The Frontstretch: Beyond the Cockpit: Mike Wallace On Funding, Plate Racing And Daughter Chrissy by Phil Allaway -- Wednesday July 31, 2013

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For Mike Wallace, his career has seen many ups and downs. He’s won races in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series over the years, and once ran full-time for a number of years at the Cup level. However, he has also bounced back and forth between the three series multiple times. At age 54, Wallace has a combined 772 starts in NASCAR’s National Series, although recently most of those have been concentrated in Nationwide. For the past four-plus seasons, Wallace has driven the No. 01 Chevrolets for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller. An underdog organization, it is quite a different experience as compared to driving for teams that can provide anything under the sun. Our own Phil Allaway sat down with Wallace recently in Daytona to talk about his season, the struggles involved in racing on a limited budget, his daughter Chrissy’s career, and more.

Allaway: Let’s start by talking one of your strengths: plate racing. You’ve had quite a bit of success at Daytona in the past. You won [the summer] race back in 2004, picked up top-5 finishes in ARCA races, and in the Daytona 500. Generally, you’re considered to be one of the best restrictor plate racers in NASCAR. Is there some kind of a mindset that makes a certain driver better on a plate track?

Wallace: I think just going into a racetrack and appreciating it, not having a bad mindset works. Early on, when people said that they didn’t like restrictor plate racing years ago… well, I love racing in restrictor plate races. The late and great Dale Earnhardt taught me a little bit about plate racing, different things to look out for, and different things to pay attention to. I did, and I think I understand that there is a different style of racing that goes on at these two racetracks [as compared] to the open tracks.

I think I’m good at all the tracks when the cars are good. Here, I seriously believe that the driver can make up some things.

Mike Wallace has driven the No. 01 Nationwide Series car for more than four seasons, coming close to victory on more than one occasion but never cashing in.

Allaway: If I remember correctly, [Dale] Earnhardt was really big on controlling the race around him. He could do that with certain tactics that he would do in the car. Can you still really use those types of tactics that Earnhardt would have used in the ‘90s today, or has the tandem drafting rendered such strategy impossible?

Wallace: Tandem drafting adds three to four seconds a lap of pace. If you have an incredibly fast car, if you have the greatest motor program in the world, you can maybe affect things. We have our own Johnny Davis/Tony Clements-built motors that don’t have as much power as some of the others. So, the tandem draft is really crucial to us. Not losing the draft is incredibly important to us as well.

Allaway: This year, we have the new Camaro body style. Has that changed the tandem drafting in any way since the nose is no longer close to square?

Wallace: I don’t think it’s changed it very much. To be honest, what’s changed tandem drafting more than anything else is [NASCAR] closing up the grille opening. You gotta be more cautious, gauge the race a little bit. Water temperatures, you gotta pay attention to water pressure, which we don’t pay attention to on a regular racetrack. You can’t be pushing any water out, since [NASCAR] puts a pop-off valve on the water reservoir tank so it can only take so much pressure before popping off and blowing out water.

I think that if you really study it, the NASCAR Nationwide Series races has some of the best restrictor plate races going. They’re good, they’re exciting, there’s lead changes and everything.

We, as teams, have asked NASCAR, “Please, please, quit changing the rules. Let us go race for a while and leave the rules package the way it is.”

What happens is that every time there’s a rule change, it costs the teams money.

Allaway: I’m pretty sure Johnny [Davis] doesn’t necessarily want to spend that extra money.

Wallace: The point is, what does the rule change accomplish? That’s the whole thing. If it made for better racing, yes, that’s fine, but it doesn’t, normally. No team owner, not just Johnny Davis, even though we’re a small organization where every dollar is important to us, [wants the changes]. Even the big teams [don’t want to do it].

I heard a quote once from Richard Childress, “I wish NASCAR would stop trying to save me money.” A change costs money. So, unless there’s a real important need for it, don’t do it. Leave it alone.

Allaway: These cars are not cheap.

Wallace: No, not at all. You gotta remember, it’s not just the cars. It’s everything that takes place in this garage. We pay to enter these races. It costs us to enter the race. You gotta pay for all your crew members. You gotta have hotel arrangements, travel expenses, then you have the race cars and tire bills since tires aren’t free anymore.

