There are certain moments in motorsports where fans remember they were in the exact time that they occurred. One of those being the 2001 Daytona 500, the sight of Michael Waltrip’s first career victory and the death of Dale Earnhardt.
Now fans will have the chance to get a closer glimpse into the day, through a new documentary titled Blink of an Eye, which tells the tale of triumph and tragedy. In the same day that Waltrip broke his 462-race winless streak by winning the Daytona 500, his best friend and car owner lost his life in the Super Bowl of motorsports.
Waltrip, along with others connected to the events, take the time to recall not only that day, but the events leading up to and afterwards. You can view a trailer for the movie by clicking here.
Recently, Waltrip took the time to speak with POPULAR SPEED about the upcoming movie.
POPULAR SPEED: So everything came together initially with the book you wrote, so how did you come up with the idea to write that?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: It was 10 years after that tragic day that Dale passed and I was going to run the Daytona 500 that year and I was talking to a buddy of mine, who said I should write a book about the 2001 Daytona 500. I guess I’m one of those people who haven’t talked much about their problems. I was one of those kids that mom and dad would be like, ‘you’ll live, fall down and skin your knee, you’ll be alright’. I just never thought about talking about that day so much in so much detail, but my buddy said it might be therapeutic and something that I might enjoy. So we agreed to do the book and the process was really fun for me.
I met a gentleman named Ellis Henican. Ellis wrote the book with me and when it was all done, I handed it to the publisher and said, ‘Well, if anybody buys the book, I can’t help that, but I know every word in that book is said how I wanted to say it’. Ellis really let me tell the story, probably more so than most times when you have a ghost writer. It was more him showing me how to put the content into place, but it was my words. But when the book was all done, I was happy about it.
So about two or three years ago, Mitch Covington from Monster Energy, he read the book and said, ‘You have to tell this story to our sales board. This story is about overcoming adversity, and fighting through tragedy, and winning, and keeping your head up and keeping going.’ So we put together about a 40 minute speech, gave it at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas with video screens; Bon Jovi had played on the stage before so it was set-up to do a nice job for this presentation. When I was finished with the speech, there were these big hairy tattooed guys that came up to me and said, ‘Man, you made me cry. That was quite the speech’.
The owners of Monster were there and they loved it, and said that they needed to make it into a documentary. That’s sort of the process that it’s gone through, and how we got to where we are today. Just like the book, the documentary is done really well and told perfectly. I’m really proud of everybody that put it together, and everybody that had anything to do with my career that day in Daytona – they’re all in the movie. There’s not a piece missing that we can say that we couldn’t do it. I mean, Richard Petty is in it, my brother Darrell (Waltrip), Richard Childress, Mike Helton, my ex-wife Buffy. I’m proud of it and can’t wait for the world to see it.
POPULAR SPEED: So what was it like going through the process in putting the documentary together, and working with everybody to put together as you wished?
WALTRIP: Well, the content is sad and is something that makes me cry, whether I’m being interviewed for the documentary or just living my life. There’s no way that I can talk about that day and not get emotional. For me, it was nothing new or different. It was just a camera that I was telling it to, instead of a buddy or a friend. The thing that I was most proud of was listening to Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., and hearing Richard Petty, and some of my heroes that helped me even understand more about that time in my life.
About a month ago, I was on Dale Jr.’s podcast and we talked more about the 2001 Daytona 500 and the emotions and everything that happened that day than we have in 18 years. So it was certainly worth being able to have that moment with him, and that was a result of the documentary. I’m really thankful for him, who he is, and how much he was honest and you could just tell that he was living the same thing that I am living.
POPULAR SPEED: What do you hope fans take away from the movie when they get a chance to see it?
WALTRIP: I think there’s two reasons from the beginning that I wrote the book, and the goal is the same here. I wanted people to have more appreciation and more respect and admiration and honor Dale. I wanted people to understand more about Dale and how special the Intimidator was when he wasn’t at the race track. I wanted to honor Dale and then I wanted to inspire people. No matter what happens, you can overcome it.
