“Michael, you will win if you drive for me. You can do this.” –Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Michael Waltrip wrote the book In the Blink of an Eye in 2011. A book that certainly displayed his heart, soul and character, it also took a deep dive into Michael’s relationship with Dale Earnhardt Sr. Eight years later, Malibu, California-based filmmaker Paul Taublieb, through the lead of a buddy named Mitch Covington, decided to make a run at a film that would detail the unique friendship between two men who, on the surface, could not have been more radically different . RACER spoke to Waltrip on the eve of the film’s Los Aneles premiere.
Q: The film Blink of an Eye is now complete. What’s your take on the initial reaction from fans, friends and critics?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: The movie is my life, and whether it’s on the big screen or not, it’s just really who I am, so people will watch the movie and they will think,’ Wow! That’s a crazy story!’ I don’t think they understand that, at times, I live it every day. It’s just a part of Michael. I think that’s pretty well-chronicled in the movie. I put on a good act. I’m a goofball. I like to make people happy, but underneath all of that there is another story that I live with every day and I’m really thankful that Monster Energy and Mitch [Covington] let me tell the story so people can maybe see that everything is not exactly how it looks.
Q: I’ve met you a few times in the garage and what-not, but I don’t really know you. By the time I’d finished watching Blink of an Eye, I felt like I got to know you pretty damn well!
MW: Well, it’s just who I am, and I don’t ever try to be more than who I am. I don’t like to hit people over the head with who I am, and so… Just think about this, there are probably enough people like me where you can say, “Wow, there is more to that person than I thought.” I guess that’s sort of me. It was a crazy journey from Kentucky and trying to be in NASCAR and not getting a lot of help from my brother. It was Richard Petty who helped me.
“And the crazy thing is that in the 1980s, nearly 40 years ago, I used to sit on Richard Petty’s couch and watch movies and watch TV and eat popcorn with him. Fast-forward to last Thursday night in New York City for the premiere, and I watched a movie and had popcorn with Richard Petty! I mean, that was the best thing about that whole night. Showing the film to the world and letting people know about it and showing it to the mainstream media was awesome, but just being able to sit there and watch it with Richard Petty – one of my heroes as a kid – just made it special. It was a special night, because we were able to set beside each other and enjoy that night.
Q: In the film it becomes very obvious that you and Dale Earnhardt Sr. became close friends. It appeared that a person had to earn that man’s friendship, and you were one who certainly did that. Thoughts?
MW: Yeah, Dale and I were just buddies. I always looked up to him because if his success in NASCAR. And think about this. He was one of the greatest NASCAR drivers ever, and I admired him for being one of the greatest race car drivers there was. I wanted to do just what he did. And we were friends. On the professional side, Dale accomplished way more than I ever dreamed of, but on the friendship side, we were even; we were just buddies. I think that’s pretty cool. And someone said this the other day in New York City at the screening, “Did Dale ever make fun of you, or poke for fun at you for what you did?” I had to think about it for half a second because my brother did, Richard Petty did, Kenny Schrader did, but Dale never did. He was always just this guy who would say, “You will win if you drive for me. You can do this. You’ve got this. If you drive for me, you’ll win.” Driving for him and with him in charge, I did just what he said I would do.
Q: You were pretty self-effacing throughout the film and made a fair amount of fun of yourself. However as the movie continued to spool up to where you ultimately got your shot at the top in Cup with Earnhardt, you were still pretty hard on yourself. I found all that pretty disarming.
MW: You know, I believed, but through all of those losses I just had to deal with it somehow, so maybe self-depreciation helped me deal with it all. But I never gave up and I never lost faith that I would be a winner and I guess I just needed to deal with it somehow.
Q: Dale and Dale Jr. were fantastic in the film, but when it was all over with and the projector got shut off and the curtains closed, I walked out if the theater thinking you were the star.
MW: Well, I appreciate you saying so, and the reason why I got to tell the story was because of Mitch Covington (Note: Senior Vice President of Sports Marketing at Monster Energy). Overall, I think this project has been a success. That maybe I can help people want to be more than they are, or overcome obstacles, and to understand that life can be a pain in the ass at times, but you can get up in the morning, and whatever your job is, you can go out there and make it happen. I’m thankful to Mitch Covington because he gave me that opportunity, and I’m certainly grateful to Monster because they made it happen. All this gives me the opportunity to do two things: Hopefully, I can inspire and rejuvenate people, and also honor Dale. If I can do those two things, that would be fantastic. The film isn’t about Michael so much as it is being a person who can maybe help people overcome obstacles
Q: After you watched the film and let it all settle in, what happened when you ran into Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
MW: Well, that’s a great question. I went to the Dale Jr Download deal [ED: Earnhardt’s podcast] and we told stories about it We told stories about my career, and things that we’ve experienced as young racers trying to make it to the top. We also talked about the movie, and the subject matter, and the whole thing. The thing I loved about all of that was for the first time in 18 years, Dale Jr and I dug into that. I’m thankful for the documentary because it gave me that opportunity to spend some time with Dale Jr. We golf together and have beer together, but very rarely do we begin to enter into conversation (Laughter). I’m embarrassed to say that, but we really don’t. To be able to spend time with Dale Jr. and talk about the subject matter of the documentary and the subject matter of that day in 2001, that’s been the most special thing about the documentary. I finally sat down with my buddy and talked about what were painful memories and difficult times, but we were able to smile and laugh and enjoy what were some special memories for us right up to that last turn on the last lap.
Q: The relationship you had with Dale Sr and Dale Jr went far beyond visit to Victory Lane, didn’t it? There was a hell of a lot of good going on with the overall [DEI] program wasn’t there?
MW: We had a plan, and Dale had very vividly explained to me what we were going to do, and it involved working closely on the track with Dale Jr and me and him. You know, the thing that makes the ending of that race so difficult for me is that I’m a Christian dude. I believe everything happens for a reason, and our days are numbered, and we leave here when we are supposed to. Believing that, I have to celebrate and I have to smile. When I think about Dale Earnhardt and what he saw when he left this world… man.
There is a Bible verse that says when you leave this world, in the blink of an eye, you’re with the Lord. When you believe in God and you believe in Jesus, when you leave this world in the blink of an eye, you’re in the presence of the Lord. The thing that keeps me sane, and the thing that keeps me centered and okay with who I am, is when I think, ‘What if I left this world like Dale Sr did?’ Like, seeing the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life, with my buddy and my son driving off and winning the Daytona 500. That’s a pretty special feeling.
Q: You’re certainly the shining star of it all, so what have you’re racing buddies been saying/texting to you about the film?
MW: [laughs]: I hope this fits into your story, I’m a dude. I never thought I was a dude that much, but I think I can tell when I see cool texts – and I’ve seen some cool texts lately; I’ve gotten texts from my colleagues and racer guys and they basically read, “You did a nice job” and “We really appreciate your story” and “We really understand you better.” Those are some of the texts that I get, and those texts make me happy. I just feel like it has been so worthwhile going down this road and telling this story.
Showing at theaters for one day only on Sept. 12th. Go to Fathomevents.com to find a theater near you.