In 2019, the documentary Blink of an Eye premiered via Fathom Events in theaters around the country. Chronicling the career of Michael Waltrip and the fateful events of the 2001 Daytona 500, the one-night-only Sept. 12 showing gave way to a widespread release on streaming.
Waltrip’s 0-for-462 winless streak in the NASCAR Cup Series came to an end as his No. 15 crossed the finish line first in that year’s season opener, but behind him his car owner and friend Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash on the last lap.
Nearly 10 years later, Waltrip wrote In the Blink of an Eye about that race and his life in motorsports, and nearly two decades after that the film adaptation was released. Feb. 18 of this year marked exactly 20 years since Earnhardt’s passing.
Frontstretch caught up with Waltrip to discuss the documentary, its impact and how it came to be, as well as his time in NASCAR.
A follow-up piece for Frontstretch’s Beyond the Cockpit series focused on Waltrip’s career and upcoming involvement in the Superstar Racing Experience will be published in the coming weeks.
Adam Cheek: There’s so much raw emotion in this documentary; you can tell how much Dale Earnhardt meant to you and everyone in the racing community. I know that had to resonate with so many fans, whether they were watching in 2001 or not. Have you heard that from people after the film came out?
Michael Waltrip: Yeah. Mostly just how it was a tribute; I always thought of it as a tribute to Dale, a way to let people celebrate his life, help them process everything that went down that day and what it meant to the racing world. For me, it gave me a chance to talk about those difficult times, and I haven’t done that a lot.
I wrote a book in 2011, and that was the inspiration for the documentary. And so having written a book and doing the doc, it’s just a way to celebrate Dale’s life, and I’m really thankful that I got to do it and that it means so much to so many — not only about what a great person Dale was but also about perseverance and just staying elbows up all the way, and just know[ing] that, you know, life’s gonna have bumps and things are not gonna always go your way. But you can’t quit. You can’t ever give up. And I think that’s another great message that people have gotten.
Cheek: My grandmother actually gave me that book when it came out, and you also promoted it on your car in the 2011 Daytona 500. Did you think, when you wrote it, that nearly a decade later it would be made into this feature-length documentary?
Waltrip: You know, I didn’t really think much about all that. It was just, you know, life just kind of comes at you. It was an opportunity. I met a really nice man who was my co-writer, and we hit it off. The interesting thing about the book was it was just he and I; we literally wrote the whole thing together. He would show up on Sunday in 2010, on a Sunday afternoon, and I would get home after being at the races. And we would just sit and talk and he would write down everything I said, and I would read what he wrote down. And I [would say], “This isn’t right,” and he would say, “it’s exactly what you said.” And I would say, “that’s not what I meant.” (Laughs) We would go back and forth and rewrite it, and it was a really enjoyable experience because of [the co-writer] Ellis Henican, he got a lot out of me.
But the thing that makes that interesting was when it came time to do the documentary, the producer, Paul [Taublieb, also the documentary’s director], he said, “we got to talk to everybody, we got to talk to Dale [Earnhardt Jr.], oh, we got to talk to Darrell [Waltrip] and Richard [Petty]. And I was thinking to myself, well, what if I told the book different than they’re going to tell the story?
I didn’t have anybody that validated what I said in the book, but what was really cool was each of those interviews, people were sat down separately. And every one of them, every story, just completed each other’s stories. I mean, that meant the world to me, just hearing everybody had the same feelings and same memories that I had.
Cheek: How did production on Blink of an Eye start up and enter discussions in the first place?
Waltrip: That was all Monster Energy and [then-vp of sports marketing] Mitch Covington. So in 2017, I raced my last race — I ran the Daytona 500, and that was Monster Energy’s first race [as the Cup Series’ title sponsor]. And so we had a dinner on Wednesday or Thursday night prior to the 500 with a bunch of my friends and fellow racers — Mitch came as well. We hit it off, we got to talking and then I mailed him my book and told him how much I appreciated Monster being a part of NASCAR now.
He read the book and it must have been just a week later, he called me and said — and he’s a Hollywood kind of guy, he’s a real big thinker — he said, “This has to be a movie, we gotta make this into a documentary. This is a great story, we got to tell it.” And so I said, you know, “whatever you like, whatever works for you works for me!” And so he’s friends with Paul Taublieb, they made [Unchained: The Untold Story of Freestyle Motocross], they’ve had a couple of projects together. So he immediately called Paul, and that’s how it all started. I guess it took nearly a year to make, and it turned out great. I’m really proud of it.
Cheek: The film goes into your backstory, how you got into racing after Darrell did and your time working your way up through the ranks of NASCAR. Was there a particular story from a point in your career that made it into the documentary that’s a favorite of yours?
Waltrip: I just think it’s really interesting that I said in the in the doc that I had this plan: I was going to race the [NASCAR Goody’s] Dash Series, I was going to race the Busch Series and then I was gonna race the Cup Series, because that’s how you did it. And Richard Petty, sitting on his couch in North Carolina one night, said, “you don’t need to be messing with them Busch cars, you can get right in the Cup [cars].”
