Michael Waltrip sits down with Cathy Elliott and reflects on Dale Earnhardt heading into the 10th anniversary of his passing.
Guest Column by Cathy Elliott
I have spent the better part of two days getting to know Michael Waltrip a whole lot better. He never said a word to me during this process, but he spoke volumes.
Well, make that one volume – I just finished reading Waltrip’s recently-released memoir, “In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day That Changed Everything.”
The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first time I attended a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race as a bona fide member of the public relations staff. I had been working as the director of public relations at Darlington Raceway for the sum total of about two months, tops, and to say I was ‘green’ does that lovely color a great injustice. Clueless would be a better word. Or petrified.
International Speedway Corporation, parent company of Darlington, Daytona and a long list of other racetracks, liked to share its staff back in those days, so off I went for 14 educational days at NASCAR’s most famous speedway.
And what a learning experience it was. That, of course, was the day the sport lost its benchmark driver, Dale Earnhardt. Most of the assembled press corps – and there are hundreds of them from all over the world at the Daytona 500 – came out to cover a race and ended up covering probably the most significant story of their careers. Its repercussions are still being felt today.
Meanwhile, over in Victory Lane, another huge story was unfolding. After a 462-race losing streak, Michael Waltrip was raising his first points-paying Cup Series winner’s trophy, joining the list of the privileged few who can all themselves Daytona 500 champions. His car owner? Dale Earnhardt.
I have often wondered over the years what it must have been like for Waltrip that day, and in the days that followed. Instead of celebrating that victory – the culmination of many years of hard work, determination and tenacity – with the traditional champion’s media jaunt to New York City – he dedicated himself not to talking about himself, but to honoring his boss and friend. Instead of hanging out with Regis and Kelly and Letterman, he was attending memorial services and press conferences. How could you even begin to deal with a situation like that?
Now I know, because Waltrip told me all about it.
This is not intended to be a book review, although I do have to remark that the timing of its release is just about perfect. As the racing world prepares to observe and honor Earnhardt on the 10th anniversary of his death, it’s nice to have this opportunity to remember what a legendary driver he was, but to learn more about the kind of man he was – a guy who liked to fish, who would go out for a jog with his buddies wearing incongruous black socks, and who believed in people even when they had lost some measure of belief in themselves.
Although he does discuss Earnhardt in great length, make no mistake -- this is a book about Michael Waltrip.
We know Waltrip. Affable and funny, he seems just as comfortable sitting behind a desk in a broadcast booth as sitting behind the wheel of a stock car. He is good-looking and has the gift of gab. He is a great restrictor-plate racer. Since forming his own Cup Series team in 2007, he has proven to be a savvy and competitive businessman. He is supremely confident at all times. Yes, indeed, we know Waltrip.
Or do we? “In the Blink of an Eye” introduces us to a new Michael Waltrip. Although blessed with loving parents, as the youngest of five children (brother Darrell was the eldest) he says he often felt somewhat invisible as a child -- “I say that because there is very limited evidence that I existed until I was 4 or 5 years old. No baby pictures.”
The Waltrips were not a traditional dynastic racing family. DW had phenomenal success, but his baby brother’s desire to race was dismissed by almost everyone. Even as a child, he had to create his own resources, find his own financial support. He traveled alone on buses to get to racetracks. He did it the old-fashioned way; he earned it.
Granted, he did have some notable names helping him along the way, including Richard Petty, Dick Bahre, DW and another brother, Bobby Waltrip, and even former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler. But what a lot of people don’t realize – I know I didn’t – was the depth and scope of the friendship between Waltrip and Earnhardt, and the impact of that relationship on all aspects of Michael’s life, from his introduction to the woman he would eventually marry to the day he won his first Daytona 500.
Whether or not you’re a Waltrip fan or an Earnhardt fan or even a NASCAR fan, this is a seriously good book.
I laughed a lot when I was reading “In the Blink of an Eye,” but one thing really jumped out at me; sometimes the simplest or most offhand comments are the ones that can affect you the most.
You have to accomplish something pretty special to earn a cook nickname, and NASCAR is no exception. Through the years we have alternately cheered and booed for Fireball Roberts and Smoke Stewart, Gentleman Ned and Rowdy Busch, the Golden Boy and the Wonder Boy, the Silver Fox, Million-Dollar Bill, The King and, of course, The Intimidator.
At one point in the book, Waltrip questions his own lack of a colorful alternative moniker. “In NASCAR, it seems most everybody has a nickname. Dale had three or four. For some reason, I don’t have any,” he says somewhat wistfully.
I respectfully beg to differ. A nickname is nothing more than a kind of title you earn by what you do or who you are. Using this criteria, many titles apply. Worker and Dreamer. Family Man and Businessman. Driver and Owner. Father and Son, Friend and Brother. Two-time Daytona 500 Champion (that’s a good one). Tickle Monster, although he might not want that one to get around the garage.
I would also personally be compelled to add ‘Fighter’ to that list. When roads were blocked, he found – or made – detours. He wasn’t too proud to ask for help, or to accept it when it was offered. When others might have settled, or given up entirely, he pushed forward, and pushed through.
For many years he was defined by a losing streak, but in every way that counts, Michael Waltrip has proven himself to be a true Winner.