One of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences occurred Sunday morning riding around Bristol Motor Speedway in the track’s pace car with NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, the man who holds the record with 12 Cup Series wins around the high-banked short track.
I’ve done pace car and race car rides at Bristol and other tracks before. I’ve even driven on quite a few tracks, both asphalt and dirt, but this is different. I’m getting ready to go around the track that’s been such a huge part of my life with the driver who has accomplished so much here. He loves the place just as much as I do, which you know is genuine as soon as he starts talking about Bristol whether as a FOX television analyst or just in casual conversation.
He stomps the throttle as we leave pit road and proceeds to go full bore as we race down the front straightaway into turn one.
“Hold on, we’re about to hit the grip strip. You have to get a little loose,” the three-time NASCAR champion said. “This is fun, I love this. Imagine doing this all day for 500 laps. You know what I liked about seven wins in a row here. That’s 3,500 laps around here without a problem.”
He simulates what it’s like to be in a race at Bristol with other cars around us. His voice picks up and he’s fully animated as we pretend to be in race traffic.
“Get off my butt. Get out of my way. Move over, I’m coming,” he said. “Let’s go low. Now we’re going to hit that high line.”
As he drives the Chevrolet Camaro pace car to the top groove, the back end of the car loses grip and wiggles a little bit.
“Wooo, baby, we’re up here in the loose stuff,” he said. “That’s rough. Now we’re packing down in there. I’ll get a new right foot here in a minute.”
In typical Waltrip fashion, he quickly regains control and jokes about the PJ1 compound that was sprayed in the corners to give the cars more grip and make the racing more exciting.
“When they put that peanut butter and jelly on the track, the tires just stick to it and it almost pulls the steering wheel out of your hand,” he said. “There’s so much grip to it. The problem is that stuff wears off and then you’ve got to be able to move around the racetrack and find another line.”
Asked how he was able to put together a record seven-race winning streak at Bristol during a time when it was hard to just finish seven straight races, Waltrip said he believes it was the combination of himself and car owner Junior Johnson.
“I knew about tracks like this, Bristol, Nashville, Salem, Winchester (Indiana),” he said. “Then I got in Junior’s cars. Cale (Yarborough) led every lap here one race in Junior’s car. You put he and I together and we were about unbeatable.”
Back to the present day, the 71-year-old grandfather still shows the enthusiasm of a teenager. He joked about telling his wife about driving around Bristol again, which she responded, “You’re going to do what? Boy, don’t you get any ideas now.”
He laughs and then stomps the throttle again as the car rockets off turn two.
“You know if we blow a tire, we’re in trouble,” he said. “I’ve blown the right front here before. Hannggg, on.”
The wall is right in front of us, but he cuts left and avoids it. We head back to the pits where both of us are smiling and laughing. It was the quite the experience, truly awesome to speed around Bristol Motor Speedway with a true NASCAR legend.
Contact Jeff Birchfield at firstname.lastname@example.org.