Allaway: When did [Goodyear] make free tires available?

Wallace: There was a time back in the day when there were plans out there, but they’ve all went away. If you were so far up in the points or qualified well enough, you’d get a tire, or a couple of tires.

Allaway: Sounds like a tow money scenario.

Wallace: That was before my time that tow money and appearance stuff [was out there]. [NASCAR] has the greatest form of motorsports in the world. Everybody wants to be a NASCAR driver.

When I was at Road America, I talked to all of the guys that were there, like [Owen] Kelly, who was there from Australia, the V8 Supercar racers, they all want to be here racing. They say, “You guys are crazy. You say how cool V8 Supercar racing is, but we want to come here and race.”

IndyCar guys, Formula One guys want to come here and race. This is the Mecca of motorsports. NASCAR racing, Daytona International Speedway. Other than Formula One-type money in regards to driver salaries and so forth, everybody wants to come here and race.

Allaway: Generally, it’s good racing and can be lucrative. The competition is unparalleled in most races.

Wallace: You have competition, you have lead changes, [and] you have everything that we need to have. We’re here to race as individuals. Everyone from the teams, drivers, crews and cars, we’re here to compete. But, at the same time, we have an obligation to put on a great race for the spectators. If the spectators weren’t here, none of us would be here. Even if we got paid the same money and everything like that, it would be boring coming here and [having] no one here. It’s like coming down here during preseason testing in January and no one’s in the grandstands.

Allaway: Getting back to this season, you’re currently 16th in points with a top-10 finish. Unfortunately, it came at a steep price. How would you characterize your season to this point?

Wallace: It’s been disappointing, to be honest with you. We had some situations at the start of the year that got us in a big hole. It’s not just a hole, we took a backhoe and dug a hole. We finished all the races, but we broke in the middle of them. At Daytona, we had a battery cable short out during Speedweeks. Never had that happen before. Got that fixed. Had an A-Frame break at [Auto Club Speedway], had some shims fall out at Las Vegas.

We’re working to rebound from that. We’ve had some respectable runs for our car. We’ve gotta keep things in a real perspective in this sport. There are the teams that have everything they need (the “have” teams) and, indirectly, we’ll use the term “have nots” to describe those teams that don’t have everything that they need.

To start with, we don’t have the financial resources that we need. Financial resources allow you to hire people and buy parts for the team. We’re kind of the lead group of the “don’t have everything” cars.

Allaway: Can you talk about the challenges of finding sponsorship for the operation?

Wallace: First of all, it’s a very big challenge for anyone to find sponsorships anymore. Even the high quality teams are taking any sponsorship that they can get. There used to be a rule that the Cup teams would only take a minimum of this, Trucks would take this. Now, starting in the Cup Series, they’ll take anything and everything. As a result, some sponsorships that used to be in the Nationwide Series are now over on Cup cars as associate sponsors.

The biggest challenge we have and I have, since I work hard at it as well, is finding the proper decision-makers within a company. We can make legitimate sense out of this; it’s not blue sky that we’re selling. It is a viable branding, marketing and advertising tool, along with an employee recruitment and retainment tool, along with good customer and vendor relations. [Sponsorship] can be a lot of things for companies.

I don’t know how Corporate America operates when you can’t get ahold of the decisionmakers. You might as well take every website in the world that has contact information on the back of it, and you might as well throw that away because nobody responds to it.

You might get one back from a food company like a restaurant, where the food quality was bad or something. If you’re calling, asking to talk to a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) or something like that, you’re not even going to get a courtesy note. So then, you try to network with people to get the door open. Somebody might know somebody, and it might work that way. That’s the best thing you can do. That’s the challenge of today’s world. [Businesses] in today’s world have to make more business sense out of sponsorships than they did years ago. How you prove a return on investment is crucial. ROI, ROI is the refrain.

Years ago, people got involved in the sport because they liked it. Upper management liked it, the CEO liked it, and there are still some sponsors, good sponsors, in the sport like that. Thank God the CEO likes it, because they’re the one driving it. So, it’s challenging, and hopefully, we can make something different happen before long because this team is in a crucial situation. We need some full-time marketing partners. We have a few.

