For a moment, Stevie Waltrip was speechless, gripped by emotion.
For decades, the wife of FOX analyst and NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip has equipped drivers with Bible verses prior to Cup events. She started doing that in the 1980s for her husband and then in the 1990s for Dale Earnhardt Sr. at his request. She has continued the tradition with Earnhardt’s son.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fiancée Amy Reimann tweets the Scripture—#SteviesVerse—every week during NASCAR’s 10-month season. Some fans consider it more than a way of connecting with the driver who has been chosen the fan favorite for the past 13 seasons.
“They are good motivational verses to study,” one fan tweeted in appreciation.
And that’s what moved Stevie to tears on an otherwise quiet February Monday in her Franklin, Tennessee, home.
“It’s so gracious and kind of the Lord to use a little act like that and expand it to that point,” said Waltrip, who plans to attend this Sunday’s Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Florida. “That just makes me really happy. For (Earnhardt and Reimann) to have that kind of platform and to use it in that way is so valuable, so significant; it’s a great thing for the kingdom.”
But the affable Waltrip will be the first to tell you she hasn’t always had a kingdom mindset. There was a time some 50 years ago that she was doing her own thing, not realizing Jesus was all she needed.
Growing Up Fast
Nicknamed Stevie by her older sister, Stephanie was a native Texan and resident Kentuckian who dreamed of going to Southern Methodist University—the same place her dad attended and the same place her grandfather taught. Her 16-year-old mind was made up until she met a loud, brash, little-known race car driver by the name of Darrell Waltrip.
“I had just gone in a completely different direction from the way I was brought up,” Stevie said. “Darrell was a wild and crazy guy, and my family was ultra conservative.”
Much to her parents’ initial horror, the lovebirds were wed once she graduated high school. They immediately moved to Tennessee so he could focus on his dream of racing.
Stevie, a self-described “race fan by marriage,” started learning the sport. That helped in two major ways. First, it saved money for the cash-strapped Waltrips. Second, it gave her something to do other than pray and fret while the love of her life raced in close quarters around fast tracks in underwhelming safety equipment.
So she stayed busy. Stevie prayed while she tracked laps, calculated fuel mileage, recorded pit stop performance and so on. For perspective, today one engineer on the Cup level might focus on fuel mileage during the race, while a pit crew coach would track pit stop activity. And never mind the fact she’s a female doing all this—a rarity even in today’s racing world.
It was a fast-paced lifestyle, but Stevie found it quite lonely. She started seeking God. For the Waltrips’ 10th anniversary, she wrote a letter to her husband telling him how much she loved him.
“But then I said, ‘Truly Darrell, I want to love the Lord more than you, and I don’t believe I do,’” Stevie said she penned in August 1979.
“I believe the Lord took that, and He knew that was my heart’s desire.”
Stevie knew Jesus thanks to her church upbringing, but she had some gaps to fill. Why was the crucifixion necessary? She prayed about it and struggled to find a satisfactory answer until she crossed paths with Ann Isaacs.
Now Ann knew the Waltrips because her husband Leonard asked Darrell to serve on his bank’s board in the 1980s. But Ann had no idea that Stevie was at a loss on this particular topic. So Stevie’s mind was blown when Ann presented her with a tape discussing the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ.
“She had no idea where I was spiritually,” Stevie said. “She had no idea I had asked the Lord to explain this.”
Fast forward a few days later. Stevie played the message on her cassette tape player while tending her flower garden outside their Franklin, Tennessee, home. She learned that the penalty for sin is death, which is why before Jesus, people would sacrifice a lamb’s life to pay for their sins. In the Old Testament, the lamb’s innocent blood covered the sins of the people. When Jesus arrived on the scene, He became the once-and-for-all sacrificial lamb. His blood needed to be shed to cover our sins.
“I had never heard that before in my life, and that was the picture I needed,” Stevie said. “That moved me from wherever I was spiritually to a whole other plane. I was on my knees, and I had my hands raised in the air. I’m crying. It was awesome.”
Stevie’s spiritual thirst was insatiable. She was ordering tapes and attending Bible study with Ann. She was turning up the volume on Christian radio broadcasts at home and relaying her notes to Darrell during car rides. He didn’t object, and he wasn’t just tolerating it. He wanted to hear what she was learning. He even started to attend Wednesday Bible study with his wife and the Isaacs.
Stevie was also putting Scripture in her husband’s car even though his lifestyle didn’t match up. You see, Darrell wasn’t exactly a fan favorite early in his career, although he was successful on-track. He earned the nickname Jaws from the legendary Cale Yarborough for his mouthiness, and then there was the time he was inviting Yarborough’s fans to fight in the K-Mart parking lot.
No matter, Stevie still kept putting God’s Word right in his office—the race car—right where he could see it.
“I believe God’s Word is living and powerful and life changing so I put Scriptures on the dash of his car not for any other reason than to just help him focus on what truly was most important to give him encouragement,” Stevie said.
God’s presence took on a whole new meaning for Darrell after a serious accident in 1983 at Daytona.
