won A Second-Straight Championship

After Darrell Waltrip joined Junior Johnson & Associates in 1981 following the buyout of his contract with DiGard Racing Co. – done with funds Junior provided – it was widely acknowledged that Waltrip could now win his first Winston Cup championship.

Which he did. It was also the fourth for Junior as a team owner. It was obviously financially rewarding and Junior was able to recoup everything he had spent to acquire Waltrip.

Thus the Waltrip-Johnson association quickly proved successful. The only question that remained was how much more could it accomplish in the future?

That question was answered quickly. Waltrip and Johnson won a second consecutive title in 1982.

But by no means was it easy. Waltrip had to overcome a huge points deficit and a serious challenge from a driver who had been one of his, and Junior’s, most unrelenting rivals for many years.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

The only real strategy I had in 1982 was for the team and Darrell to keep right on doing what we did in 1981.

We hadn’t undergone any major changes; there were no alterations in the makeup of the team. That was also the case when we won three straight championships with Cale and I could see no reason why that scenario couldn’t benefit us again.

But something else didn’t change – namely, a poor outing in the Daytona 500.

In ’82, NASCAR had dropped Riverside as the first race of the season – fine by me, by the way – and thus the 500, our biggest event, became the inauguration of the year.

Darrell was in the lead with 49 laps to go when the engine blew – which happened in 1981. However, this time the results weren’t quite as bad. There was a high attrition rate in the 500 and as a result there were only 17 cars running at the finish. So Darrell wound up 20th and that’s the position we held in points.

Bobby Allison won the race. He had taken over the DiGard ride that Darrell left to join Junior Johnson & Associates – which cost me some money that he repaid nicely with the 1981 championship.

Competitively, Bobby had always been a thorn in my side after his only season with me in 1972. With DiGard, he would be again. As 1982 rolled on he established a fierce, and I mean fierce, rivalry with Darrell.

At first it appeared we wouldn’t have a rivalry with anyone. Darrell won the third race of the season, at Bristol, and that started a streak of five victories in eight races. We also won at Atlanta, North Wilkesboro, Talladega and Nashville.

I remember the Atlanta and Talladega victories as being particularly impressive. At Atlanta, rain threatened and sure enough big ol’ drops started falling. It was obvious NASCAR was going to end the race early.

Darrell was battling with Richard Petty and passed him in the final turn as NASCAR threw the red flag. There was a side-by-side finish and NASCAR gave us the win by inches over Richard. It was one of the closest finishes I had seen anywhere.

At Talladega Darrell was racing Benny Parsons, who had won the pole at over 200 mph, the first driver ever to qualify that fast.

I figured there was something left in the car, Darrell just had to find it and use it. I got an idea as to how to make him do just that.

With about three or four laps remaining, I said over the radio, “Pick it up a little down the backstretch Cale.”

I knew exactly how Darrell would respond.

“Damn it Junior,” he said in a huff, “my name is Darrell!”

I knew he would be agitated and he was. He indeed picked it up and made a slingshot pass around Benny to win the race with Terry Labonte in tow.

If you asked me then what reverse psychology was I wouldn’t know the answer. However, it seems I knew how to practice it.

After all we had accomplished early in the year Darrell was not on top of the points. After Nashville, the 10th race of the year, he was 60 points behind Labonte.

Then we went into a swoon. Darrell did not win in the next six races. Fact is we had some pretty mediocre finishes, the best of which during was second at Michigan. That’s where, I think, Darrell displayed his frustration over what was happening.

Darrell had a great duel with Cale at Michigan and was actually in the lead on the last lap. But the two made contact and Cale retook the lead and won the race.

Darrell was not happy. He made that clear when he intentionally bumped Cale on pit road. When Darrell did that, our car slid off into the wet grass and got stuck in the mud.

These two drivers hadn’t been the best of friends for years, ever since the “Jaws” and “Cale Scale” thing in the ‘70s.

So, naturally, Cale had a good time needling Darrell about being stuck in the mud. Darrell jawed about the last-lap contact.

