Michael Waltrip: How Dale Earnhardt Saved Me
Champion racer Michael Waltrip writes about his friendship with the late Dale Earnhardt, the subject of the documentary “Blink of an Eye,” available Nov. 5 on streaming platforms.
You may think Blink of an Eye is another racing movie about fast cars, fast living, and slow talking. Well, it has some of that, but this is a story about triumph, tragedy, my friend Dale, and a day in Daytona that changed everything in the blink of an eye.
We made a perfect plan, we ran a perfect race, we had a perfect day—so I thought.
Millions of you are racing fans, but even those who don’t follow NASCAR as a sport will be drawn into my story of friendship, loyalty, family drama, incredible victory, and soul-jarring loss. And what a long-winding road it has been.
As you will see in my film, my story starts at my home in Owensboro, Kentucky, where, as a kid, I watched my older brother, Darrell, become a famous race car driver. He was 16 years older than me and when he got his chance to race for a living, he immediately started winning, became a big star, won three NASCAR Cup championships and was building what would become a Hall of Fame career. I thought, this is great, he can help me follow in his footsteps. But he didn’t. He wouldn’t. And my parents could not do for me what they did for Darrell, so my path to the top of the sport would have to be my own. I should have been discouraged. I wasn’t.
I learned what determination, persistence and perseverance meant during that time, and that foundation remains with me today. It took a lot of people helping and believing in me to chase my dream—including one of my brother’s fiercest competitors, the “King” Richard Petty. On my way to the sport’s highest level, I had won in every developmental series. Hell, I even won the first race I ever ran. I thought this was easy. I was a natural. But when I got to Winston Cup to race with the big boys, I got a nasty dose of reality. It was hard to swallow. Friends, I am telling you, I went almost 16 years driving in the Cup series, 462 races without an official win.
Well, I kind of won once. Our sport’s All-Star race is a short non-points, non-official event each year at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It is for winners only. Since I had not won, I wasn’t even supposed to be in that race. But NASCAR lets the non-winners duke it out in a support event with the top 5 transferring to the All-Star race. I got the last transfer spot and they let me start the 1996 All-Star event dead last. I was just happy to be there on a night where the stars of the sport were being celebrated. I felt like an extra in a movie—you know, not a speaking part, but there to fill the scene. Then the green flag fell and I started passing cars, one hero after another—including my brother, Darrell—until all I could see in front of me were two legends, Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte. With nine laps to go, I passed both of them in one corner and went on to win the sport’s All-Star race and the $200,000 prize. Finally, I had proven to everyone else what I believed all along: that I could do this. I belonged here.
But then reality set in. I blew an engine, then had pit stop problems, then crashes, blown tires and bad cars en route to a big ole pile of official losses. I wasn’t winning trophies, but I did win something far greater: a friendship with Dale Earnhardt. We started hanging out together, going on vacation together, fished, drank, laughed, and shared lives away from the track. So, here is the most dominant driver of the era, the sport’s biggest icon and a seven-time champion who had to build a room for all his trophies. And there's me, brother of his bitter rival, winless, with my All-Star trophy sitting on a coffee table in my house.
Dale was the toughest competitor on the track, the ultimate racing badass. The last thing anyone wanted to see in their rear-view mirror was Dale, scrunched down in his seat so all you could see were his bubble goggles under his open-face helmet, along with that big bushy mustache, and that black #3. If you were faster than him, he would get you so busy looking in the mirror that you would make a mistake and he would pass you. If you weren’t faster than him, well, you better get the hell out of the way.
After I beat him in that All-Star race, he would tell me over a beer, “You would win if you drove one of my cars.” And finally, in 2001, he gave me that chance. I had gone 462 straight Cup races without a win—spanning almost 16 years. And Dale believed in me enough to hire me to drive one of his cars starting with the 2001 Daytona 500—the biggest race of the year.
He told me I could win it. We worked on a plan. We executed it flawlessly. I did win the 2001 Daytona 500. And at the same moment the checkered flag fell on my #15, the man who gave me that chance crashed in turn four and was called home from this earth. The greatest moment of my life just became the saddest.
I stood in victory lane with a big trophy, a big check, high-fives, kisses and champagne, and all I wanted was a hug from Dale. It never came.
Even if you think you know the story, you need to watch this film.
You will feel the outpouring of emotion when we returned to Daytona for the first time since Dale’s passing and drove the most inspired race of my life. I think it was the greatest moment in my racing life—and I didn’t win. I pushed Dale’s son, Dale Jr., to the win that night setting off the loudest fan reaction I have ever heard in my life. I knew my friend was happy again, just as I was.
I know you will enjoy Blink of an Eye, based on the book of the same name I co-wrote a few years earlier. I cared deeply about how people would perceive this story, but the two most important to me were my ex-wife, Buffy, who was next to me through all of this, and Dale Jr. Both of them loved it, so it is a hit as far as I’m concerned.
Blink of an Eye will be available Nov. 5 on streaming platforms. Catch it here on iTunes.