Excerpted from "In The Blink Of An Eye" by Michael Waltrip. Copyright © 2011 Michael Waltrip. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.
There I was, on the most sought-after piece of real estate in all of motorsports, Victory Lane at Daytona. What a way to break a little losing streak, huh?
As soon as I pulled into Victory Lane in my #15 NAPA Chevy, everything in the world seemed perfect. Buffy was there, crying, laughing, smiling. I grabbed her and said, “We did it, baby! We won this race! We won it just like Dale said we would!”
The sound of roaring engines had now been replaced by the sound of a couple hundred thousand screaming fans, clapping and cheering for a guy who had been trying for sixteen years to win a race. Now he had won the race. Confetti was raining down on my head. Champagne and beer were being sprayed everywhere. This was incredible. Victory at Daytona.
We were living it up, sucking up the moment. I couldn’t imagine that feeling would ever end.
This was my special time, although I didn’t know how clueless I was. It was the greatest ever. We laughed and cheered and hugged. The celebration was under way, one I thought would last forever. Buffy, Macy, my family, my team -- all of us were there, and all of us were winners. That dumb streak was over -- finally! No more 0-fer. No more asterisk by my name. This win counted.
My heart was still racing. The adrenaline was still pumping through my veins. But of all the excitement and other emotions I was feeling, the one that felt the best was that relief. I was a winner. At last.
I wasn’t especially tired. It wasn’t a hot day. Daytona isn’t really a physically challenging racetrack. It’s very mentally taxing because of the large pack that you’re racing in and how hard you have to focus in order to put yourself in the right position. But now that it was over, I could say my run to the checker had been calmer than most that I had been in. Out front was the place to be, and I’d never been there before. I was usually in the back, scratching and clawing to scrape out a top-five finish. But I’d focused on driving my car and watching my mirror and keeping an eye on what Dale Junior was doing behind me. We had a race plan. We followed it. I knew in my heart that given the opportunity, I would win. A lot of people said there was a lot of pressure on me now that I was driving Dale’s car. But I disagreed. I thought having a ride like this would take the pressure off of me. Finally, I could just race to win. And I was right.
So instead of being overly exuberant, I was just more like, Thank God. I finally won a race. Any race. A race that counted. And this one counted a lot.
I looked up and there was Macy, standing near her mom. She had a huge smile on her face, and she gave me a hug as big as only a three-year-old can. It was a lot like the hugs she gave me in the motor home when this day first got started. Man, that seemed like a long time ago. She had a pretty dress on. She looked so beautiful and so proud. I kissed her on the forehead and held her tight. Then, just as I let go, one of the guys on the crew decided to take a beer can, shake it up, and squirt her, spraying a can of Budweiser all over Macy and her pretty little dress.
The dude was a bit too excited. He was caught up in the moment, I guess.
Macy didn’t think this was funny at all. She let out a giant wail: “Ahhhhhh!” The poor child was screaming like she was at the dentist. My niece, Dana, the nanny, was right behind her, quickly wiping off her beautiful little face. But I think Macy decided this Victory Lane place wasn’t nearly as cool as the rest of us thought.
Well, at least it was the right beer, our sponsor’s beer! Who doesn’t like a good, cold Bud?
Buffy was totally loving and supportive, as always. Hugging me, congratulating me -- tears still running down her face. It was like she could hardly believe it. Everybody seemed to be crying except me. And I’m a crier. I do cry. But not now. I had shed a few tears in the car, and I was done. Happiness? Joy? All that? Sure. But mainly, I was just relieved.
Thank you, God. Thank you, Dale. Thank you, Dale Junior.
The whole crew was gathered around. Our sponsors were too, sharing this moment with the team. I was so happy for the folks from NAPA who had taken a chance on me when Dale asked them to just a few months before. Now they and all our other sponsors -- Coca-Cola, Aaron’s, Klaussner Furniture, and the others --were tasting victory with us. Most of the sponsors had already become our friends. This was their victory too.
Everybody was there. To celebrate. To take pictures. Just to be part of this incredible moment. A couple of the NASCAR reps were making sure the Victory Lane experience went down exactly like it was supposed to. They were making sure that the team was taken care of and the media were getting the interviews they needed.
That’s what it was like for a while after I got out of the car. A thousand things needed to happen. As the driver, you’re never going to remember everything unless someone is there to guide you. I know I wouldn’t have. How would I know what to do? I’d never been there before.
Dick Berggren, pit reporter for Fox, quickly made his way to me. Dick had been around racing forever. I believe he was covering chariot racing when Ben-Hur was a rookie. (Hi, Dick.) He’s a former driver himself. He had a pretty good notion of what I might be feeling at a moment like that. It was his job to be one of the ones who always reminded me I’d never won a race. And he did it again.
“Michael Waltrip,” he said in a slightly serious tone, as if he were calling my name off a school-attendance roll or summoning me up to a witness stand. “Four hundred and sixty-two green flags, finally a checker. Does this feel as good as you hoped?”
Actually, Dick, 463! If you’re going to call me out, get the number right!
Almost any driver will tell you he has fantasized about this moment a thousand times. You’ve just won the race. The crowd is roaring. The camera is rolling. The whole world is waiting to hear what you have to say. Make it count, baby! Make it count, Mike!
