The text from my friend, Stevie, popped up on my phone. “We made the Hall of Fame! Woo Hoo!!!”
I already knew. I had just read the news story announcing the next five inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and knew that Stevie’s husband, Darrell Waltrip, was included. I had seen the photo from the moment of the announcement in Charlotte that showed Darrell with tears streaming down his face and Stevie laughing happily.
I replied to the text with my congratulations then re-read hers again, struck by one word: “We.” It was so unlike Stevie but no words had ever been truer. “We” not just “he” had accomplished what will be a historical acknowledgement to his three championships and almost one hundred wins including one Daytona 500.
No friend knows her better than I do. I know her deeply-bred humility, her steadfast commitment to her husband and daughters, her ironclad faith, her kind heart and her reluctance to venture into the spotlight. Her focus centers on faith, not on fame or fortune. She is happy for Darrell to be the star of the family, of racing and now of television. She has no desire to plop herself into the spotlight for if she is given a choice, she will slip into the shadow.
So “we” was completely out of the ordinary for her but no “we” has ever been more appropriate. Stevie Waltrip was the first woman ever allowed in the pits of a NASCAR race and listen carefully when I tell you that it was a barrier not easily broken. She’s stubborn. She’s a red-head, so of course she’s obstinate when necessary. She stood firm, fought the battle and won. Now, don’t get to thinking that our sweet Stevie is a feminist. Far from it. She was simply a young wife who knew her husband, a struggling driver with practically no budget, needed her help.
“Darrell needed me to score for him. There was no one else to do it,” she has explained. “I told NASCAR, ‘My husband needs me. I have to be in the pits to work.’”
Without question, there was a fair amount of grumbling going on but she was, at last, given a pit pass and thus began a new era. It was NASCAR’s first step into the modern world. It was 1972. Before Stevie, the pit passes read: No women allowed in pits.
Until the day that Darrell retired, she scored every race for him, keeping an account of his fuel mileage. During the week, back home in Tennessee, she worked as a special education teacher to pay the bills so that her husband could chase his wild-eyed dreams. Back in those days, drivers struggled and paid their dues. There was no easy, quick way to success and, even when you won, it didn’t pay that much. The Waltrips did it the old-fashioned way. They begged for sponsorship (Stevie’s dad, Frank, even bought sponsorship through his company), drove thousands of miles in beat-up trucks pulling the race car behind them and toted their little dachshund with them to every place they went. It wasn’t glamorous but it was, truth be told, fun and exciting for they had faith in the dream.
It was Stevie — I know this for a fact for I was elbow to elbow with her that day — who gave the OK for that crazy gamble on fuel the day Darrell captured his lifelong dream of winning the Daytona 500. When the crew chief asked her if it was possible to go the distance without pitting, she took a calculation and said brightly, “Go for it.” Against the odds, he won the race and ran out of gas as soon as he crossed the line.
No woman has ever stood more firmly beside a man than Stevie Waltrip has. “They” deserve this honor.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of My Life In The Pits. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.