I never thought about that, [but] I was able to take Richard’s advice. I met [owner] Dick Bahre, and he let me run his car in the Coke 600 in 1985. And that sort of started it all, and it was a struggle. I bet you in 1987 we were maybe a month, maybe a couple weeks away from just having to close down. And I hadn’t really done well enough to where… I don’t know if anybody would have noticed me or wanted me to drive for them.
So that was a big, big commitment they made and and we were able to find sponsorship just in the nick of time; each time it looked like the end was near, we found sponsorship and kept on racing, and eventually that led to winning some Busch races on the side and then getting in competitive Cup cars.
Cheek: I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of feedback on social media and elsewhere from people who saw the movie, so what did that mean to you to get that response?
Waltrip: You know, when I got done with the book and it was all put together and out, I read it and I handed it to the publisher. I remember thinking, “I don’t care.” I won’t say I [didn’t] care. I cared deeply. [I thought] “I don’t know if anybody will buy it or not, but it says exactly what I want to say. Every word in it is exactly how I want it said and the story is told like I wanted it told,” and so, you know, that was a great feeling.
Now, the doc was a bit different, because all those people were talking about me behind my back. (Laughs) They were filming their words and I was a nervous wreck. But as it all came together and I was able to see clips of it — I helped in the editing process as well; that was important to me to be able to make sure this was there, this was not. But that [process] was, like, I had to take out two pictures or something; you can’t change people’s words.
And so I felt the same way about the documentary, that I felt like that it was really well done, and I hope people would enjoy it. And it was; it was well received, and probably [by] more people than I thought would, and that’s a great feeling. And through Mitch and Paul’s involvement in Hollywood, Sony Pictures has optioned it to make it into a feature film. That’ll be a whole ‘nother story, because, you know, Hollywood makes stuff up and makes it more interesting, so that’ll be an interesting ride too. I don’t know the timeline on that, but that’s probably gonna come up; that’s probably not gonna be too far off in the future that I’ll be working on that.
Cheek: Did you have a favorite part of the process when you were putting the documentary together — the filming, getting everyone together, the editing, any of that? Did you have something that you enjoyed in particular?
Waltrip: Well, I’ll tell you the two things that meant the world to me. [One] was Richard Petty coming to my shop to do his part in the film, taking time to do that. And then secondly, when we premiered the film in New York City, I was sitting in a movie theater in New York City beside Richard Petty; he came to the premiere. The reason why that was so so cool for me was because when I moved to North Carolina, I moved in with The King. I was friends with Kyle [Petty] and, long story short, I lived with Kyle for a while and I wound up moving in with Richard, and we would sit on the couch at night and watch movies and watch TV.
And, nearly 25 years later, there I am sitting in the movie theater with The King, eating popcorn, watching a movie about all the stuff that had gone down over those those years. That literally nearly bookended the whole movie, my involvement with The King, so that was pretty special.
Cheek: Your famous “I’m at the wrong track!” commercial for NAPA in the early 2000s was incredibly popular: it’s featured in the film and talked about a little bit. How did that ad come into being? Was it your idea, NAPA’s idea or a combination of both?
Waltrip: Yeah, that was NAPA. They knew I had sort of an outgoing, fun personality, and they were smart enough to take advantage of that and those spots — all the NAPA spots — were really fun to do, and then later on [they] got Dale Jr. involved in some of them. And, of course, the one where the guy dumps out the car with all the parts and pieces of it from the Bristol crash and asks me to sign a chunk of it. Those were just really fun, and heck, I got to do a couple with Sammy Hagar; he was singing in a little closet. So it was pretty cool.
Cheek: We’ve had a ton of racing films over the years: everything from Days of Thunder to Talladega Nights, you name it. Did you have a favorite racing movie when you were younger, and do you have a different one now? Or is there one or two that have always stuck with you?
Waltrip: Well, I remember the buzz around when Days of Thunder came out, and obviously that was a big deal for NASCAR and it was a fun movie. But now, my favorite racing movie’s definitely Talladega Nights; I just think it’s hilarious. And, you know, I just enjoy a good laugh, and I laugh every time I watch it still today. So those those are a couple of different approaches of telling a story about NASCAR, but I certainly enjoyed both of them.
Cheek: How do you look back and reflect on 33 years of racing in NASCAR’s Cup Series?
Waltrip: At times, I think about what could have been, and I really was looking forward to driving for Dale and, you know, never really got to be with him after the race or break down what I did wrong. And I think that would have… I missed that. But, you know, having a couple of Daytona 500 trophies and being around as long as I have, I’ve been blessed, and I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had.
And I’ll just keep doing TV as long as FOX wants me to, wants to hear me talk and keep spreading the joy, I hope. That’s something that is important to me, no matter what.
No matter what the numbers say or my stats say, every day I meet people that are happy to meet me, you know, happy to see me and say hi. And if I can make people smile, that makes all the hard times — most all the hard times — worthwhile.