'Blink of an Eye': Film Review

Blink of an Eye - Publicity Still - H 2019
1091 Media
A few sputters, but gets to the finish line.

Paul Taublieb's documentary profiles former car racer Michael Waltrip and his fateful friendship with racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Paul Taublieb's documentary Blink of an Eye ostensibly concerns race car driver Michael Waltrip, whose biggest claim to fame is arguably his record-setting 462-race losing streak. But a ghost hovers over the proceedings, making the film more a story about friendship than a typical biographical racing doc. Based on a memoir co-written by Waltrip, the pic will naturally hold its biggest appeal for racing buffs but may also prove appealing to nonfans thanks to the moving story at its core. After a limited release on Sept. 6, the film opens nationwide on Sept. 12 in partnership with Fathom Events.

The ghost in question is that of one of racing's all-time biggest stars, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was partly responsible for ending Waltrip's losing streak. Waltrip was competing as part of Earnhardt's team in the 2001 Daytona 500. Thanks in large part to Earnhardt's car blocking the field for dozens of cars in a way that gave both Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. an unimpeded path, Waltrip won the race. But his joy was short-lived: He discovered minutes later that his good friend and mentor had died in what had at first looked like a minor crash.

That tragic incident bookends the film and gives it an undeniable emotional heft. As Waltrip comments, "People are obviously capable of handling the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But I don't know how many people have had to experience them within seconds of each other." He tears up multiple times when recounting his friendship with the racing legend. Particularly poignant is the moment when he recalls walking off unscathed after a crash in which his car basically disintegrated, prompting Earnhardt Sr. to say to him admiringly, "You're one tough son of a bitch!"

The documentary otherwise traffics in more familiar stylistic territory. The affable and articulate Waltrip relates how he struggled to succeed under the shadow of his older brother Darrell, a three-time NASCAR champion who candidly admits in the film that he helped his sibling only when it was "convenient." One of the younger Waltrip's early supporters was racing great Richard Petty, who appears in the documentary to sing Waltrip's praises.

Waltrip displays a good sense of humor about his lengthy losing streak. He also cannily parlayed it to his advantage, enhancing his popularity by appearing in self-deprecating television commercials, including one for an auto-parts company in which his declaration "I'm at the wrong track!" became an inadvertent catchphrase.

There are times when Blink of an Eye borders on hagiography  if not about Waltrip, then about the sport in general. The details of Earnhardt's death are glossed over, although it's carefully noted at the film's end that new safety measures were instituted after the incident and that there have been no fatalities since.

Also, Waltrip's story, other than that fateful incident, doesn't prove particularly compelling over the course of the feature-length running time. (His post-2001 Daytona career, which was far more successful, is given short shrift.) The film's numerous other interview subjects, including Earnhardt Jr. (who proves much less emotional than Waltrip when talking about his father) and several racing executives and drivers, generally offer little more than platitudes. (An example: "Daytona is our Super Bowl," Petty explains at one point.)

The documentary largely succeeds anyway, thanks to the emotion-packed episode at its center and its subject's engaging personality. But it's likely that the planned feature based on the same book will carry much more of a dramatic punch.

Production company: Taublieb Films
Distributor: 1091 Media
Director-screenwriter: Paul Taublieb
Producers: Susan Cooper, Mitch Covington, Pam Miller, Paul Taublieb
Executive producers: Sam Pontrelli
Directors of photography: Wesley Forsyth, David Warshauer
Editor: Paul Buhl

88 minutes