“He spent a night in intensive care,” Stevie recalled. “I think the Lord used that to knock him conscious.”
From that point forward, subtle changes took effect. He prayed with his wife, and his faith—supplanted by hers—was getting stronger. Neither of them knew how important that would be for the upcoming season in their lives.
A Change, A Champion & A Cause
Stevie felt certain God wanted the Waltrips to have a child, but in 1985, their hearts were broken after a second miscarriage.
They sat side by side in their room and poured out their hearts to God.
“We’re sitting on this blanket chest, and we both opened our hands and gave the whole situation to the Lord,” Stevie said. “We said if you want us to have a child, we would love for You to give us a child but only if it’s Your will.”
They began the adoption process but by late 1986, Stevie was pregnant. Darrell was a wreck. This man with three NASCAR Winston (now Sprint) Cup championships (1981, ’82, ’85) under his belt was struggling. He was overjoyed and overwhelmed.
“That whole year he never won a race, and he actually got morning sickness,” Stevie said. “He was more focused on me and having Jessica than racing.”
Jessica arrived Sept. 17, 1987. That next week the race was being held in Martinsville, Virginia. Stevie stayed home from the racetrack and asked a friend to put a red rose in the seat of his car with a note that read, “Win one for me, Daddy.” He did.
“As you look back on those years, you can see what the Lord did with those hardships,” Stevie said. “For the first time in his life, the Lord and his family—his girls—became what his heart went to first.”
The Waltrips would be blessed with another daughter, Sarah Kaitlyn, in the years to come.
“Through this, I’m praying, and I prayed a lot,” Stevie said.
Her prayers weren’t just directed at her husband and her growing family, though. Stevie and a few other racing families sensed a greater need in the NASCAR garage. Together, the Waltrips started a weekly Bible study with two other families—the Hillins and Speeds—that over time evolved into Motor Racing Outreach. Today the Waltrip, Parsons and Speed families serve as board members on the almost 30-year-old organization.
“It’s so helpful to have board members that care personally. They’re not just fulfilling a function,” said Billy Mauldin, president and chief executive officer. “They’re personally, mentally and every way possible invested in what this ministry does.
“Stevie is one of my go-to people when I have specific prayer requests.”
Mauldin knows Stevie will get those requests in front of a small group of ladies in her life who tirelessly seek the Lord.
Today, after being Darrell Waltrip’s wife, Stevie is probably most well-known for her pre-race Bible verse. She pores over her Bible and waits each week for the Lord to direct her to just the right Scripture. Never, did she imagine, this would become a topic of conversation outside of the garage. And never did she dream she would be writing verses weekly for a man known as the Intimidator.
A hard-working fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was as intense as he was charismatic. He had no problem wrecking a competitor to win or saying exactly what was on his mind, although the death of close friend Neil Bonnett in 1994 impacted him. One day while on pit road he noticed Stevie had her 5-by-7 Scripture card for Waltrip.
“He said, ‘Well, where’s mine?’” Stevie recalled, admitting she was stunned by the request. “I said ‘Wait here. Let me go get you one!’ I had to run into the pits and get something to write on. From that point on, I started giving Dale Scripture every race.
“Most of the time I gave (Darrell and Dale) the same Scripture, but every once in a while they would be different. Dale would always take both of them. He would read them, and then he’d decide which one he wanted.”
After picking, he’d look at Stevie with a twinkle in his eye and say, “I got the good one, didn’t I?’”
On Feb. 18, 2001—the day he died—Dale Sr. got Proverbs 18:10:
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”
“He got in that car and four hours later he’s in the arms of Jesus,” Stevie said. “I think that Scripture was to give all of us that were grieving and so sad about his death—it gave us peace of mind. This was the Lord’s message to us that He had him.”
Stevie can’t help but tremble a bit when she thinks back on what the Waltrips went through toward the latter part of Darrell’s career. She watched him go from a contender to a champion to an also-ran, and it pained her.
His racing future looked dim, but their faith was unwavering, and God made good on a promise He shared with Stevie during that time. He pointed her to Ephesians 3:20:
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
Neither Stevie nor Darrell could have imagined a future in which Darrell would move out of the race car and into the television booth, but that’s where he’s been since 2001.
“This job was an answer to a prayer that we never prayed,” Stevie said. “That is vital that he has gotten to stay in the world he loves so much.”
This Sunday, Stevie will attend the Daytona 500 where her Scripture tradition lives on. Every race week, Stevie’s verse winds up in the hands of Dale Earnhardt Jr., and that is a real game-changer for the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet who won his Daytona Duel on Thursday. He still has her Scripture—a personalized Isaiah 40:28-31—atop his Daytona 500 trophy from his 2014 win.
“It means a lot to me because I think this is a tradition that she had with my father for a very long time, so it felt very special to me that she wanted to continue it, and that she would put the effort in to make that connection with me,” Earnhardt said. “I have a lot of respect for her and Darrell, and for what they’ve meant to this sport. The sport needs people like Stevie. She makes everybody feel better when she’s around.
“When I get that verse, it makes me feel like I’m ready to go.”