A Hollywood screenwriter could hardly have scripted the story of NASCAR drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt more dramatically, and for the most part, “Blink of an Eye” stirringly recounts their fateful tale, which peaked — in simultaneously euphoric and tragic fashion — at the 2001 Daytona 500. Save for a few instances of excessive syrupiness, Paul Taublieb’s documentary proves an affecting portrait of perseverance and friendship, bolstered by Waltrip’s recollections and a host of candid interviews. Even moviegoers with no vested interest in motorsports are apt to be moved by this bittersweet Cinderella-ish saga. Partnering with Fathom Events to bring the film to NASCAR fans, 1091 Media will release in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 6, followed by a nationwide rollout the following Thursday.
Born the youngest of five in Owensboro, Ky., Michael Waltrip aspired to be like his older brother Darrell, a rising star in the racecar field. With a persistence that matched his talent, and through an early partnership with Richard “The King” Petty, he made his way to the big leagues. Alas, though he seemed primed to follow in his sibling’s championship footsteps, Waltrip found the checkered flag elusive. Even with the support of numerous sponsors and wife Buffy, he’d go on to compile a record of staggering futility: 0-462.
Despite that consistent lack of success, Waltrip never abandoned his NASCAR dreams, and his confidence was reinforced by his off-the-track friendship with legend Dale Earnhardt, who was 12 years his senior, and yet quickly took to Waltrip’s funny, lighthearted demeanor and indefatigable attitude. Guided by lengthy new conversations with Waltrip, in which he speaks openly about his life and bond with Earnhardt, as well as a treasure trove of archival material (from home movies and photographs to TV race broadcasts), Taublieb’s film establishes Waltrip’s arduous situation as an underdog desperately trying to make good, and Earnhardt as an unlikely ally who believed in Waltrip even when he lost faith in himself.
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After he was selected to lead Earnhardt’s new racing team (alongside rising-star son Dale Jr.) — an opportunity that few could fathom, given his winless streak — Waltrip knew it was put up or shut up time. And put up he did, at the 2001 Daytona 500, where he finally triumphed courtesy of Earnhardt’s strategy of teaming up to roadblock the competition. It was a storybook ending to a Little Engine That Could fable, except that moments before Waltrip crossed the finish line, Earnhardt’s No. 3 car was involved in a fatal accident. For Waltrip, it was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and “I don’t know how many people have had to experience them within seconds of each other.”
Waltrip’s earnest and forthright narration lends “Blink of an Eye” its intimacy and insight. Just as welcome are the sincere confessions of other subjects, be it Darrell admitting to his own shortcomings as a brother, or Dale Jr. stating that, at the 2001 Daytona 500, he wasn’t really on board with his dad’s idea to work as a unified squad, since he wanted to win the race himself. That sort of honesty helps offset the film’s soggier impulses, such as perfunctory dramatic recreations and an introductory scene in which Waltrip drives down a sun-dappled rural road while Trace Adkins’ title song plays on the radio.
Fortunately, those missteps are relatively rare, as Taublieb by and large lets his material speak for itself, culminating with a post-tragedy Daytona race that ended in astoundingly perfect fashion — and is sure to stir even the most NASCAR-indifferent heart.