Most people, even those who do not follow NASCAR, have heard of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, winner of seven Winston Cup Series (now known as the Sprint Cup Series) championships. Often referred to as “The Intimidator,” many consider Earnhardt the greatest stock car racer the sport has produced. As with a lot of successful drivers, in addition to driving, he developed and ran his own racing team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
At the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most celebrated event, Earnhardt team members, son Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, were racing each other for the win, while Earnhardt blocked potential challengers to the two. “I felt so lucky to be on his team,” says Waltrip. “I was driving for the man.… He was wildly aggressive and fiercely competitive. His driving style defined what our sport was all about.”
On the last lap, Earnhardt crashed, dying shortly thereafter. The race winner, Michael Waltrip, was celebrating in Victory Lane when he found out that he had lost one of his best friends even as he achieved one of the biggest successes of his racing career.
New York Times bestseller In the Blink of an Eye is the story of Waltrip’s journey of personal discovery as he dealt with this loss, as well as an account of how a guy from a small town in Kentucky ended up driving at the elite level in his chosen sport.
The Driver/Fan Connection
NASCAR fans are some of the most loyal and passionate of any sport. They truly identify with and develop a personal attachment to their idols, and their loyalty is expressed in many ways, including collecting memorabilia, wearing logo merchandise, and attending special track events designed to bring them close to their heroes. It also extends to advertiser support. Tony Stewart fans really do choose Office Depot over Staples, Jimmie Johnson fans patronize Lowe’s (of course Joey Logano fans go to competitor Home Depot), and Michael Waltrip fans shop at NAPA Auto Parts, rent household goods from Aaron’s, and stay at Best Western.
Every race week, fans travel long distances to camp out in tents, campers, and even converted school buses, to see their favorite drivers compete. Why? In one word — access. There is no other sport in the nation where the stars of the sport are encouraged, even required, to interact so frequently with their fans. Whether at regular team meetings or at the annual season-ending galas, team owners and NASCAR brass constantly reinforce that without the fans, the sport would be nothing. And it is taken to heart by the drivers who good-naturedly (mostly) participate in pre-race events, store appearances, and fan-related activity — without the usual no-access bubble maintained by the handlers of other celebrities. (A couple of weeks ago, Nationwide series driver champion Brad Keselowski even showed up at a fan campground with cases of his sponsor’s beer to share while he did an unscheduled meet-and-greet and kicked back with the crowd.)
Since race events usually start on Friday, fans also can buy special pre-race tickets to Neon Garage activities designed specifically to enhance fan involvement and where the fans can mingle with and watch as the drivers and crew ready the cars for practice, qualifying, and the race. Live entertainment and special concessions and souvenir stands often are part of the experience, and at some tracks, specially ticketed fans even have limited access to the trackside pits.
From this access, the fans become bonded with all the drivers.
So whether race fans loved him or hated him, they had some kind of relationship with Dale Earnhardt and were stunned by his loss. For his fans, Earnhardt was more like an extended family member than a racing icon. And his death was not a blow to only his fans; it was a huge blow to every racing enthusiast.
Back to Michael
As NASCAR fans know, two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip is no shrinking violet. However, until now, he has been relatively silent about his feelings on what was both the best and worst day of his life. “[N]obody lived that day like I did,” he says. “Nobody could tell the story like I could. I felt like I owed that to the people who were still hurting. Every year they return to Daytona and feel that pain again.”
In the Blink of an Eye follows Waltrip’s journey from his start in go-karts to being only one of eight drivers to have won the Daytona 500 championship more than once, and one of only three drivers to make more than 1,000 NASCAR starts.
Today he owns Michael Waltrip Racing, a three-car NASCAR Sprint Cup racing team, is a part-time driver for the team, and a media celebrity, appearing regularly on Showtime’s This Week in NASCAR and other racing shows. He also writes a monthly column for NASCAR Illustrated.
On his way to the top Cup series, Waltrip won a lot of races at many levels. But until that 2001 day in Daytona, Waltrip had gone 462 NASCAR Cup races without a win. That’s a bit demoralizing no matter the circumstances, but Waltrip’s older brother Darrell was a three-time NASCAR Cup champion.
Like most drivers, Waltrip had worked with assorted race team owners at the various levels of NASCAR competition, including his brother Darrell, the famed Wood Brothers (car owners for current Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne), and for “The King,” Richard Petty. The 2001 Daytona 500 was his first race with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. “Winning the 500 is every NASCAR racer’s dream,” says Waltrip. “To join the list of names inscribed on the Harley J. Earl trophy makes you part of the sport’s elite.”
Because of its subject, this could be a somber exercise. It isn’t. Although Waltrip talks honestly about his family, his love for the sport, and how his life changed as he was coping with guilt and grief over Earnhardt’s death, he uses self-deprecating humor and his customary irreverence to lighten the tone. And throughout it all, Waltrip tells great background stories about the racing community, his more controversial moments, and the colorful racing personalities, past and present.
However, this isn’t just something about racing for race fans. This is an inspirational story about continuing to follow a dream, even when success is elusive. Through example, Waltrip illustrates that life doesn’t operate as a sit-com, where all the loose ends are tied up with a bow at the end of a half hour. He also freely admits to having help along the way and gives credit and thanks to those who aided him in achieving his goals, especially in the book’s dedication:
FOR MY HEROES:If not for Darrell, I never would have started dreaming.
If not for Richard, I might still be dreaming.
If not for Dale, I don’t believe my dreams would have ever come true.
The book is strongest, though, when it talks about Waltrip’s grieving process after Dale Earnhardt’s death and its effect on his career and personal life. Some fans might be unhappy that Waltrip glossed over some of the more controversial aspects of his career and the end of his long marriage. To do so, however, would likely have doubled the size of the book so it might be addressed more successfully in a future work.
He also is fortunate in his co-author Ellis Henican, who has helped to focus the book’s structure without losing Waltrip’s distinctive voice. It reads like a conversation, as if Waltrip were sharing a couple of brews with you as he tells his story. In the Blink of an Eye is engaging, candid and personal, obviously written from the heart.
[Originally published at California Literary Review, March 29, 2011.]