The NASCAR Nationwide Series has evolved through the years, in every aspect from the series’ vision to the technology and expense needed to be successful. A handful of drivers have been there through many of the changes, and this week we speak with one of them. Frontstretch’s Amy Henderson sat down with Nationwide and Cup series veteran Kenny Wallace, for a candid conversation about his team’s sponsorship efforts to run at Montreal in August, to the effects of manufacturer cutbacks and the series’ evolution on the teams… and then number one item on his grocery list.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: You’ve got an effort going for Montreal to have your fans sponsor your car. How is that working out?
Kenny Wallace: The fan car is exactly that. It was an idea from one of my Facebook friends. It started out when I reached out to the media, asking if anyone knew any companies who would sponsor us in Montreal. Then we said, ‘hey wait, we have over 5,000 friends and fans on Facebook, so we said why don’t we try and raise $20 per person?’ Then we thought, no, the economy is too bad, we shouldn’t do this, but then after six weeks of investigating, the feedback was 99% positive – we only had about two out of 400 that said no we shouldn’t do it.
So now it’s just been fabulous. We’re past halfway (to the $100,000 goal). Now it’s the hard part. There are still a lot of people who don’t know about the fan car.
Last year, we went to Montreal with no sponsor. Therefore it was not in the budget for tires, or crew, or really anything. I personally did not want to go to the racetrack like that again. I talked with my car owner, Jay Robinson, and I said, “Jay, I will get a sponsor.” I was bound and determined to get one. All the credit goes to my fans. It was their idea. I can’t believe how well it’s already worked. We need to raise $100,000 to go test and race so we can make sure we’re really prepared.
We’re now in a situation where we can go to the racetrack, and now we need to reach our goal of $100,000 so we can go to Virginia to test on a road course and test to make sure the car is set up properly for Montreal.
Henderson: Your team, Jay Robinson Racing is a smaller team, but you have become really competitive over the last several weeks. Where did your team start out, and how did you end up at JRR?
Wallace: Last year, before Kenneth Campbell died, (Campbell was the crew chief for the No. 28 until a sudden illness in late 2008), Kenneth called me and asked me if I would want to drive the No. 28 car. The timing wasn’t right – I was driving for someone else. I was actually driving for Armando Fitz. But when Armando’s deal didn’t look like we were going to be able to run the whole year, I called Jay Robinson back. So that’s how I came to the team – the late Kenneth Campbell called.
When I told some people close to me that I was going to drive the No. 28 car, and I swear, they said, “You know, Kenny, you ought to just quit. You shouldn’t race anymore if you’re going to drive the No. 28 car.” I thought, ‘that’s the way you feel?’ Now we’ve taken that car to where there are drivers wanting to drive my racecar. I like to think that between me, Jay and my crew chief, Chris Rice – who has made a huge difference, that this is now a sought-after ride. But I was the first one to drive it, so it’s my car. I think it can teach a lesson that you shouldn’t condemn a car until you can get in it and work it all out. I’ve put a lot of effort into this team. Jay, my car owner, believes in me, and we make it work. We’re an underfunded team compared to Roush or Hendrick or Penske or Childress, but we are number one as far as what we do with what we’ve got. We’re good, and I’m really proud of that.
Henderson: With the Cup-owned teams and the amount of money they bring in, the role of the Cup driver in the Nationwide Series has changed a lot. Do you see that change as positive?
Wallace: I’ve told people time and time again that it is not the Cup drivers. Kevin Harvick taught us that. When Kevin was driving for Richard Childress in the No. 21 car, he was winning everything. When he got into his own equipment, he’s only won one race so far as a driver. It’s the teams, it’s not the drivers It’s guys named Roger Penske, Jack Roush – it’s the teams – they just have so much more of everything. They’re doing a good job, but they’re racing each other. They’re giants of the industry. I can race against the drivers.
So we just keep searching. We’ve taken this small start-up team, and we’re growing. Who knows, we might end up being a big team. I think that the strongest Nationwide team right now is Braun. They’ve got some good support from Toyota and great sponsors. I think that’s out target to be more like Braun race team right now.
Henderson: Does Chevrolet pulling their support from the series hurt your team as much as it hurts the teams like Richard Childress Racing and the other big teams?
Wallace: We’ve never had factory support, so it doesn’t hurt me at all. I would say that Chevrolet has let us go to the wind tunnel one time, which we’re very appreciative of, but we’re definitely not in the situation that a team like Richard Childress is in. They were getting $10 million a year, and they might have to cut back. We won’t have to cut anything, because we never had it. Our car supports itself. Jay doesn’t get into his own pocket, I don’t get into my own pocket. We race on the money that the car brings in. So it’s not going to affect us one bit. Chevrolet has been very good to me, and I stick behind them. They’re going through tough times, but I’m behind them. They’ve been good for me.
Henderson: What other changes have you seen change in the Nationwide Series during your career?
Wallace: The biggest change I see right now in the NASCAR Nationwide Series is that – and it hurts me to say this – but the championship doesn’t mean anything any more. When I raced for the championship, it was me, Bobby Labonte, Bobby Hamilton, Chuck Bown – it was the Busch Series and then, it was always won by a Busch Series regular. Now, it’s never won by a regular because there are more Cup car owners than there are Nationwide car owners, so that’s a big difference.
Years ago when you won the Busch championship, it was a major deal. Joe Nemechek, Kenny Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton – we all owned our own teams. Bobby Labonte’s team was owned by Bobby Labonte; Joe Nemechek’s team was owned by Joe Nemechek. My team was owned by my brother. Jeff Burton’s team was owned by his father. Chuck Bown’s team was owned by the Hensleys. So that’s the biggest thing that’s changed now. You win the championship – I don’t know, I guess these guys feel like it’s a big deal, but the fans really don’t recognize the championship anymore.
Henderson: We ask these questions to everybody we interview, and they’re kind of goofy. What’s the strangest fan request you’ve ever had?
Wallace: The strangest thing a fan has ever requested from me is to sign their anatomy. Use your imagination.
Henderson: You’re taking a trip to the grocery store with Kim. What one item do you always have to come home with.
Wallace: The one item that I always come home with is plain old macaroni and cheese – Kraft macaroni and cheese!