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Authors: Michael Waltrip

In the Blink of an Eye

BOOK: In the Blink of an Eye
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If not for Darrell, I never would have started dreaming.

If not for Richard, I might still be dreaming.

If not for Dale, I don’t believe my dreams would have ever come true.



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love sports. When I was a kid, I played them all. You couldn’t find a boy in Owensboro, Kentucky, in the 1970s who played as many sports as I did, and played them with as much mediocrity. Football, baseball, basketball, tennis. I was amazingly average at them all.

If there were twenty players on a team, I’d be chosen no better than twelfth every time. I once told one of my coaches I thought I might try to play some college ball. His reaction? “We have a very good shop program here at Burns Middle School. Maybe you should start looking into that.”

That coach was also the guidance counselor. His guidance led me to think I probably wouldn’t be running, throwing, jumping, or tackling my way to a college scholarship. I actually could have been a pretty good tackler, I think, if I could have just caught someone.

As I considered my options, I realized something extremely important: Chances were, when I grew up I’d have to make a living sitting on my butt. And looking around town, it seemed like everyone who had a sit-down job had gotten good grades in school. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that guy either.

What did that leave? I could drive a cab, I figured, but we didn’t have any of those in Owensboro. I could be a security guard, but nobody ever stole much in our town.

I knew one guy who got to make a living sitting down, and his job looked like a whole lot of fun to me. From what I could tell, it paid well too. This guy had figured it out. From what I’d heard, he was no better in the classroom than I was.

My mom and dad,
Margaret and Leroy, had five children. I was the baby. Darrell was the oldest. When I came along, he was sixteen and already making a name for himself sitting down in a car, driving fast and winning races.

The idea sounded perfect. You sit on your butt to drive a race car. How ’bout that? That was it. I made up my mind. I wanted to be a race-car driver. Just like my brother was. My little-kid logic was solid, don’t you think?

When I was born, our family of seven was living in a three-bedroom house on the west end of town. Mom had a part-time job as a cashier at the IGA grocery store. Dad worked at the Pepsi plant. Despite them working all day and raising us kids, we had a pretty regular routine. Mom served dinner in our kitchen every night at six, and Dad made sure we had the nicest yard on our street.

Supporting a family with five children was tough. Yet my parents always found ways to give us kids whatever we needed. Needed, I said. Not wanted. I found it very difficult back then to understand the difference between needing and wanting. I felt like if I wanted something really badly—well, then I must need it.

My perspective resulted in some lively debates between me and my parents. I mostly lost, but I wasn’t shy about letting them know where I stood. Some of my opinions resulted in some pretty tough love. I certainly got my share of whippings, as most kids did back then. That’s how my parents were raised. That’s how they raised us. My own girls should consider themselves lucky I didn’t elect to continue that tradition.

Growing up, I was a busy, emotional, funny kid. My parents tried to teach me discipline and responsibility. I would say they had partial success. But I came away with something from my childhood I’ve always liked about myself: the way I respect and appreciate people. That’s how my parents treated everyone. As an adult, that’s how I’ve always tried to treat people too. I’m a reflection of my parents, and I’ve wanted to make them proud.

My birth was an accident. Not so much the birth part, but the conception part. I came into the family late. But if you ask Mom today, she’ll say all five of us were accidents. Darrell told me it was embarrassing for him when Mom would come to get him at a track meet or some school function while she was all pregnant with me. None of the other high-school kids’ moms were expecting.

When I came along, at least for a little while, Mom and Dad must have been like, “I thought we were done with all this kid-raising stuff. And now we got one more to deal with?”

I say that because there is very limited evidence that I existed until I was four or five years old. No baby pictures. My binky and my blankie—where’s all that stuff? I never found it anywhere, not even in the box in the attic.

You can imagine how crowded it was in our little house. Seven people, three bedrooms, one bath. But Darrell moved out quickly. With Dad working full-time and Mom part-time, my older sister Carolyn was left in charge of me a lot. I called Carolyn “Mom,” which certainly didn’t help her dating life.

“You got a kid?” guys would ask her. “That little boy just said, ‘Come here, Momma.’ ”

Even after Darrell and Carolyn left home, there were still five of us in the house: Mom and Dad, plus me, my brother Bobby, and my sister Connie. Poor Connie grew up with a roommate: me. We shared a room until I was nine or ten. Connie could not wait for Bobby to move out so she could get rid of me and finally have her own room.

Bobby had an Afro and would spend an unusual amount of time in the bathroom before school fixing his hair. Connie had hair too, and she certainly needed to get ready for school. But Bobby was the oldest still at home, and he pretty much ran the show—for sure when Mom and Dad weren’t around.

I’ve always wondered if being an “accident” and taking orders from Darrell, Carolyn, Bobby, Connie, Mom, and Dad had anything to do with my lifelong need to prove myself. I don’t know. But I sure got tired of taking orders from all those people—and their friends too.

My mom was devoted to all her children. But by the time she was down to the fifth one, she wasn’t all that lovey-dovey anymore. Her favorite saying was, “You’ll live.”

