As the first NASCAR representative to do the show, Waltrip realized he had a monumental task ahead of him. He shared, "I hung up the phone with ABC and thought, 'Aw, darn, I don't know how to dance.'"
Waltrip turned to friend and Season 17 contestant Bill Engvall, who encouraged him along the way. He even sought out a bit of advice from Season 18 competitor and fellow Toyota Racing spokesperson Amy Purdy. They both shared their experiences with him.
Now that he's firmly planted in his journey, the judges haven't been easy on him. Waltrip has handled the criticism with aplomb, though.
He explained, "When [the dance is] over, and if the judges aren't happy with it, then you have to say, 'Well, I had fun and I enjoyed being out there. By gosh, the negative opinion you had about my dance isn't going to ruin the fun I had.' You can call it criticism; I don't think that's the right word. I think they're just trying to tell you what to do better and how to do it better. I look at as a chance to learn and a chance to grow."
One moment he did appreciate during Week 5's episode was guest judge Jessie J, who called it like she saw it.
"My favorite was Jessie J, though. She just said, 'It was consistent. You didn't do terrible, you didn't do great. It was consistent.' And then Tom [Bergeron] said right after, 'So you're saying it happened.'" I don't care who you are, that's just good TV," laughed Waltrip.
His pro dance partner, Emma Slater, has been with him every step of the way, and Waltrip said he appreciates her work in the rehearsal studio. The NASCAR team owner explained, "The thing I love about her most is when she thinks I should get something and I haven't gotten it yet. She's very stern, or at least as stern as she can get with me. Emma will take it personally if I don't do well because she will think that she didn't give me all of the information I need to be successful."
Another special moment was having his daughter, Margaret, in the audience during his favorite dance so far this season.
"Emma and I's waltz has been my favorite. I thought that dance went really well, and it was my daughter's 17th birthday that Monday. She got on a plane and flew all the way to LA to watch me dance. Doing that dance in a way that my daughter was proud of me and wanted to hug me, that meant the world to me as well," he said.
As for the other competitors, Waltrip loves joking about frontrunner Alfonso Ribeiro, who has killed it on the dance floor recently with the Carlton dance and a flamenco piece.
Waltrip let us in on a little secret about the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star. "If it came right down to a dance-off between me and Alfonso, I'm going ahead and clue you in on a little secret," Waltrip said. "I prefer you don't tell anyone this: He can probably dance better than me. That's our secret, right?"
In the meantime, Waltrip will be racing on Sunday in Talladega, Alabama, for a good cause, National AFib Awareness Month, in association with Janssen Pharmaceuticals. The company donated more than $50,000 on Friday to the American Heart Association. However, this race is personal to Waltrip because his mother had an atrial fibrillation-related stroke 25 years ago.
Fans have been able to read about his mom's story and have their photos uploaded to his No. 66 Toyota Camry through the website MyAFibStory.com.
Waltrip said, "I'm looking forward to racing my car on Sunday afternoon. I think it's pretty cool to be able to say I came to Talladega and raced my mom's car."
He's also hoping to take his dancing partner on a ride around the racetrack soon. However, Waltrip and Slater's next big challenge is Monday, when they take on the Argentine tango and try to avoid elimination.
He summed up rather wistfully, "I am dancing for my life."
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