Riding around Bristol Motor Speedway with Darrell Waltrip provides new perspective as to the track, drivers, relationships

darrell waltrip Bristol Motor Speedway

My final day of coverage from Bristol Motor Speedway started early Sunday morning. After the alarm went off before 6:00 AM, I got ready to make the one hour and twenty some odd minute ride to Bristol Motor Speedway from Wise, VA, to cover NASCAR’s and Bristol Motor Speedway’s Food City 500.

It’s the first time I have ever gotten up this early to go cover Bristol but given the weather forecast of rain and an early start time of 1:00 PM for the race, I decided I’d better be safe than sorry and get to the track early to get prepared for the long haul.

After arriving at The Last Great Colosseum, I was searched by security, no big deal, they’re doing their jobs, even dealing with crazy media people. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.

After the search, I made my way to the infield media center, where I ran into Samantha Zarek, a reporter with the local NBC affiliate in the Tri-Cities market (Bristol, Kingsport, Johnson City) and someone that I have had the great pleasure of becoming good friends with over the last year.

In her always bubbly, wide-eyed, child-like excitement, she saw me, said hello and immediately asked me if I had been on a ride around the track yet. “No,” I told her, “I’ve pretty much got here. Did you say rides around the track?”

She responded back, “Yes!” and then emphasized who it was with. “Darrell Waltrip,” she exclaimed. My interest piqued and with my stomach empty (I was planning on eating breakfast in the media center), I said, “OK, where do you go?”

Samantha then directed me to the entrance to pit road off turn four. As I walked out there, there were several other people waiting to take a few laps with one of Bristol’s winningest drivers and yes, probably one of the most outspoken and straightforward drivers on the track, off the track or even in the broadcast booth.

So as I waited my turn, I had a chance to speak to Mark Garrow, one of the voices of PRN’s radio broadcast, for the first time. I introduced myself and told him of the many times I had run his show or ran PRN’s races on the air while working for WNVA in Norton, VA. He seemed not too surprised when he learned of the station’s demise a few years ago and commented that sadly, the local radio station is going away and for some of them, the only way to survive is to be bought up by a big chain of stations and keep them on the air. We exchanged our hellos and he climbed into the Food City 500 pace car before me.

Next came my turn to climb into the bright orange Chevy Camaro pace car. It wasn’t the first time I have been in or around a Chevrolet Camaro. I got to drive one last year down Thunder Valley at the drag strip in the Bristol Media Challenge and one of my dad’s work buddies from his days at Clinchfield Coal Company working in mining, has a bright yellow Camaro with the license plate “Bumble Bee” on it, so I have an affinity for these wonderful cars.

As a matter of fact, I beat Samantha in our first heat race last year in the Media Challenge. But here’s the thing; I wasn’t going to be driving. At the wheel was the legend, Darrell Waltrip from Franklin, TN.

He welcomed me and another driver into the car and asked if we were ready. As I reached for my seatbelt, he told me and the other rider, “Ah, you’re not going to need it anyway,” I was encouraged but also wondering what was coming next.

So there I was, in the passenger seat beside of Bristol’s winningest driver and getting ready to hit the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.

And before DW could utter those immortal words of “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity, Let’s go racing boys!”, we were off and suddenly my head was thrown backward while holding my Lumix video camera and trying to record the moment.

And here’s where it got hairy.

Here you are sitting in the passenger seat, travelling at over 100+ miles per hour down the front and backstretch and then hitting the turns of one and two, then three and four with the G-forces (gravity) pushing your head toward the infield of the track, trying to hold a video camera without bouncing all over the place and praying you don’t hit the wall or spin out.

It reminded me of trying to multitask while driving round and round in what Sterling Marlin referred to it one time as a “fishbowl”.

inside the car darrell waltrip Bristol Motor Speedway

The experience was exhilarating but also pulled on the heartstrings.

Here I was, covering the Bristol Race Weekend, the Food City 500 and here I am riding around with Darrell Waltrip; my mother’s favorite race car driver.

Then I started choking up. I wondered to myself, “Mom are you watching this?”