G&K Services does a few races with us that we pick up here and there. What we end up finding out is that we do such a good job for our partners at such a low price that we can convince [sponsors] to do more. We give them a value to get into the sport, then we over deliver.

Mike Wallace’s daughter, Chrissy hopes to eventually break through and race into the Nationwide Series full-time.

Allaway: Landon Cassill, your teammate was originally brought in to serve as a driver coach for Daryl Harr before eventually being hired full-time. How has he helped out the team?

Wallace: I wasn’t aware of [Cassill] being brought on as a driver coach. Daryl Harr races our car on occasion. What really happened is that Danny Efland was scheduled to drive the No. 4 all year long. Then, Danny didn’t like a few things about the team, or the way that things had happened, so our car owner fixed that by replacing him.

When [Davis] looked down the list, Landon had a Cup ride and was going to be at the racetrack, so he was available to hire. Daryl Harr runs some of the races on the West Coast. JD Motorsports maintains some of their K&N cars, so it was a good mix. We needed somebody that had racetrack experience, wasn’t going to tear our cars up, would keep the car in the top-30 in owners’ points (as of this writing, the No. 4 is 30th in owners’ points) and keep it locked in. If Daryl drives the car at one of the road courses coming up, or at Phoenix or Iowa, we want Daryl to go there without the pressure of having to qualify. So, Landon’s been around for a long time now; he’s a young man, but he’s got plenty of experience. He did a lot of development work with Hendrick Motorsports. He’s brought some different thoughts and perspectives to the team. He’s doing well; had a bit of bad luck the last couple of weeks, nothing of his making, just engine-related issues. Our main goal with this team is to finish each and every race. This is not a start-and-park race team. This is a race team that wants to run hard every lap. But, we also realize that we shouldn’t tear up the race car to run 20th if we can get by running 21st and not tear anything up. Take what the car will give you, get to the end, the guys will work on it, and we’ll go back next week.

Allaway: What kind of racing is your daughter, Chrissy, up to these days? There doesn’t seem to be any information out there about that topic.

Wallace: That’s because there is no information. Chrissy is sitting on the sidelines right now. She wants to do any racing that she can. My job, my salary has changed so that I, Mike Wallace, can’t write a check for her racing. There are so many people floating around out there with wealthy parents or wealthy grandparents that are able to put their kids into situations that I can’t.

Chrissy ran a couple of late model races last year. Back it up to 2011, one of the [Sprint] Cup car owners told her, “Chrissy, you need to go win some races, win a championship, then we’ll talk.” So, Chrissy got in a Hancke straight-rail ASA late model, went over to Lebanon, Missouri, won seven late model races, won the track championship, won the ASA regional championship. She went back to that same car owner and said, “I did what you told me to do.” He looks at her and says, “How much money you got?”

So, he kind of depressed her. She did everything from the performance standpoint she was requested to do. Then, it’s how much money do you have.

She has, at this present time nothing racing, but starting soon, there is a major production company out of Los Angeles that is coming over to do some stuff with her that possibly thinks that they can help her get back in the car, and maybe create a docu-reality type show out of it. They’ve been over and shot some footage. It’s a major company, not some little deal. We’ll see if she can get back in the car. The desire is to get her back in a car and get her racing, car or truck. Whether it’s back in a late model, or in ARCA, wherever she can win races and hopefully win a championship.

She’s had some opportunities for her to come and run some Nationwide stuff this year, but she’s just going to run in the back with the cars that she’s been offered. She said, “Look, I’m at a point in my career where if I run bad[ly], people are going to write me off. I’m better doing nothing than being considered not capable.”

But, she has had a lot of opportunities. Chrissy did a lot of things thanks to the motorsports world. She had a quarter-page article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years back titled The Changing Face of NASCAR, talking about how she is a female racing in a male-dominated sport. She rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. She has a standing offer with the Exchange that if she can bring an Exchange member to the table, they’ll have a launch party for her on Wall Street. She did The Bonnie Hunt Show, a live, daytime television show, she was a walk-on guest on Dancing with the Stars, [and] she was on Extra and walked the red carpet.

Allaway: That’s a lot of accomplishments.