Waltrip

Bobby Allison (88) and Darrell Waltrip were bitter rivals for the championship in 1982. With Junior, Darrell managed to win the title with 12 victories on the season. One of them came in the Northwestern Bank 400 at North Wilkesboro, where Allison had tire problems and finished eighth, two laps down.

Cale responded, “Reckon I’m going to have meet ‘Jaws’ in the Big K parking lot.”

Never happened, of course, but I think that at Michigan Darrell might have learned a lesson: If you are going to dish it out, you have to learn how to take it.

As we were going through somewhat of a slump, Bobby came to the forefront. When he won at Daytona in July it was his third win in six races and he was first in points. Darrell was third, 186 behind.

We won a week after Daytona at Nashville. Bobby won the next race at Pocono. Six days later, Darrell won again at Bristol.

There followed the Southern 500, which was won by Cale. Then Bobby won again – his seventh victory of the season – at Richmond. Just a week after at, at Dover, Darrell was the winner.

During the course of 14 races, including the July Firecracker 400 at Daytona, Bobby and Darrell combined to win 13 of them.

I had never seen anything like it. It was just like a couple of heavyweights exchanging blow after blow with neither one giving an inch, much less hitting the canvas.

It was at Martinsville that things changed. Darrell won while Bobby blew up and finished 19th. Darrell took the points lead – he was 37 ahead of Bobby.

Danged if they didn’t keep doing the same thing. Darrell won at Rockingham – but didn’t gain in points – and Bobby won at Atlanta to set up a duel for the championship at Riverside on Nov. 21, the last race of the season. Darrell was just 22 points ahead of Bobby.

Tim Richmond was the Riverside winner. Darrell finished third and Bobby lost a lap with two flat tires and stripped lug nuts. He then blew an engine with seven laps to go. Darrell won the title, our second in a row, by 72 points.

This championship was very satisfying in many ways, but perhaps even more so because Darrell made up a 147-point deficit with seven races to go.

And he won after a terrific slugfest with Bobby. Given that Bobby was with the DiGard team for which Darrell once drove, and won, there was a lot of irony in it all.

I have to admit at the time I didn’t think much about any of that. I was just so pleased that in 1982 with Darrell, Junior Johnson & Associates had won 12 races, nearly a million dollars and a second consecutive championship.

Admittedly, thoughts of another third-straight title entered my mind.

But common sense told me to push them aside.

 

The Darrell Investment Paid Off Nicely In 1981

After all the wrangling and behind-the-scenes activities it took, Darrell Waltrip was officially announced as the driver for Junior Johnson & Associates on Dec. 22, 1980.

Junior had lent Waltrip the money to buy out the remainder of his contract with DiGard Racing Co. He did so because he felt strongly that Waltrip was the driver who could help his team win another championship.

The Johnson-Waltrip union was considered by many observers as the one to beat in 1981. In fact, it was widely thought that any talented driver could win a title driving Johnson’s cars.

There was plenty of evidence. Cale Yarborough had won three consecutive Winston Cup championships from 1976-78, finished fourth in 1979 and second in 1980, the last year he drove for Junior.

Junior said publicly he thought that with Darrell, his team was going to win a lot of races and championships.

The first step toward that goal would come on Jan. 9, 1981, when Waltrip took his first official laps for Junior Johnson & Associates on the road course at Riverside, Calif., site of the first race of the season.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

 

 

By the way, those first laps were pretty darn good. In his first competition with us, Darrell won the pole for the Riverside race with a speed of 141.711 mph.

Immediately the guys on my team felt a sense of optimism that we just might win our very first race with Darrell as our driver.

I admit I felt that same sense of optimism.

But it wasn’t to be. Darrell led the first three laps and then slid off the course. Later, our Buick had a fouled spark plug and Darrell was forced to pit for a good while.

After that there was no way we were going to win. Darrell finished 17th to winner Bobby Allison – who always gave us a real challenge ever since he left the team after the 1972 season.