Mom would have been over the moon to have had the experience just to meet ol’ DW. I don’t know what she would have thought riding in 100+ MPH Chevrolet Camaro and coming up on the turns so fast that it literally makes your head spin.

Waltrip proceeded to tell me and the other rider in the car more about the track and how the “Bristol Bite” chemical compound that is laid in the turns with about a 4-5 foot width has helped create more grip on the racetrack after some changes were made that eliminated a groove around The World’s Fastest Half-Mile.

With the added compound, the track has more grip, the cars carry the compound onto to the concrete and combined it gives more grip onto the front and backstretch. The darker the white concrete track gets the more grip. The more white concrete you see, it makes it harder to get that needed grip. Combined with feeling the bumps in the turns, especially four, yes there are some big ones as Waltrip said, combined with checking up or having to slow down, it’s not hard to see how easy you could lose it in the turns.

“I’ll tell you…that TJ1 it adds some dang grip,” replied DW as we traversed the turns.

So as I am holding my head up, hoping I don’t hurl like the kid who took the plane ride with Tommy Lee Jones in “Space Cowboys” and still not having ate breakfast, mind you, when DW tells me and the other rider, “You all are my last ones so I can go hard.”

After another blazing lap, DW reminded us, “Well boys, they’re going to do that five hundred times today.” Waltrip again reminds us when the bottom of the track is black like it was when we hit the track, “you can haul butt around here.”

“The problem with the high line around here is, it’s fast but its treacherous,” replied Waltrip. “You get up around the wall and into that loose stuff and that big bump off turn four will get you all messed up.”

As we slowed down from our quick four laps or so jaunt around BMS, we came to a stop at or near our original starting point.

I got out of the Camaro and then something told me I needed to thank DW personally and get it off my chest. I walked over to him thanked him again and then proceeded to tell him that I was thankful to have had the chance to have met him and rode with him. It was something that my mom would have loved to have seen or been a part of, including meeting her favorite driver.

He shook my hand and as I told him that he was Mom’s favorite driver and she was no longer alive. It was then I got choked up and he knew it too. The thing was, he got a little wispy eyed too when he said, “Thank you.”

It was the thrill of a lifetime but also a lesson learning experience.

The first lesson I learned from riding around Bristol Motor Speedway was that it’s not as easy as it looks on television. Trying holding your head straight on the banked track surface and tell me that it won’t make your head hurt. It made my head hurt after just four or so laps. And the speed? Wow. It’s not like riding the track during “Speedway in Lights”.

The experience also told me that these drivers are much greater athletes than anyone could imagine. For a player from another sport, in the case of Donovan McNabb and a few others to say that NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes in the same sense as they are is totally ludicrous. It takes a special person to fight G-forces like a NASA astronaut and go around in a circle for 500 laps. It’s not easy but if it was, then everyone would be doing it.

The next lesson and perhaps a great personal lesson I learned today was maybe I’ve been to harsh on DW in the past. I’ve been critical of his broadcasting skills and his banter on the FOX broadcasts for years.

Today I learned that DW is a human being, just like the rest of us, he’s truly a great driver and he appreciates people.

I’m just thankful for the opportunity to ride with him, get a tour of The World’s Fastest Half-Mile by way of a Chevrolet Camaro and a chance to meet Darrell Waltrip. I was impressed. I hope Mom was too, watching it all from her perspective. It was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.

I have to also give thanks to a little angel by the name of Samantha, who happened to guide me in the right direction, Thanks to that child-like wonderment and excitement, I gained a new perspective about a lot of things, friends and racing, but one huge revelation.

Tell the people, if you can, thank you how much they mean to you and what they have done in your life. I’ve certainly got a long list that I can’t even begin to put into words.

I’m glad I was at least able to speak for Mom and express my thanks to DW and also professing her like of DW to him in person. It made me feel as though she was with me today.

It also makes me wish I had one more chance to sit down with her again.

Just enjoy the moment now because you might not get a chance again.

By Rod Mullins / Augusta Free Press

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