In 1975, Darrell Waltrip became a full-time driver on NASCAR's Winston Cup Series. That year, he was also the driver of the first car on the circuit that the sports drink sponsored. The car that he drove was known as "Bertha" and, in 1977, he drove the car into the winner's circle six times and finished in the top 10 an amazing 22 times. Waltrip was one of many greats who drove the Gatorade car, which remained a staple of NASCAR until 1983. Other drivers, besides Waltrip, who drove the car -- which was owned by Bill Gardner of Digard Racing, included Ricky Rudd and Geoff Bodine. I had a chance to briefly sit down with Darrell Waltrip -- now an analyst for Fox's coverage of the NASCAR broadcasts -- and talked with him about his early days with the Gatorade sponsorship.
Me: How did you get involved with Gatorade?
Darrell: I was just starting in the sport. It was 1975 and I needed a sponsor. My father-in-law was president of a company called Texas Gas and a man named Dennis Hendrick was one of the vice presidents of the company. He was friends with Bill Stokely (president of Stokely-Van Camp, which produced Gatorade). It's ironic the way it worked out. Stokely had just sponsored Johnny Rutherford at the Indy 500 (Rutherford came in second place in the 1975 Indy in the Gatorade/McLaren car). But Bill Stokely went to the race and he somehow couldn't get in. And he was ticked. He was hot. And he said, 'We'll, we are never going to sponsor another race car.' But Dennis Hendrick called him up and said, 'I'd like you to meet Darrell. They need a sponsor and you are not happy with USAC (United States Auto Club), did you ever think about NASCAR?' And we got a meeting. Now, I'm just starting. I got two race cars and a little garage. I don't fit the image of Gatorade. But, at the same time, I made a deal with Bill Gardner of DiGard Racing Company to drive for him. They had the money. They had all the stuff that was a first-class operation. They just didn't have any sponsorship. So I got Stokely and Gardner together and it was love at first sight. They loved each other. They hung out. They went to dinner. They just had a great relationship. And from there on, from 1976 to 1980, when I quit to drive for Junior (Junior Johnson and the Mountain Dew car), I won 29 races and should have won the championship in 1979.
Me: So you have great memories from your association with Gatorade.
Darrell: Yes and it was ground breaking. Not only wasn't it an automotive product. But it was the first race car to advertise on the hood. Then people started putting those big logos on the hood and all those tricked-up paint jobs. Before we did this, people had race cars that were just white, black or blue. This thing had some class to it.
If you are interested, there are plenty of vintage Gatorade racing jackets from those days that pop up on eBay. The Waltrip Gatorade diecasts (like the one pictured above) are also extremely popular. They have been re-released several times.