News & Media

Waltrip book personal account of struggles in aftermath of Earnhardt's death

February 18, 2011, Andrew Giangola, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Waltrip book personal account of struggles in aftermath of Earnhardt's death

When Michael Waltrip was riding "the streak" -- an astounding 0-for-462 in Cup Series competition -- he wasn't exactly the sport's hottest commodity.

Yet, going into the 2001 season, there was one believer. Driver and team owner Dale Earnhardt gave Waltrip a ride. The seven-time NASCAR champ knew his severely snakebitten driver could win, and he devised a plan to deem it so at NASCAR's grandest race, the Daytona 500.

"Quitters don't lose 462 races in a row. They don't get the chance. I was going to do what Dale expected of me."

--MICHAEL WALTRIP, book excerpt

Dale had an idea. He, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Waltrip would drive as a team, drafting and blocking for one another on Daytona's high banks where there's strength -- and speed -- in numbers. Whichever DEI car was up front would win the race, Dale said, or rather, gruffly commanded.

And with Fox broadcasting the first race of a landmark NASCAR deal finally putting the races on network television, and Michael's big brother, Darrell, calling the action in the TV booth, that's exactly what happened.

With Dale Jr. pushing and Dale blocking a hungry pack of drivers led by Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip's seemingly endless stretch of futility was erased with one gigantic win.

But the best day of Waltrip's life -- he felt eerily confident before the race buoyed by coach Earnhardt's pep talks -- would become the worst. In the Blink of an Eye (the title of Waltrip's compelling new book), triumph turned to tragedy.

Behind the No. 15 Chevy on the last turn of the final lap, there had been a crash. Marlin had accidentally turned the black No. 3 Chevy into the wall. Waltrip glided past the smoking wreck clueless to the severity of his boss's situation as he headed to Victory Lane.

There, amid the back-slaps, sprayed adult beverages and commemorative photos, the overjoyed driver waited and waited for his team owner, friend and hero. It was a while before he finally got the shocking news. The driver known as "the Intimidator," the tough-as-nails outlaw assumed to be invincible, was gone.

For Waltrip, unbridled joy turned to unspeakable loss.

This was not what it was supposed to be like to win the Daytona 500.

The psychological aftershocks nearly added up to more than Waltrip could handle. His struggles unknown to most fans are now chronicled in In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona and the Day that Changed Everything (to be released Feb. 1).

Written in breezy, fast-moving prose capturing Waltrip's youthful whimsy, In the Blink of an Eye feels like a few books in one.

It is, of course, the story of one man's sudden death affecting another in a deep and powerful way, a timely personal lesson as the sport remembers the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's passing.

The "guilt, self pity and anguish" of Dale's passing -- Waltrip felt partially responsible since Dale was blocking for him -- would lead to depression. The incessantly chatty public figure became more distant in private, and his marriage fell apart.

"Such an unbelievable win -- and seconds later, an unimaginable loss. That contradiction had me stumbling through a life I didn't want to be living, constantly reminded of a day I wanted desperately to forget," Waltrip writes.

The tragedy would help accelerate significant safety improvements in the sport, and provide personal inspiration to Waltrip, as well.

Waltrip describes his turnaround: "I was wandering around all lost, looking for someone else to fix my problems? Unacceptable. Dale would have never put up with that. I wasn't going to either. I was being a quitter, and I ain't no quitter. Quitters don't lose 462 races in a row. They don't get the chance. I was going to do what Dale expected of me. I could hear him saying, 'Put your heart in your car. Go down there and do what I hired you for, you [expletive].' "

To this day, the encouragement and affirmation the Intimidator provided to Waltrip -- who would go on to win another Daytona 500, a feat not even accomplished by Darrell, and then become a NASCAR team owner -- has guided him through daunting episodes like the notorious cheating incident at Daytona in which rocket fuel was used in one of his cars, and the near financial collapse of his Toyota racing team.

Waltrip has endured, making this from the beginning a story of stubborn persistence -- an "amazingly average" kid who figured early on he'd make a living sitting on his butt but didn't have the grades to do so in an office.

As Waltrip tells it, referring to his older brother, "I knew one guy who got to make a living sitting down, and his job looked like a whole lot of fun to me. From what I could tell, it paid well, too. This guy had figured it out. From what I'd heard, he was no better in the classroom than I was."

The never shy, consistently likeable Waltrip had a knack for asking large favors inevitably granted. With help from Richard Petty (with whom he lived for a time), Dick Bahre, Humpy Wheeler, the Wood brothers, and finally Dale Earnhardt, Waltrip got rides and successfully worked his way through NASCAR's lower divisions. He made it to the sport's center stage, but the winning stopped there. Until he met Dale.

And, finally, Michael Waltrip's story is a lifelong quest to prove himself and to gain approval. Michael, the youngest of five, declares his own birth an "accident" -- with no baby pictures to even prove it.

The primary male characters in his life are the elusive superstar brother, 16 years older, distracted, distant and not interested in helping a sibling he never really knew; a hard-working father too tired to play catch at night; and finally, a true friend and mentor taken away that fateful winter day before he could even provide a validating hug in Victory Lane.

Tribute to Earnhardt

Michael Waltrip will drive a special No. 15 Toyota in his 25th consecutive Daytona 500.

Some readers may anticipate more detailed insights into Dale Jr.'s reaction to his father's death. Waltrip resists. Perhaps he believes such revelations are private and out of bounds, between a man and his departed father.

The anecdotes of working and relaxing with direct, plain-spoken Dale Earnhardt are rich and revealing. There's old "Ironhead" driving home an elderly lady whose car conked out after church. Another time, after Waltrip's dad passes away, Dale drives to the house to hold his grieving mother's hand.

It is rough-and-tumble Earnhardt who breaks the ice and brokers a date for Michael with a pretty college senior and part-time waitress who would become his wife.

Waltrip recalls he'd regularly go fishing with Dale but never hunting: "I came up with two possible explanations. Either he didn't like the thought of me walking beside him holding a loaded gun. Or he couldn't figure out a way to convince Buffy [Waltrip's ex-wife] to wear a bikini in the woods."

Because Earnhardt is the focal point of Waltrip's story and a sports legend who, like the best (or at least the most interesting) of them, is full of compelling contradictions -- scowling and aggressive but with mostly repressed sentimental tendencies beneath that iron exterior -- the book would have benefited from more stories illuminating the many fascinating sides of NASCAR's own John Wayne.

These are minor criticisms. Good books leave you wanting more.

The ghastly death of Dale Earnhardt was a seismic event for the entire sport ... and countless individuals. In the Blink of an Eye trains a sensitive lens on one man now using the blackest day in the history of NASCAR as inspiration to press forward and make his missing hero proud.

Andrew Giangola is author of the book, "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans," available in the NASCAR.COM Superstore. Click here to order.