Fall down, skin your knee raw? You’ll live.

Didn’t make the baseball team? You’ll live.

Girlfriend dumped you? You’ll live. Whatever happened, you’ll live.

Today if I say to my little girl, Macy, “You’ll live,” we laugh. She knows that’s our little joke about her grandma.

My mom is funny. She has a very quick wit. So being around her sometimes was cool. Since Mom worked only part-time, mostly I hung out with her. I’d go just about everywhere she did. We used to ride to my aunt’s to visit once a month or so. Aunt Emma lived in the little town of Henderson, Kentucky, about a half hour away.

One particular day, I wasn’t too happy about making the trip. I didn’t want to go at all. And I whined all the way to Henderson.

My friends were having a big bicycle race that day, and I was missing it. On the way back, I told my mom she had ruined my whole day. Mom reminds me of that even now and says that I was being a little bit dramatic. That could be true. When we spend time together these days and I get ready to leave, Mom will still sometimes say: “See you soon. Don’t let anybody ruin your day.” We get a good laugh out of that one.

I always admired the way my mom loved, respected, and supported Dad. I mean, life wasn’t easy for either of them. Her role in the family—working a job, being home to take care of us, cooking, cleaning—was tough. I appreciated the strength of character she had. I don’t think her day-to-day life was much fun back then. But she always found ways to give each of us the attention we craved.

Dad was working hard and climbing the ladder at Pepsi. He’d get to the plant at five-thirty in the morning to make sure all the trucks were loaded up and ready to go. By the time he got home at six each night he was pretty well worn out. There wasn’t any playing pitch and catch with him in the evenings. He was about done for the day.

After working all week, Dad looked forward to the weekend. Sometimes those weekends included going off to the races with Darrell. I was just a little boy when Darrell started racing in NASCAR. So I never got to make any of those guy trips. I’d be stuck at home with Momma.

Man, that killed me!

I wanted to be at the races too. I didn’t understand that I was just a kid and didn’t belong on the road with the guys. I was already a huge fan of the sport. Or as much of one as I could be, considering my favorite sport wasn’t on TV hardly at all. Occasionally, you could catch a few laps of NASCAR action on ABC’s
Wide World of Sports.
They would squeeze a race in between sumo wrestling and the World Ping-Pong Championships. But that was about it. And as you kids may have heard, we didn’t have the Internet back then.

But I did get to go to the races some. And what I saw there made me fall in love with NASCAR.

We used to get
Stock Car Racing
magazine delivered to the house every month. As soon as Dad was done reading, he would let me have the magazine. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Every month, there was a poster of a driver and his car in the center of the magazine. I pulled those posters out and hung them on my wall. All of them. Richard Petty, David Pearson, the Allisons, Cale Yarborough. There was even one of my hero, my brother Darrell. But I was mostly only able to see DW race on the local track. What I wanted more than anything was to see my brother racing against the stars of NASCAR.

With Dad off at the races and Mom knowing how badly I wanted to be there too, she cut a deal with me. If I didn’t complain too much about being stuck at home with her, she would take me to listen to the races on the radio. Like I said, back in the seventies there wasn’t a whole lot of NASCAR racing on TV. But there was one way for us to follow how Darrell was doing. A radio station in Clarksville, Tennessee, carried the races every weekend. We couldn’t pick it up in Owensboro. So Mom and I would get in the car and drive down the road toward Tennessee. When we could pick up the signal from that station, we’d pull over and listen to the race.

Can you imagine? Driving an hour so we could listen to a race on the radio? With your mom? Things have changed quite dramatically since then. If I told Macy that’s what we were going to do one Sunday afternoon, she would be like, “Yeah, right, Dad.” But I thought it was so cool. Mom knew how much that meant to me. And other than a little gas, it was probably a cheap way to entertain a little kid on a Sunday afternoon.

One of the first
things I recall doing with my dad, just him and me, was on Sunday mornings when I was eleven or twelve. We didn’t go to church much. But Dad and I started going to McDonald’s. When we first began doing that, we’d each get an Egg McMuffin. And when we were finished, we’d both still be hungry. So Dad got us each another one. We both ate the second one, but that was too much. So we started ordering just three—one for each of us and we’d split the third one. Dad would cut it right down the middle with a plastic Mickey D’s knife.

That may not sound like much. They were just Egg McMuffins. But those Sunday-morning breakfasts were the first thing I remember that my dad and I ever shared.

He seemed to like it too. Those trips to McDonald’s became a Sunday-morning ritual for the two of us.

God bless Ronald and that aggravating Hamburglar too! We were sharing more than a breakfast sandwich. We were sharing stories about my life. We’d talk about school and racing and just normal stuff. For some reason, we never talked about girls, though. A wife and two kids later, I’m still waiting for the birds-and-bees story to be told to me.

But for the first time, I felt a real connection with my dad. I was growing up. We found some things in common. He was noticing me. And I loved the attention.

BOOK: In the Blink of an Eye
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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