Speaking to an audience that included President Obama, the Dalai Lama, and several thousand attendees from around the world, NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip discussed his faith during the keynote address at this morning’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion joined a long line of prominent past guest speakers for the event, a line that includes the late Mother Teresa, U2 frontman Bono, and former UK prime minister Tony Blair.
As part of his address, Waltrip talked about how arrogant he was in his early career and how hated he was by fellow drivers and fans, as well as how hard it was to look back on that now.
“My personal life was a mess,” Waltrip said. “I drank too much. I liked to go to the bars and hang out with the boys. I just did everything to satisfy me. Whatever felt good to me, I did it. I didn’t give it a second thought.
“That was my lifestyle. That’s how I lived. I didn’t have any great friends. I didn’t have any close friends. I’d always figured if you wanted a friend, get a dog…I have several dogs [now].”
His personal woes didn’t stop him from winning the 1981 and 1982 Cup titles, and his wife, Stevie, stood by him even as he brushed off her prayers that he would one day pursue a deeper faith.
But a crash in the 1983 Daytona 500 caused him to truly take a hard look at his life.
“When I finally came to or woke up, I realized that that wreck had knocked me unconscious,” Waltrip recalled. “It scared the hell out of me, and I mean that literally. I realized that I could have been killed that day. What if I’d lost my life right there that day at Daytona? What would I have done? Would I have gone to Heaven? Or would I have gone to Hell?
“I thought I was a pretty good guy, but folks, let me tell you something. Good guys go to Hell.”
After the crash, the Waltrips began going to church together. Darrell became a Christian, which he said today was “the greatest day of his life.” And Darrell, now kinder and more humble, eventually became a fan favorite – a status he still enjoys in his current role as a NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports.
President Obama thanked Darrell for sharing how his faith impacted him.
“Darrell knows that when you’re going 200 miles an hour, a little prayer cannot hurt,” Obama said. “I suspect that more than once, Darrell has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives: ‘Jesus, take the wheel.’ Although I hope that you kept your hands on the wheel when you were thinking that.”
Obama also thanked him and Stevie for their efforts in supporting Motor Racing Outreach, which offers church services and spiritual support to the NASCAR family on race weekends. The Waltrips were part of the founding group for the organization, and remain part of its Board of Directors.
“…We are so grateful to Stevie for the incredible work they’ve done together to build a ministry where the fastest drivers can slow down a little bit and spend some time in prayer, reflection, and thanks,” Obama said.