Things turned for the better quickly at Daytona. Darrell won the Busch Clash and that earned us $71,500 – the most money we’d taken in for a single event up to that time.

Then, in a 125-mile qualifying race, Darrell showed the skill and daring I knew he had. On the last lap he dove almost down to the apron to beat Benny Parsons.

Some of the drivers didn’t like the way Darrell won, saying he was “too risky” and that he “endangered others’ lives.”

Bull. Darrell was doing what it took to win the race and I said so. I thought the others complained about his “moves” because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the same.

We stood a chance of winning the Clash, a 125-mile qualifying race and the Daytona 500 – a sweep.

But that evaporated just 117 laps into the 500 when an engine blew. Darrell wound up in 36th place, which, of course, put him well back in the point standings.

It got some folks to thinking that maybe Darrell wasn’t going to do all that well with me, after all.

We quickly put that notion to rest. Darrell won at Richmond on Feb. 22, 1981 – our first win together – and then won three more races and finished third in another during a six-race span.

After Richmond Darrell won at Rockingham, Bristol and Darlington. He finished third in his first start for Junior Johnson & Associates at North Wilkesboro, my “home” track, and was downright apologetic about it.

He made up for it with the Darlington win a week later.

I have to add something here. When I hired Darrell a lot of folks said it wouldn’t work. We would end up arguing and fighting with each other. It was said I would get fed up with Darrell’s cockiness and brashness.

And, too, Darrell had said some unkind things about my team while he was with DiGard.

Yeah, there were some pretty strong words back and forth over the years. But you have that in racing. There was never any hatred or anything approaching it. We both had the same goal – to win.

Darrell was pretty much all I figured he would be and we had a good rapport.

After our red-hot start together, things cooled off. The Darlington win had come in April and we didn’t win again until mid-June – a span of seven races.

The victory drought came to an end at Riverside. There, Darrell earned his fifth win of the season and it was a tonic for us.

Allison, who was the points leader, blew up after 26 laps. That meant he was 193 points ahead of runnerup Ricky Rudd. And, with the victory, Darrell cut his third-place deficit from 341 to 232 points.

Darrell said he knew we could make it up. All we had to do was make Allison race for the title and “he’ll blow up engines if we put the pressure on.”

Told you he was “mouthy.”

But he was right.

After the season’s halfway point – which traditionally has been July at Daytona – Darrell went on a tear even I could never have imagined.

He won seven races, at Nashville, Pocono, Bristol, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Charlotte and Rockingham – those last four were consecutive – and finished second six more times.

Darrell won four races in a row for the first time since 1976, when Cale accomplished the feat. Yep, he was driving for me.

Darrell’s incredible hot streak wiped out Allison’s lead in the points. Allison did win the final race of the season at Riverside, but Darrell’s sixth-place finish there earned us the championship by 53 points.

In 1981, Darrell won 12 races and the championship – which was the first of his career and the fourth for me as a team owner.

Together we did what we thought we could do and, I think, more than what many expected of us.

Oh, and our earnings for that season were nearly $800,000.

So I got a great return on my investment in Darrell pretty darn quick.

Darrell Came On Board In 1981, But It Really Took Some Doing

Before the end of the 1980 season driver Cale Yarborough announced that he was leaving Junior’s team after eight seasons and three consecutive Winston Cup championships.

The final year together was a good one although another championship was not attained.

That was something of a bother for Junior but he had a bigger problem. In Cale, he was losing one of NASCAR’s top drivers of the 1970s – in fact, ultimately one of the best of all time.

He would be hard to replace.Junior had a good idea of the competitor he wanted and that

driver also wanted, desperately, to join Junior. By the end of 1980, Junior and Darrell Waltrip, once Cale’s archrival, would unite. But it was not easy – and it involved arrangements never before seen in NASCAR.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

While Cale and I were trying to win a fourth championship, which we would lose by just 19 points to Dale Earnhardt, another driver and team were making headlines in NASCAR.

But they weren’t making them on the track.

