NASCAR'S Darrell Waltrip: Racing Through Life

Darrell and Stevie Waltrip in the late 1970s.
Courtesy of the Waltrips

For most of the first decade of their marriage, Darrell and Stephanie "Stevie" Waltrip raced through life — literally.

It was the late 1970s, and Darrell's fast-ascending career as a NASCAR driver put him under a bright national spotlight. Stevie pursued her college studies and attended all of Darrell's races, becoming the first NASCAR wife to work with the race team on pit road. That meant trips to tracks in different cities on multiple weeknights, plus one, sometimes two, races on Sundays.

But the pace took its toll on the young couple. Darrell didn't concern himself much with working on relationships, including his marriage. "I was consumed with racing," Darrell says. "My vision of being a good husband was being a good provider."

"We weren't on the verge of a divorce," Stevie recalls, "but it was difficult." Darrell and Stevie both grew up going to church and considered themselves Christians, but their marriage relationship lacked depth, and there wasn't much time for faith.

A backyard epiphany for Stevie and a disastrous car wreck for Darrell changed all of that.

Knocked conscious

Stevie loved Darrell dearly, but she was miserable. She searched for answers, exploring reincarnation and New Age theology. Then an acquaintance gave her a cassette tape containing a Charles Swindoll message on the death of Christ. She listened to it one day while working in the yard. For the first time, Christ's sacrifice made sense to her. "I was pulling weeds in my garden and on my knees anyway, but I worshiped the Lord for the first time that day, my hands in the air, tears streaming down," she recalls. "I grew up believing that was what Christ did. But I didn't understand the depth of it."

Now she did, and she was hungry to learn more. She attended a local Bible Study Fellowship. She listened to Christian radio. She read Darrell her Bible lesson notes during airplane flights and road trips to racetracks. "I could not contain what I was learning," Stevie says. Darrell even showed interest in what she said. But he repeatedly turned down her invitations to attend church or Bible study. His reason: time. His growing success made it hard to slow down. Darrell won 12 races and the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship in 1981 and repeated those accomplishments in 1982.

Stevie kept praying for Darrell, and she told him so. Each race, he found note cards in his car containing Scripture to encourage him. She kept faithfully attending church and Bible study while still going to all of Darrell's races. "You know the saying: ‘You may be the only Bible someone reads,' " Darrell says. "That was true of Stevie in what she lived and believed."

Then came the Daytona 500 in February of 1983. Racing at about 180 miles per hour, Darrell had to make a split-second decision to avoid a car in front of him. He hit the brakes and swerved, causing his car to turn 180 degrees. The car's momentum carried him across the track and into an interior dirt embankment. The resulting impact then ricocheted him back across the track and into an exterior wall.

Suffering from a concussion, he struggled for weeks, at times unable to even recall where he was. Darrell comments on his accident, saying: "I like to tell people it knocked me conscious. It dawned on me that I could have died."

He accepted Christ not long after. Almost immediately, people noticed the change in Darrell's demeanor. He became a regular at church. He exuded a more peaceful and gentle countenance. He reached out to mend fences with those he had hurt professionally and personally. The man once nicknamed "Jaws" by a rival now was beloved — voted "most popular driver" in 1989 and 1990 by his fellow competitors.

Perhaps the biggest change came at home. "I feel like I've been married to two different men with the same name," Stevie says.

A winning team

At home, Darrell found something far more lasting than the race wins and accolades. "We're on a team," he says of his 46-year marriage to Stevie. "And it really is teamwork."

That united effort has shown through in big moments. For instance, the Waltrips endured years of unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy, followed by two miscarriages. Daily prayer together sustained them, a practice that continues today.

After the second miscarriage, doctors advised a major surgery to increase Stevie's chances for a successful pregnancy. But after further prayer, both sensed the Lord saying no. After more failed attempts, the Waltrips decided to join a waiting list to adopt.

Four months later, Stevie was pregnant again. "I had a real peace," she says. Darrell, though, was a wreck. "I didn't want to be at the track," he says. He attended all of her doctor appointments. He even got physically ill with her whenever she experienced morning sickness. "All of it made our relationship with God stronger, our marriage stronger," Darrell says.

Their daughter Jessica Lee came into the world in September of 1987. Then, in August 1992, their second daughter, Sarah Kaitlyn, was born.

Darrell and Stevie's teamwork has shown through in other ways, too. They collaborated together to start a children's ministry at racetracks, and they home-schooled their daughters so they could be together as a family during Darrell's racing seasons.

The Waltrips now live in Franklin, Tennessee. Both daughters are married and live nearby, allowing time for the three couples to connect. Stevie says it's rewarding to see the same skill of teamwork between their daughters and their husbands as she and Darrell learned.

When Darrell's hall-of-fame career ended after more than 28 years, it included 84 NASCAR victories and three NASCAR championships. He currently stays connected to the racing world as a FOX NASCAR broadcaster. Darrell credits his God-given talent, a relentless work ethic instilled by his parents, and the support of his family and race teams for that success.

Now 69, Darrell says a spouse's unwavering support is vital for a healthy marriage. Even in those days when he didn't know Christ, he watched Stevie keep her commitments to him and to the Lord. "It's a fine line between nagging and leading by example," he says. "I think you lead by example."

That gentle influence still matters today. The couple reads daily devotionals together. If Darrell says he doesn't have time, Stevie still does them, and more often than not, he winds up joining her. "Those little things — they're important," Darrell says. "They may seem trivial, but they're not."

Matthew Branaugh is an editor for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax Team.
This article first appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled "Racing Through Life Together." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Branaugh. Used by permission.

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