And I know how to tell a good story. People like all the stuff I go on with! So this was gonna be good, right?
You want to know the first words out of my mouth?
Unconscious? Is that really what I said? I have no idea what that meant. I’m known as a talker. This was my moment! Finally, people wanted to hear what I had to say. And that’s what I said? “It’s unconscious”?
I then gathered myself and put together a few words that actually made sense, although I did stumble through them.
“Thank God,” I started. “Thank my dad. I love him so much. And, um, you know, I just can’t believe it. It hasn’t, ah, sunk in yet.” Well, that was deep! Keep it going, Mike. “I know I never would have won without Dale Junior. So he has to get half the credit. And I know I never would have won without the belief that Dale had in me and NAPA and all the people on my team.”
My mind was racing. I knew my time was short. I had so much I wanted to get in.
“I thought it kind of boosterish -- or bragging -- that we thought we could win this race. We hadn’t won any race yet. And we did win.”
Berggren said my brother wanted to talk to me from the broadcast booth. Darrell was a mess. He was so happy for me and so emotional. He had just called his baby brother winning the Daytona 500. He didn’t try to hide his feelings about that either. “Way to go!” he shouted at me and viewers around the country. “Way to go, buddy! Keep it low, Mikey. Keep it low. Don’t let ’em run up on you. Come on, man. Come on, man. Block him. Block him. You got him, Mikey. You got him, man.”
He turned to Mike Joy, exhausted, at the end. “My daddy would be so happy.”
Quite a day for the Waltrips.
Now in Victory Lane, Berggren handed me a headset. Darrell’s voice was loud and clear. We were talking in front of a huge television audience, millions of people watching around the world, including my proud momma back in Sherrills Ford. But when I heard him in the headset, it was like we were sitting on the back of the truck, just him and me.
“What’s up, Brother?” I asked Darrell.
“Man, I want to be down with you,” he said. “I want to give you a big hug. Man, way to go! I was riding with you. I was praying for you. Pulling for you.”
By that point, it was just Darrell and me, telling a new family story, although I was doing most of the talking this time.
“Well, as soon as I find Dale Junior, I’m gonna give him a big kiss,” I said. “He won me the race, and you can’t do this deal nowadays without friends. He was my friend. His Budweiser Chevy ran second. He had a dream. He won the Daytona 500. And he did. I’m just here to celebrate, man.”
I looked at Berggren. It was straight stream-of-consciousness now. “Can I say one more thing? Woo-wee!” I let out the loudest whoop I had inside me. “God, I can’t believe it’s over!” No more 0-fer.
Then it was back to Big Brother. I’ve always been a pretty big talker. Now I was kinda taking over the post-race interview. To his credit, Berggren was totally gracious, just giving me my space and my moment.
“Now let me ask you a question, Darrell,” I went on. “How much better does one for 463 sound?
Instead of 0 for 462?” I didn’t really give him a chance to answer. “You people are hung up on my record,” I said. “I don’t care. But I do know this. Me and my brother have both won the Daytona 500!”
“That’s right, Brother,” Darrell said. “That’s right, brother. Tell ’em about it. Get up on that car.” I would. In a minute. But first I had so many people to thank. And of course, at a time like that, your mind is constantly blanking out on you. You can never think of half of them.
“All my friends,” I said. “Golly, Scott Eggleston. There are so many people, Dick. On and on. I’m gonna have lots of time to thank people.”
Couldn’t forget my mom, though.
“Momma, I love you. Momma, I wish you were here. Golly, if my daddy were here, it would be complete. This is a day the Lord has made. And I’m proud, and I never gave up. You know, you can’t win if you give up. I didn’t care how many 0-fers I had. I showed up every Sunday and did my job. And today I finally won one of these things.”
“Michael, you know how much money you won?” Darrell asked.
“There ain’t no telling,” I said.
“A million dollars! You won a million dollars! You are a millionaire!”
Even at that moment, I knew that race money never quite added up like you thought it would. Good thing Darrell wasn’t my owner. He’d probably send me another check for a thousand and keep the rest.
“The last time I won a lot of money,” I said, “I won the All-Star Race. It paid two hundred thousand. I got half of that, and I said, ‘I’m gonna build my momma and daddy a house.’ That cost a hundred grand.
The government got half of mine. I went fifty thousand in the hole. I’m not making any promises today.”
Before I got done, I had one more thing I needed to say, something that I guess was obvious, but I wanted it to be heard coming out of my mouth: how much I had benefited from the help of Dale and Dale Junior and the whole DEI racing crew.
“I can’t believe it,” I said. “I owe it all, or most of it, to Dale Junior. He helped me a lot. And his daddy too. I saw him back there fighting them off. I know they’re both real proud of me, their driver, but more importantly this team they threw together for a few months. They hired me to drive it and people were like, ‘Why’d he do that? He must really like him.’ Well, this is why he did that. Because I knew I could do this job. This is why he did it.”
I hugged and kissed Buffy and Macy, saw all my family who were there in Victory Lane. I even talked to my brother on TV. But the one guy I was sure was on his way to join our celebration, the one I wanted to see the most, the one I was sure would give me a bear hug I would never forget --I hadn’t seen him yet.
“Hey, y’all. Where’s Dale?”