Seems Darrell Waltrip was pretty much fed up with DiGard Racing Co., even though his greatest achievements had come with the team he joined in 1975.

Darrell made it pretty clear he wanted to leave DiGard. But in order to do that, he had to break his contract, which was originally structured for several years.

It was on Sept. 9 of 1980 that Cale announced he was going to leave Junior Johnson & Associates to join M.C. Anderson’s team and run a limited schedule.

It wasn’t long after that when things began to heat up. I knew that once Cale made his intentions known it wouldn’t be long before I’d hear from Darrell.

I was certain he wanted to drive for me. And to tell you the truth, I had already figured that, some day, I would like to have him do that – if I could afford him.

Sure enough, Darrell came by to see me later in the early fall. He wanted our ride. He might have been under contract, but he sure wasn’t getting along with his team owner, Bill Gardner.

I told Darrell he would have to negotiate his way out of his contract, which, I learned, had three years remaining.

Let me add something here. The type of contract Darrell had with DiGard was something very new to NASCAR.

I remember that drivers used to be hired with a handshake. Sure, in time there were contracts, but most of them were for one year only – and were pretty simple stuff, to tell the truth.

But it appeared the contract Darrell had was for an extended period of time and was very complicated. It’s the type of thing that is routine now. Back then, however, it was almost one-of-a-kind.

Late in the 1980 season, when it came to Darrell and Digard, things got ugly.

On Oct. 2 Darrell told the press he had to get away from DiGard. He said the team would eventually ruin his career. Those were pretty harsh words.

The next day Gardner said he would hold Darrell to the contract. He added that he would add a second driver, and give Darrell junk to drive, if it came to that. Those were pretty harsh words.

Then I got involved. Well, let’s say Gardner got me involved.

Team owner Bud Moore and I got letters from Gardner’s lawyers telling us to stay away from Darrell. Gardner said he would not only hold Darrell responsible for breaking the contract, he would also hold anyone else involved responsible.

I reckon I don’t have to tell you this didn’t sit well with me – not at all. I responded. I had my lawyers send Gardner a letter. I told him to refrain from trying to hire some of my people right out from under me.

He had tried to get three or four of them earlier in the year. As far as I was concerned, Gardner had been a troublemaker ever since he got into the sport.

I hoped Darrell could get out of his contract. But I was far from certain that he would.

But it happened less than a month after Darrell’s Oct. 2 gathering with the press. He and Gardner met for two straight days, Oct. 28 and 29. Then Darrell announced he was a “free man.”

He would run the last two races of the season with DiGard and then be free to race somewhere else.

There was a catch, however. Darrell had to buy his way out of his contract. It was the first such a deal in NASCAR history. At the time I had never heard of it, and I’m sure no one else had, either.

But I got right in the middle of it all. Darrell and I, and our lawyers, met in North Wilkesboro and hammered things out so he could race with Junior Johnson & Associates in 1981.

The financial arrangement Darrell made with DiGard was never disclosed. Rumors said he had to pay anywhere from $320,000 to $500,000. Most folks believed he paid a little more than $300,000 and Darrell never denied that.

But I’m going to bust a bubble here and re-work some NASCAR lore. Darrell never paid that much. The amount was about half that.

How do I know? Because I paid it. I loaned Darrell the money. I did it because I knew he had talent. I had seen him race many, many times and he was one of Cale’s primary rivals during his championship years.

Yes, he was cocky. I once called him “That mouthy little ol’ boy from Tennessee.” But I always felt he had the talent to back up his talk and I wanted him to do that with me.

Which is what Darrell also wanted. He said that he always wanted to drive for me. He added that when he was a kid he watched me drive and that I was his hero.

I signed Darrell to a three-year contract. Yes, it was something I had never done, or thought I would, but I accepted the fact that it was good for the team and the sponsor – which was going to be Mountain Dew in 1981.

When all was said and done, at the start of 1981, it was up to Darrell to help us get the job done.

And, let’s face it, I needed a good return on my investment.

When the year began I had no idea just how good that return would be.

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