Michael Waltrip: All-Star memories

Fox broadcaster, former driver, remembers North Wilkesboro, Charlotte races fondly

Michael Waltrip answers reflecting on his racing days while meeting with the media at North Wilkesboro Speedway (Shawn Krest/NSJ)

The NASCAR All-Star Race in North Wilkesboro brought back plenty of memories for Michael Waltrip. Not all of them involved his racing career.

“I was here last year as a fan,” said Waltrip, who last raced anywhere in 2017. These days he makes his living calling races for Fox. “I had my camper parked over on the back straightaway. Me and my buddies sat over there, had a couple beers and watched Kyle Larson. Great, great memories of watching Kyle get that victory. And then his wife said, ‘If we win, we’ll shotgun a beer in Victory Lane. So, I came running across the racetrack into Victory Lane and had a beer with the family.”

Waltrip may be enjoying the races like a fan these days, but for decades, he was one of the top competitors on the Cup Series. It took him about a half dozen years of being called Darrell Waltrip’s little brother before he made his own name in the sport. Michael would win Daytona twice among his four Cup Series wins. He also had 133 top-ten finishes.

In 1996, he won the All-Star Race, then held in Charlotte, after barely making the All-Star cut, becoming the first driver to take first place after qualifying the day of the race by finishing near the front of the All-Star Open.

The Open serves the same purpose as conference tournaments in March Madness. Someone who otherwise wouldn’t get an invitation can earn their own spot by performing well at crunch time.

Waltrip rode his free ticket all the way to Victory Lane in Charlotte, going from the back of the pack, as the last qualifier, to first place.

“That night, standing there in Victory Lane, with the fireworks going off—and the three-wide pass I made to get the lead,” he said. “Passing Dale and Terry Labonte and winning that race, that’s just something I’ll never forget.”

Michael Waltrip celebrates in victory lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway after winning the 1996 All-Star Race. (Alan Marler/AP Photo)

Especially considering how close he came to being a spectator for that All-Star Race as well, perhaps drinking a few beers while watching his brother, who started in the front row.

“You back up to how I got in that race,” he said. “Lucky for me, they took five out of the last-chance qualifier. And I finished fifth. So I got in through the Winston Open (then the name for the All-Star Open) that night. And I told Len and Eddie (Wood, owners of the racing team)—I said, ‘We got to change some stuff. We’ve gotta change a lot of stuff. It’s just terrible.’”

Unfortunately, like now, the Open finished right before the start of the All-Star Race.

“We only had like 30 minutes,” he said. “They got to work on the car a bit, and I started the main event in last and drove to tenth. Then Eddie’s like, ‘They’re gonna invert. Quit passing people.’”

After 30 laps, a fan vote determined whether to keep the cars in their current order or invert—meaning to flip the order of the cars upside down and put the race leaders in the back. By driving too well, Waltrip ran the risk of being sent right back to where he started.

“This is too fun,” Waltrip remembers telling his team owner. “I can’t stop.”

“They inverted,” he said, “but I stayed in tenth, and then I drove from tenth to fourth. They had that last restart, and I was able to get the win.”

Waltrip was also a veteran of North Wilkesboro, having run 22 Cup races there, as well as several other races on the Dash Touring Series.

“I raced here for the first time in ’82 and ’83, in the Dash Series,” he said. “And I just remember thinking that this is just a normal short track. Progress all the way to 1996, when you couldn’t even touch the throttle. I mean, there were times, literally from coming off turn four ‘til you get to the start/finish line, you couldn’t get all the way down.” You were just squeezing it.”

Managing his speed was just one memory of racing at North Wilkesboro, however.

“Back in the day, just coming here, my brother driving for Junior Johnson,” Waltrip recalled. “Him being such a big deal in NASCAR at the time and me trying to get going my feet wet and setting on the pole and having fast cars. This place just has so many great memories.

“You know what I love most about it is Marcus Smith, Speedway Motorsports: They’re brilliant. Anything they do they do it right. And they preserve the old nostalgic feel of it. You know, you can see the old signs that are here and the grandstands, everything. When I walk in here, it makes me feel like I did when I walked in here 30 or 40 years ago.”