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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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The Blink of an Eye

Showing again a shrewd sense of timing, NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip released on Tuesday, Feb. 1 his memoir, In the Blink of an Eye (Hyperion), which he co-wrote with Newsday columnist Ellis Henican.

It will debut at #11 on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list on Sunday, Feb. 20, the same day NASCAR fans will enjoy their Super Bowl, the annual running of the Daytona 500 in Florida.

“You have to be slightly crazy to win at Daytona. But if you’re too crazy, you’ll crash, and you can’t win if you crash,” Waltrip and Henican observe, noting the dangers which always loom as 43 drivers navigate their way through 200 laps around Daytona’s famous track.

Waltrip, a Kentucky native, won the first of his two Daytona 500s on Feb. 18, 2001, driving a car that was owned by NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who hailed from North Carolina. Earnhardt competed that day, too, and crashed on the race’s final lap, an incident, which at first didn’t look too serious to Daytona’s spectators or the millions of fans who watched the race on TV. Known as The Intimidator because of his aggressive driving style, Earnhardt Sr. had shown throughout his illustrious career a Rasputin-like ability to cheat death.

The book vividly recounts how the Fox broadcasting team tried to balance a story of triumph—Waltrip had been competitive, but winless, for years on the NASCAR circuit—and tragedy, as Earnhardt was rushed to the hospital minutes after the race ended.

Darrell Waltrip, Michael’s older brother and a retired NASCAR star, was an on-air Fox analyst that day, and understandably cheered Michael Waltrip on as the finish line neared. Moments later, Darrell looked at the smoky wreck down the track and, recognizing immediately it was Earnhardt’s Sr.’s feared, black No. 3 Chevy, said, “I hope Dale’s OK.”

The Daytona 500 broadcast concluded without viewers knowing the severity of Earnhardt’s injuries. Within hours, however, just about every national news outlet reported that Earnhardt, Sr. had died on the race’s last lap.

But what makes this book particularly newsworthy is Waltrip’s acknowledgement that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., prior to 2001’s Daytona 500, entered into an unofficial pact with Waltrip, legal although not usually discussed publicly. Since they were all racing for the same ownership team, Waltrip states, the three drivers agreed to block for one another, depending upon who was in the lead.

Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were in first and second place, respectively, as the finish line approached. The book picks it up from there.

“Dale [Earnhardt, Sr.] spun out as he tried to protect Dale Junior and me, waging a four-way battle for third [place] with Kenny Schrader, Rusty Wallace, and Sterling [Martin] and trying to keep the other cars back. Sterling’s car touched Dale’s. But that’s what happens in NASCAR, especially when the checkered flag is waving,” Waltrip and Henican explain. Still, the co-authors convey dramatically how no other Daytona 500 has ever generated the kind of headlines which emerged after the checkered flag waved at NASCAR’s 2001 season opener.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net