Name: Russell William “Rusty” Wallace
Birthdate: Aug. 14, 1956
Hometown: St. Louis, Mo.
Cup Debut: March 16, 1980 – Atlanta 500
Top Fives: 202
Top 10s: 349
Championships: 1 (1989)
Career Highlights: 1979 USAC Stock Car Rookie of the Year; 1983 ASA champion; 1984 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year; 1989 Winston Cup champion; 1991 IROC champion. With 55 career wins, ranks eighth all-time. Finished second in his first Winston Cup race driving for Roger Penske in 1980. Voted one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
Rusty Wallace came of age during the late ’70s and early 1980s running USAC and ASA with such short-track luminaries as Larry Phillips and Dick Trickle. He also was competing with fellow future NASCAR stars Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin, often driving the fastidious Martin crazy by showing up late to practice because he had to wait for his crewman and youngest brother Kenny to get out of school before they could leave for the track.
In those days, Rusty sported what he referred to as his “nuclear hairdo,” a massive poofy Afro that resembled something rising into the atmosphere over Yucca Flats or Bikini Atoll.
Wallace made his Winston Cup debut driving a Chevrolet for Roger Penske at the spring event at Atlanta in 1980. He qualified seventh and finished second to a man with whom he would eventually establish a storied rivalry as well as a lasting friendship, Dale Earnhardt. It was Earnhardt’s second career win, and it would eventually send him on his way to winning his first of seven titles. For Wallace, it was just the beginning of a long and storied career of his own. The two would meet again at the same track less than a decade later under much different circumstances.
After making just two starts for Roger Penske in 1980, Wallace would make four more attempts the following season for car owners Ron Benfield and John Childs. It wasn’t until he hooked up with North Carolina furniture maker Cliff Stewart in 1984 that his career began the ascent to the stratospheric levels it would one day reach.
He would win Rookie of the Year honors that season, driving the No. 88 Gatorade car; a strange bit of irony considering that the man who made that car famous a few years earlier would be the same man with whom he would have a legendary run-in during the Winston in 1989. Rusty won his first race in 1986 at Bristol, a track where he would enjoy much success in his career, to the tune of nine wins. He posted his second win that season at Martinsville, another short track that would serve as his personal playground during the next two decades of competition.
Rusty Wallace was also regarded as one of the best road-course drivers in the series’ history. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was Wallace and Ricky Rudd who would almost perpetually finish first and second at tracks that required turning both left and right. Helio Castroneves has done quite well on the television show Dancing With The Stars, but back in the day, the footwork seen by likes of Rusty Wallace on the car’s pedals during a road course event would have made him a formidable competitor.
Wallace’s crowning glory would be the 1989 Winston Cup championship. It was a season-long affair, with Rusty racking up six wins along the way. It was by no means an easy feat, however. He won the Winston in 1989, a non-points paying all-star race, by bumping leader Darrell Waltrip out of the way in the closing laps. A rumble erupted in the pits between the two teams, and Wallace began to draw the ire of the fans with his brazenness following the incident.
As the season wore on and he fought Earnhardt tooth and nail for the championship, and his friend and rival from their Midwest short-track days, Martin, began to establish himself as a perennial championship contender as well.
Going into the final race in Atlanta, Rusty held a scant 73-point lead over second-place Martin, and 76 points over Earnhardt in third. Wallace experienced a rash of tire problems that day, and it seemed as if either the upstart from Arkansas or the Intimidator would take the title. Martin’s engine (and car) erupted into a fireball early in the event, and Earnhardt, who always showed up when it was crunch time, dominated, leading 249 of 328 laps en route to the victory, with Wallace limping home three laps down in 15th.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough.
Wallace celebrated with typical Rusty-exuberance, jumping up and down on the roof and hood of his car; something that would surely net him a fine in today’s ultra-sensitive world. He would return to the Raymond Beadle-owned team in 1990 to defend his title, and looked to be a contender yet again. Wallace won a pair of races, but suffered six engine failures in the final 12 races (top that, DEI), the result of a poorly designed connecting rod, relegating him to a sixth-place points finish.
To this day, Wallace maintains that it was that connecting rod that denied him the championship in 1990, a battle that went down to the closing laps at Atlanta as it did the year before, with his friends Earnhardt and Martin.
From there, Wallace would reunite with Roger Penske for the 1991 season, driving what would be his ride for the next 14 years until his Last Call tour in 2005. He would notch a 10-win season in 1993. It was a good time for Rusty, racing with his long-time friends Earnhardt and Martin for the title. Through the second half of the 1993 season, the only driver to post a win besides Rusty, Dale or Mark was Ernie Irvan, breaking through with a pair of victories late in the season.
1993 was not without its incidents. A violent roll-over in the Daytona 500 still stands as one of the more spectacular crashes in NASCAR history. Another eerily similar incident was initiated by his good buddy Earnhardt on the last lap of the Winston 500 at Talladega in May of that same year. Coming to the checkered flag, Wallace received a bump-draft of sorts from Earnhardt.
The spin sent him backwards, airborne and tumbling down past the finish line, flinging sod, wheels and the body from the car. The only thing left intact was the rollcage and the roof. Earnhardt stopped on the cool-down lap to help get Rusty out of the car and to make sure he hadn’t killed his friend. Wallace emerged from the skeletonized car nearly unscathed, with only an injured wrist to show for his wild ride.
Wallace did not forget about the incident, and later on when he was spun by Earnhardt at Bristol in 1995, Rusty hurled a water bottle at Earnhardt, hitting him square in the nose. As he was pulled away Rusty yelled, “I still ain’t forgot about Talladega either!!!” Earnhardt would not go quietly, however. Earnhardt attempted to get even by sticking an open can of sardines in Wallace’s car before a race on one of the hottest days of the year.
Not to be outdone, Wallace retaliated by stealing Earnhardt’s steering wheel just before drivers climbed into their machines the following week. Watching Earnhardt panic in his rearview mirror as the field readied to roll off, Wallace simply held the wheel out his window and laughed, as Earnhardt fumed in his car, helpless to do anything about it.
An eight-win season followed in 1994, and in 2000, Wallace would earn his 50th victory at the track where he earned his first. It would not be until 2002 when his string of 16 straight seasons with a win would come to an end, the result of a bump and run by Jeff Gordon with a couple of laps left to go while leading once again at Bristol. In his final year of competition in 2005, Rusty made the Chase and won his final race of his career at Martinsville, the track where he earned his second of 55 career victories, placing him eighth all-time.
Rusty Wallace now calls the races for ESPN along side crew chief Andy Petree, who called the shots for his late friend Earnhardt during his sixth and seventh championships. He is flanked in the booth by another friend, and the reason why he is still with us today, Dr. Jerry Punch. At Bristol in 1988, Rusty was involved in a harrowing accident, his Kodiak Pontiac sent tumbling down the frontstrech.
The wreck more resembled his aerobatics at Daytona and Talladega in 1993 than a typical short-track incident. He was knocked unconscious and was not breathing when Jerry Punch arrived on the scene. Dr. Punch rushed to the scene and was able to crawl into the wreckage and revive him, saving his life. Wallace certainly made the most of the extra time he was given that day, and will remain one of the legends of the sport for years to come.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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