A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip guest of honor at Speedway Children’s Charities fundraiser

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

The Kentucky Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities (SCC) hosted its 4th Annual Fundraising Dinner at the Montgomery Inn Boathouse in Cincinnati Thursday and NASCAR Hall of Famer and Kentucky native Darrell Waltrip was Guest of Honor.

Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip talks about the role of philanthropy in NASCAR, the state of the sport and his affiliation with Kentucky Speedway (photos by Mark Hansel).

Waltrip, and his brother, Michael Waltrip, were both born in Owensboro and he said he welcomes opportunities to return to the Bluegrass State.

“It’s like coming home, it feels good,” Waltrip said.

Waltrip is also a three-time Cup Series Champion and was a design consultant of Kentucky Speedway.

Despite a busy schedule that has him in Michigan this weekend as an analyst on the FOX NASCAR on-air team, Waltrip said it was a privilege to be guest of honor at the Speedway Children’s Charities event.

“Bruton Smith and Speedway Children’s Charities has done an amazing job of taking their tracks and their resources to create this incredible charity,” Waltrip said. “We have seen what a good job they do for everybody and it’s a great charity.”

Bruton Smith is Executive Chairman of the Board of Speedway Motorsports, which owns Kentucky Speedway and seven other premier properties around the country, including Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

Speedway Children’s Charities was founded in 1982 to provide funding for non-profit organizations throughout the nation that meet the direct needs of children.

“It is such a great privilege to have Darrell Waltrip as our Guest of Honor for this year’s SCC Fundraising Dinner,” said Kentucky Chapter Director Dayna Winslette.

The Kentucky Chapter of SCC is dedicated to helping children improve their quality of life, and through its various events and activities, the chapter strives to raise critical funds and provide grants to non-profit children’s organizations in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The chapter has partnered with Feed the Children to distribute over 680,000 pounds of food and supplies to almost 14,000 families in need.

Waltrip and his brother, Michael have a charity golf tournament every year in Franklin, Tennessee, which Speedway Children’s Charities supports, so a natural relationship has developed. In eight years, the tournament has raised more than $3 million for Motor Racing Outreach.

“They help us out, so the other charity we support is Speedway Children’s Charities,” Waltrip said. “We all have a natural tendency to just want to give back.”

Just about every driver or former driver has a foundation Waltrip said, and they all support different charities at times as well.

“It’s often overlooked, but I’ve dealt with these people my whole life and I’ve always found NASCAR drivers to be the most generous people I have ever known,” Waltrip said. “It’s an obligation, I don’t know any other way to put it. We all feel obligated to give back because we have been given so much.”

Waltrip also talked about his role in the development of Kentucky Speedway and about the state of NASCAR.

“There are a lot of things that go into building a race track – you don’t get a road grader back there and start moving dirt around,” Waltrip said. “The piece of ground where they built the track was perfect for a speedway.”

When Kentucky Speedway was built it was designed for a Cup Series race, not with the hope that it might someday get an event.

It includes 1,000 acres, with plenty of camping sites, a lake, a grandstand that held 70,000 people (at that time) and other amenities.

“We didn’t know it was going to take so long, or that it was going to take two owners to get it done, but we got it,” Waltrip said. “It’s gotten better and better and the people running it right now, they’ve learned the Cup lifestyle and what the drivers expect.”

Of course, Waltrip recalls that first year, when nobody knew what to expect.

“We’d been having 70,000 people in and out of that joint for quite a while and everybody handled that well,” Waltrip said. “We had no idea that there were going to be 140,000 people trying to get into that speedway and we were overwhelmed that first race. It put a bad taste in peoples’ mouths, but we’ve slowly but surely gotten them back.”

Kentucky Speedway is preparing for its tripleheader weekend, highlighted by the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400, presented by Advanced Auto Parts. Waltrip said the Speedway in Sparta has become one of the more popular stops on the circuit because of the attention to detail and the layout.

Waltrip said Joey Logano, who is just 27, but already a series veteran, may be poised to become the face of NASCAR and lead the next generation of drivers.

“Bruton Smith told me from the day he bought it, he said, ‘DW, this could really be a little Daytona,’ and I really believe that,” Waltrip said. “It’s so fan friendly and no matter where you are in the seats, you can literally see everything that goes on. Even the back straightaway is raised up, so you can see the cars go down the back, the pit road is right there and accessible.”

While the competitive nature of drivers caused many to publicly lament the resurfacing of Kentucky Speedway last year because the bumps “gave the track character,” Waltrip said privately most were happy for the upgrade.

Waltrip said the NASCAR Monster Cup Series is in a bit of a transition with several fan favorites leaving the sport and even the name sponsor is new, but he is not concerned.

“Everybody is all worried about Tony Stewart retiring, Jeff Gordon retiring, Dale Jr.’s retiring, Carl Edwards left, ‘what are we going to do?’” Waltrip said. “Well I think you start to see what we are going to do.”

In the past, he explained, it’s been kind of a problem because there were only one or two rookies that were coming along, so there weren’t a lot of new drivers to get excited about.

“We have a whole group of young guys to get excited about, led by, believe it or not, Joey Logano (who won his first race on NASCAR’s senior circuit in 2009),” Waltrip said. “Joey Logano is 27 years old, he’s a young man and I think he can be the face of this sport in the future and be an example for all of these young guys as they start to grow and get better.”

There were also concerns that the stage racing that was implemented this year would be seen as a gimmick and would turn fans off. Drivers are now awarded points for their position at different stages of the race that count toward playoff eligibility.

Waltrip said the stages have actually made races more exciting.

“The early and middle parts of the races weren’t always exciting, so people would watch the beginning and come back and watch the end,” Waltrip said. “I think it’s caused people to kind of stay engaged and watch more of the race and the guys work hard at the end of the stages. Sometimes you maybe don’t see it for the lead or second, but you get back to sixth (through) tenth and these guys go hard because there’s points involved there and that may be how they get in the playoffs.”

For additional information about the Kentucky Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities, and its 2017 schedule of events, click here .

For ticket information for the Kentucky Speedway NASCAR Tripleheader weekend, click here.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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