Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday July 27, 2012
_ I don’t care if it’s Travis Pastrana racing World Rally cars, or if it’s Kenny Schrader winning the dirt series in the late models or Kenny right now in modifieds or Tony Stewart—they all have a connection. They’re winners, they’re champions, and most importantly, they’re racers.” –Jeff Hammond_
Saturday morning came early to Loudon, New Hampshire, with the promise of being a scorcher of a day, and Kenny Wallace was sick to his stomach. It wasn’t the heat or the flu that was making the 48-year-old Wallace feel like he’d swallowed a whole herd of angry butterflies, but rather the conflict between commitment and opportunity.
The commitment was to Speed TV, where Wallace opens every Sprint Cup Sunday on the popular Race Day show, and that means an hour-long production meeting on Saturday. The intensely loyal Wallace wouldn’t miss a commitment like that.
The opportunity was the draw: the opportunity to win the DIRTCar Summer Nationals-a grueling month-long series of dirt races that comes honestly by its nickname—The Hell Tour. To win the series championship in the modified division where Wallace races, drivers had to compete in at least ten races (For the late model teams, the Hell Tour requires participation virtually every race, but the modified division counts points from each driver’s ten best races.), and on this day, with the final race hours away, Wallace sat just 39 points out of the lead. “We just got to racing and all of a sudden we started winning,” said Wallace on Sunday morning at Loudon. “ We won like three out of five and all of a sudden I looked and we were only 39 points out of the lead. Well, my competitors had all already run ten or more.”
Wallace had run just nine races, one short of the number required. And the last race that counted was just hours away from the green flag.
Even if he had held the points lead, Wallace would have needed that tenth race to clinch the deal. And here he was, sitting in New Hampshire while in Toledo, Ohio, teams were getting ready to race. His team was in Terra Haute, Indiana, on their way home to St. Louis after a two-week stretch of racing during which Wallace won three times in four days (the fourth race was a third-place finish) to bring him within shouting distance of the series championship. But the title, as close as it was, was also 750 miles away. “
The agonizing feeling of being within a hairbreadth of a championship was not a new one for Wallace. Just six months ago, Wallace had won three races in the Winter Nationals…but was unable to compete in the deciding race due to his commitment to host the pole draw for the Budweiser Shootout. And then there was the Nationwide title he almost won in 1991. Leading the points with three races to go, Wallace suffered a nasty crash in New Hampshire’s nasty turn 3 that left him with terrible positional vertigo following a concussion, and three broken ribs. The wreck ended his title hopes for good. The following week, Wallace started the race only to be forced to give the seat over to his car owner and brother Rusty, but despite getting credit for a third place finish, Wallace would finish 21st in the final race of the season at Martinsville, while Bobby Labonte took the championship home by 74 points.
Those losses still stung. And Wallace didn’t want to lose another one that he could have won because he couldn’t race for it. So he made a phone call to Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart to ask about leasing Stewart’s jet for the day. And for the first time in Kenny Wallace’s racing career, the stars aligned.
Tony Stewart is a racer, and racers help each other out when the chips are down. He wouldn’t let Wallace lease his jet. But he would let Wallace hitch a ride. “Tony Stewart was flying to Eldora and the plane was literally going right over Toledo,” Wallace explains. “ Literally, it was all about how would I get there. So Tony Stewart just let me ride in his airplane, he didn’t even ask for any money, and they landed and dropped me off.”
Stewart took care of getting Wallace to the track, but the racecar was in Terra Haute, over 300 miles away. Wallace called his team, who immediately turned the hauler around. And now all Wallace had to do was race. And race he did. “We showed up, ran second in our heat,” Wallace says. “It was a 25-lap feature and we led like 18 or 19 laps and then my car picked up a big push—I guess we had it adjusted wrong—and we finished sixth and pulled it off.”
For the first time in his career, Kenny Wallace was a champion driver.
Here, on Sunday morning in the Speed green room at New Hampshire Motor Speeday, Wallace downplays the title. That’s typical Kenny Wallace—though he’s outgoing and confident, he’s also humble about his accomplishments. His brother Rusty is a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in January. Kenny is the youngest of three boys, all racers, and is quick to remember his family’s accomplishments, sometimes ahead of his own.
