Hunter Waltrip‘s Super Trucks championship this season at Virginia‘s Langley Speedway felt almost like it was destined to happen from the start.
The championship, the first of his career, came 20 years after his dad, Brian Waltrip, won a Mini-Trucks Series title at Langley — a NASCAR-sanctioned paved oval in Hampton, Virginia.
Brian started racing go karts when Hunter was young, and eventually moved up to trucks. Hunter would go with him every now and then, but never raced himself. Brian got out of the sport completely a few years after winning his championship in 2002.
In 2018, Hunter had graduated from the NASCAR Technical Institute, located in Mooresville, North Carolina, and was helping his dad‘s old engine builder, Dean Case. Hunter went to a race and saw the same type of cars his dad used to race when he was younger.
“I started talking to some drivers and one of them said, ‘You‘re Brian Waltrip‘s son?‘,” Hunter said. “He said, ‘I‘ve got a spare car, I want to put you in it.‘ And that was just huge to me. I didn‘t think I would ever be able to drive, ever. It just wasn‘t in the cards for me.
“And I did and I finished very well. I started in the very back and finished on the lead lap. I knew right then and there, I want to do this. So I bought that car from him and won two poles that season.”
The next season, Hunter picked up his first victory. That‘s when the opportunity came for him to buy a truck — just like his dad raced — and start working with Case to build the engine for it.
Hunter got better and better each season, but considered quitting before the start of this season. Case passed away last December.
“I said, I‘m not even in the mood to race,” Hunter said. “That guy brought me into the whole racing scene. My dad and him. I said I don‘t even want to do it.
“My crew chief, who was best friends with my engine builder, he came into my shop one night. We had the truck with the tarp over it. He said, ‘Look you‘re not going to get anywhere sulking about it. Nothing is going to bring him back. But I think what we should do is accept the real challenge and go for gold. Let‘s go for a championship this year.‘”
Hunter, Brian, and their team “went for broke,” he said, in Case‘s memory. The first race of the season they took the pole and the checkered flag.
“We just went for gold in his honor,” Hunter said. “Busted our butts all year just trying to get the best we could out of our truck.
“Just the way the points worked we finished up front consistently and squeezed out a championship this year.”
Waltrip finished the season with three wins and won the Super Truck title by 16 points.
Hunter‘s final win of the season was his most special. Case used to keep a running tally on the threshold of the door to his garage every time one of his race engines won a race. When he passed away, the number was 197.
Between Hunter and another driver at Dominion Raceway, they were able to get the final three. Hunter‘s last win of the season was the 200th for a Case-built engine.
“A lot of really neat things fell into place this year that we did not think was going to happen,” Hunter said. “We are just ecstatic.”
“It‘s just special,” Brian said. “Especially with us losing Caseman, and him building my engines as well. Everybody is just motivated again because we‘re involved in something that we all used to love so much, and now we‘re back into it. Everybody is just motivated, pitching in, doing what they can to help. It‘s awesome.”
Hunter getting into racing brought his family closer together, and gave him a second family at the race track. After Brian retired from the sport, Hunter said it was “nothing but work,” for the both of them. Brian‘s trophies went into the attic, and his career behind the wheel became a thing of the past.
“Then when I came up I was like, ‘Hey, I want to get into racing. Can I have y‘alls help?” Hunter said.
“When Hunter came along … I was worried at first, but I said, it‘s either you‘ve got it or you don‘t,” Brian said. “And he‘s got it. He‘s got the driving ability. When I watch him drive it reminds me of when I was driving. That just makes it more special.”
Hunter‘s team now is a blend of his friends and Brian‘s old crew. Even his grandfather comes to shop from time to time. The whole Waltrip family is involved, both on Saturdays at the track and on Sundays, when they all pile into the family barn to watch film of the race from the night before and discuss strategy for how to get better.
“I‘m so thankful to have that because we have a huge family and family is everything to us,” Hunter said. “It‘s really cool that racing brought my family back together. We‘re talking to family members we haven‘t talked to in 10 years because they‘ve just been busy with their lives and all, and now they‘re coming to races to help us in the pits.
“That‘s what it means to me is bringing the family back together, and we‘re doing it 20 years to the year that everything fell together for him, and it just so happened to fall into place for us.”
Another member of Hunter‘s family is also always by his side in the pits — his dog, Blainy. Hunter got her last year on a race weekend, and she sat in the truck the entire night.
“Every time I go to the track she goes with me,” Hunter said. “That dog‘s got more fans than I do, I‘ll put it that way.”
Hunter came into the 2022 season with extra motivation for many reasons. But what keeps him even more motivated for the future is continuing to fill his dad‘s big shoes.
More than winning, though, he goes to the track every week for happiness he didn‘t know he could find.
“I‘ve found when I‘ve got the truck and trailer behind me and I pull into the race track, I just go into a whole other state of happiness,” he said. “I don‘t think about work. I don‘t think about stress. I don‘t think about anything else other than, we‘re going to have a really good day, no matter what happens. We‘re going to have fun. I‘m here doing what I love with the people that I love doing what they love doing. It‘s another mindset. I just don‘t think about anything else.”