Wallace: It is. A lot of people don’t pay attention to it because she’s not presently racing. She wants to race is all I can tell you. She wants to race really bad. But, she doesn’t want to just be in someone’s car. She wants to be a car or truck that will run competitively, and is capable of running up front. Then, it’s up to her to produce.

Allaway: What kind of goals have you and the rest of the team set for the remainder of 2013?

Wallace: I don’t know if we’ve really set a goal. The simple goal is that this No. 01 car needs to finish in the top 20 in car owner points, and as far up in driver points as we can. Why that is important is because [NASCAR] only pays the top 20 in points, and as the team gets towards the end of the year, there’s going to be some debt owed.

We believe when it’s a plate race, we have a chance of winning. Over the past few years, we’ve led every speedway race we’ve run in. We’ve run well. We’ve led two Green-White-Checker sequences at Talladega and we’ve crashed on the last lap.

Allaway: Or put on your roof.

Wallace: The roof one was the time we led the previous two Green-White-Checkers, then got turned over. Took the white flag, got a run at the worst spot and got turned over. In the middle of the backstretch.

At Talladega (this year), we did the whole ride around in the back thing. Even got lapped [after I] lost the draft. Moved back up. Coming off of Turn 4 coming to the checkered flag, get to the tri-oval, and all of a sudden, you’ve got two “experienced” Cup drivers Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler, two Gibbs cars racing down below the yellow line for some unapparent reason. They run into each other and wreck everyone around them 1,000 feet from the finish line.

When I realized we were wrecking, I just thought, “This is ‘Days of Thunder,’” I stayed in the throttle to make sure I could at least get to the start-finish line.

Allaway: Did you think it was too dark to be racing at the end of the Aaron’s 312?

Wallace: No. It was dark, but we’re all professionals, we all have capabilities, we all grew up short track racing somewhere where there were hardly any lights at the race track.

There was absolutely zero cause for that last wreck. Zero. Not even a good apparent reason. Why were two team cars racing a full car below the yellow line, racing? You know you’re not supposed to be there. No one pushed them down there. I have no idea what they were doing. And nobody will respond to that. Doesn’t make any difference now because everyone’s cars are tore up. Thank God they both got wrecked on top of it. I’d hate to think that they would have gotten away with it.

Gotta remember that NASCAR has a commitment to the race fans. The race fan wants to come to see what they paid to watch. They did a remarkable job that day just trying to get that race in. Kudos to them for what they did in order to deliver the product to the race fan. NASCAR told us that they were going to cut the race short and we all knew it. We knew the checkers were coming.

Allaway: It was a great finish, but an expensive one.

Wallace: Yep.

For Wallace, the last plate race (Daytona) ended up being a disappointment. He qualified 35th and ran around near the back for much of the event, eventually getting lapped, but getting back on the lead lap via the wave around. Wallace eventually advanced as high as 20th before electrical problems reared their head with 15 laps to go. The No. 01 car essentially quit, stalling on track to bring out a yellow. Wallace was credited with a 37th-place finish.

Since Daytona, Wallace has finished 28th at Loudon, 24th at Chicagoland and 22nd last weekend in Indianapolis. He is still 16th in driver points, but the team is currently 22nd in owner points, 28 points out of 20th and the all-important bonus money.

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07/31/2013 02:18 PM

Good article.

07/31/2013 09:43 PM

Thanks for this article/interview! I’m a huge Mike Wallace fan; these small teams work their butts off. It’s just a shame that the Cup guys are allowed to ruin the Nationwide Series!

07/31/2013 10:03 PM

This sums up the sorry state of NA$CAR affairs. Sparkle Pony Patrick has a ride and Chrissy doesn’t.

08/01/2013 04:55 AM

Talking about Chrissy; unless you have a plan, racing a bad car is better than not racing at all. Talent spotters can tell when someone is making a bad car look good. Of course other things still have to fall in place (chiefly money) but it’s still better than staying home.

Also, not to sound harsh but she needs to lose some weight. Like Sparkle Pony or not, looks matter in this sponsor driven world. That’s why even a champ like Jimmie had to get a hair transplant. You gotta do your best to max your appeal.