“It’s my first championship. It feels good to win races and have a lot of second places. I’ve always said, I’m the third child, I’m not used to having a lot of success. It’s kind of a psychological block,” muses Wallace. “I told Darrell Waltrip, he called me ‘champ’ and I said, ‘stop that!’ I told him, you must be talking about my brother Rusty. I’m thrilled to death and really happy about it, but on the same token, it’s just different, because I finally accomplished something never knowing it was coming. Usually, you try really hard, you know, ‘we’re going to go fight for a championship.’ This one here, I didn’t really know I was going to do it until we got going, and then I was like, ‘let’s do it,’ you know? “
Wallace wasn’t supposed to be racing so much on dirt this year. As the racing season began, Wallace believed he’d be racing for a NASCAR Nationwide Series title, only to be told later that the driver’s seat in the No. 09 ride he’d piloted to a top ten points finish in 2011 (now renumbered the No. 99) was open for anyone who brought enough money to buy it from week to week. Wallace had sponsorship for a handful of races, but unless he brought a sponsor for the rest, the seat would go to someone who could find a cool hundred grand.
Wallace was stung by the news, but he refuses to let it bring him down. “I had two choices this year: to cry over spilled milk or not,” Wallace says. “I went into this year thinking I was going to run the whole Nationwide Series. I could have cried over that; I was a little bitter for a couple weeks, but then I said, ‘well, I always wanted to go dirt racing, and now was the perfect time. I think the difference is that we’re kind of just doing this ourselves and having fun with it. You always want to run good, but you, know, NASCAR is the show. People always ask me do you like dirt or asphalt. Well, I like NASCAR for the money, and I like dirt for having fun and for the camaraderie. I’m just having a lot of fun. There’s a lot of friendship when you’re dirt racing.”
Short track dirt and asphalt racing is the heartbeat of American motorsports. NASCAR’s national touring series may be the pinnacle of the sport for some, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of talented drivers who, for one reason or another, by choice or by circumstance, will never race a NASCAR touring race, but who are every bit as fierce and competitive on the racetrack as any Cup driver in history. They are racers, and they race-usually losing money in the process. You don’t make money at the local level; you spend it. But there is a brotherhood forged on those small tracks in small towns, and Wallace relishes this. He spends hours on the road with his team, choosing to travel in the hauler instead of flying to the track whenever he can. And he’s having fun…possibly the most fun he’s ever had in a racecar.
Fresh off the Race Day stage, one of NASCAR’s most popular personalities, Wallace sounds like any dedicated short track racer when he speaks of his team. “You get in the hauler, and you go four hours up the road and you race,” Wallace says, a smile playing at his lips. “Then it’s two in the morning, so you go to a truck stop, and that’s our food. You stop and get a little sleep and then you wake up at eleven the next day and you drive two hours to the next race. There’s five of us in the hauler and we have the funniest sayings. It’s companionship. It’s friendship. Oh my God, we have so much fun.”
“We make up little bitty things. I think everybody is starting to know our cast of characters through Twitter. You’ve got Blake Hudson; his nickname is Chow because he can imitate Chow from The Hangover movies so good it’s ridiculous. He’s so good it was to where Tony Stewart and Austin Dillon were saying, “oh my God, that is awesome” and now I have to put Blake on the phone just so Tony or Austin can hear him talk. They laugh. Then we have Don Schomberg, who looks just like Kenny Rogers; he’s got that grey hair. Jimmie Johnson saw him on Twitter and said “hey, that’s Kenny Rogers. Then we’ve got my crew chief, Billy Smith, who is a hell of a racecar driver. We’ve got Tommy—I just call him Loverboy. And I’m the Hermanator. I’m having fun because of the fellowship. And we’re running good.”
And if anyone should think that Wallace’s NASCAR money buys him an advantage, he’s quick to tell you that nothing is further from the truth. “Running a dirt car doesn’t pay its own bills,” Wallace says earnestly. “Our races, our 25-lap feature races pay anywhere from 600 to 1,000 dollars to win for a local race. But, I can run a lot of modified races, especially a series called USMTS, which stands for United Stated Modified Touring Series. Their races pay $2,000 to win every one, and they have some 20 or 40 thousand dollar to win races. But it’s for the love of the sport.”