You’re not a loser until you quit, and what is amazing to me is I had lost 462 straight NASCAR races, and when I woke up on February 18, 2001, I told my friends and family around me that they aren’t beating me today. There’s no way they’re beating me today, and that’s because that’s where Dale had me. He had me believing that I would win that race, and that’s what I went and did. To have that person believe in you, it can make a whole difference in your world, and when I took the checkered flag that afternoon, I thought it was the best day ever. Then an hour later, I learned that it might be the worst day ever in NASCAR. That range of emotion is pretty tough to handle, and that’s what life put on my plate, and that’s what I had to deal with it.
I hope that anyone that watches the movie and they haven’t won, or are trying to win, or they have tragedy in their life that they’re dealing with, I can help them. They can say, ‘Well, he did it, I can do it’.
POPULAR SPEED: You’ve spoken about your friendship with Dale Earnhardt. If there’s just one story that you can share from that time together, what would it be?
WALTRIP: There’s many just about friendship and some of the fun things that we did, whether snorkeling in the Bahamas or fishing. A funny story is that he had a big farm with a big fence around it, and I had a little farm with a big fence around it. He told me to come over and he’d give me a deer, and I could put the deer in my field. So I said that was exactly what I wanted to do, in getting a couple deer for my pasture.
So I go over to his house and this deer was in its mom’s belly and this mom got hit by a car. This farmer got out and saw this Mamma deer was dying and pregnant, and he delivered the baby. They bottle fed it, so the baby thought it was a pet. So Dale gave me that deer so it would be protected as it hadn’t been raised to be out in the wild yet. So he loads it up in the back of my truck in a little cage carrier, and I’m getting ready to drive off. He grabs me by the collar and he says, ‘If the police pull you over, you do not know where you got that deer.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He goes, ‘You can’t be driving deer around town. It’s illegal.’ I said, ‘Okay, let me get this straight. I can shoot this deer between the eyes, but I can’t give it a ride?’
We got a big laugh out of that. The deer wound up at my house and we raised it for a long time, and I eventually let it out into the wild and I’m sure the deer is wandering around the hills of North Carolina today.
POPULAR SPEED: Now going back to 2001, what was it like for you putting the deal together to drive for Dale, knowing that he had that faith in you?
WALTRIP: Whether we were on the back of a boat or hanging out at his farm, he would always say to me – I drove for him in the 80s in his Busch car, and again in the 90s I drove a couple of races for him. He always told me that I would win in Cup if I drove for him. I would always say, ‘Well damn, let’s do it. What’s the hold up?’ But circumstances never worked out. There was no ride, no sponsors – the timing wasn’t right, I guess. But he had said that for years – that if I drove for him, I would win.
Late September of 2000, I was on the farm and Buffy, my wife at the time, yelled at me and told me to call Dale as he couldn’t find something. So I called him up and he told me, ‘Get over here. I have to tell you something’. So I went to his shop and he said, ‘We’re going have a third team, NAPA is going sponsor it, and I want you to be the driver.’ I was just amazed. I’m 38-years-old, and these days a 38-year-old with a record like I had could not get a top-ride. I don’t know if I could’ve gotten a top-ride if it wasn’t for Dale.
From early September to the last corner of the last lap in the Daytona 500, it was the best time of my life. My family was doing well, I was confident, and just going to the shop and listening to Dale about how we were going to do things, and seeing all the parts and tools that I was going to have to race with.
I couldn’t wait for the Monday morning debriefs, whether I won or lost. I think Dale had the attitude that I was really good driver, but I hadn’t done a really good job at managing my career, and he was going to take that over. The Monday morning after I won was going to be great, but I was looking forward to the Monday mornings when we didn’t win just to hear his guidance.
Unfortunately, I never got to have a Monday morning meeting.
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