Wallace continues, “Look, what I’m doing right now is what Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, and Carl Edwards all did it before they came to NASCAR. I did it backwards, because I started racing at a later age. I didn’t start racing, period, until I was 22. I didn’t get to NASCAR until I was 26. So I always told everybody when I’m done racing NASCAR that I’m going to go back and race dirt, and that’s what I’ve done. I have one employee, and some other guys who volunteer. I like being a part of working on the cars, but my fabricating and mechanic days are kind of over. I can get in there and do anything in the shop, we’ve got all the equipment. But listen, I’ve got one employee. I’ve got summertime help, but that’s what allows me to do this.”
“You know, it’s funny,” Wallace says as he leans back against the window, “When I was learning dirt, everybody was like, ‘look at him.’ And now that I’m running good, they say it’s because I’ve got money. You know, people now want to know the cost of everything: how much is your motor, can you make a living dirt racing? There are thousands of people who do this. It’s like Dale Earnhardt told me once, there are thousands of great racecar drivers all over the United States. The guys that are in Sprint Cup right now: Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, those are the guys that that’s what they did, they ran dirt. They made it to the show.
“You can make it easier on yourself, but I cannot spend more money on my modified than the next guy that I’m racing,” Wallace continues. “The guys that I’m racing for the wins—they’ve got more money than me. Then you’ve got your A,B and C,D levels. But for the most part, when I go to Florida and I race, I don’t outspend Kenny Schrader. I don’t outspend Richard Childress. Those guys have got more than I’ve got. But I had a good year and outran them. I hear those things, about guys only winning because they have money, and I laugh. It’s very rare that a team on a budget can win anything in NASCAR. When it does happen, it’s like a tornado. In dirt racing, people that don’t have anything can get their chassis right and win. I think that’s why there’s so much love for the sport.”
And love for the sport is what drives Wallace. He smiles, tired to the bone after a 24-hour journey to the Hell Tour and back, and leans back on the couch thinking about what he has just accomplished. He’s content, at least for now, to bask in the glow of that word—champion—-and to reflect on a long, hard-fought career. He’s a champion now, but he’s also still Kenny Wallace from St. Louis, and he’s not ready to change the humility that he has always carried.
But on this Sunday in Loudon, a day after he won his first career championship,
Kenny Wallace doesn’t get the last word in this interview. That will go to Jeff Hammond, the champion crew chief who has known Wallace for more than 20 years, since Wallace himself was a head wrench on the then-Winston Cup circuit, before Wallace slipped behind the wheel of his racecars. “Wait, I want to say something about Kenny,” Hammond says.
“I sit here and I try to listen to Kenny being humble. Kenny is a great humble individual,” Hammond says. “But at the same time, ever since I’ve known him from being a crew chief when he first came around to becoming a driver and having crew chiefed for him, he is very much a fierce competitor. He loves to win. He loves being a competitor. Don’t let him fool you. He wanted to win this championship because he understands that winning is one thing, but having people call you a champion, that’s something you take to heart. And he’s earned it. He’s paid his dues. Through Cup, Nationwide, running dirt, whatever.
“We’re all racers down to the core. The ones who started on dirt and the ones who started on local short tracks—we all understand what that meant to this man. And he can downplay it all he wants to. But when he’s sitting at home and he’s just kind of chilling out with Kim and their girls, he can take the solace of knowing ‘I beat the best of the best in that series that year.’ He earned the right to be champion. When you hear someone like Tony Stewart, who has done it all, pay the compliment that he did to Kenny, that means more. You can do anything you want to, but to have the respect of the people who know you, the people who understand your heart and where your passion really lies, that surmises who you are and what you are. I don’t care what you race; that’s what makes racers have that brotherhood, that connection. I don’t care if it’s Travis Pastrana racing World Rally cars, or if it’s Kenny Schrader winning the dirt series in the late models or Kenny right now in modifieds or Tony Stewart—they all have a connection. They’re winners, they’re champions, and most importantly, they’re racers.
That’s good company Hammond puts Wallace among. Among other racers, being called a racer, especially a racer in that kind of company, is the highest complement that one racer can pay another. And, a champion at last but a racer always, Wallace is right where he has always belonged.
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