Out of hundreds of racers to run in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in its most recent incarnation (since 1982), less than 40 have nine or more victories. Only two men on that list have more than 500 starts, and just one is racing full-time in the series in 2011.
It’s been a remarkable career for Kenny Wallace. The numbers can tell you that: 503 races, nine wins, 64 top 5’s, 164 top 10’s, ten poles, average finish 16.7, three-time Most Popular Driver. But for Wallace it’s so much more than numbers. The 1989 Rookie of the Year has been at the top of the mountain and at the bottom of the darkest valley, and he’s come out of it a wiser man and a smarter racer.
It’s been a hell of a career. As a young racer, success came quickly and if not easily, at least regularly for the youngest of three brothers in a racing family. Success led to opportunity, but opportunity didn’t always lead back to success. There were opportunities in Sprint Cup, but roads seemed to lead back to the Nationwide Series, where Wallace began, and will likely end his NASCAR career. The series has been good for Wallace, the racer, and he has been good for the series. Wallace has followed the series from the short tracks like Myrtle Beach and Hickory to the huge, nasty-fast ovals in Las Vegas and Texas, and he has evolved with it, as part of it. The wild child rookie is now the respected veteran, but both are the same man in reality.
I sat down with Kenny Wallace in Charlotte, intending to tell the story of a career come full circle. Instead, as only he could, Wallace told it himself.
“I won my first race in 1982, Wallace says. The remarkable part of that Illinois Street Stock Championship is that it really was his first race. Ever. But what happened after that win is the real story. “It’s no secret that my career has been like a heartbeat. It’s been up; it’s been down; it’s been up; it’s been down, and the whole time my whole career has felt like it was going to slip away, like I’m not going to have it anymore because I’m not good enough. But here I am and just realized I just had a whole career.”
“I’m 47 years old, going to be 48 in August so, I think I’ve spent most of my career thinking I’m not good enough when in reality, yeah, I guess I’m maybe not good enough to be a champion, but I’ve contended for some good NASCAR Nationwide Series championships and I truly feel that one way or the other, if my timing had been better just here or there. What would have happened if I’d pulled out to pass Dale Earnhardt at the white flag, what could have happened if I could have had a better pit stop at Rockingham? I have three second-place finishes. I’m really at peace where I am now. There is no doubt that I’m the poster child for the heartbeat of an up and down career. But I’m still here and I feel better about myself right now.”
Many people wonder what might have been. Wallace is no exception, but he’s not going to dwell on it, either. And he may be misspoken when he says he wasn’t good enough to win a championship, because the one that got away was never a question of good enough. It was more like having the rug pulled out from under the whole room with the good china on the table. In 1991, Wallace was running for his brother Rusty and was locked in a championship battle with Bobby Labonte, another up-and coming driver also running for his older brother’s operation. Wallace had a comfortable lead with three races to go when a crash at Loudon, NH changed things.
“One of the biggest crushing blows in my career ever was leading the championship in ’91 and it looked like it was mine to lose,” Wallace says today. “I’m up at Loudon with a 90-point lead and the rear end broke out of the car. I went spinning into the wall. It knocked me out. I had what they call positional vertigo and I couldn’t race the next week, the next race at Rockingham. I was leading the points with three races to go. To this day, I’ll be one of the first drivers to admit it, but I went to sports therapy. I went out to Topeka, Kansas and I got over it because I was able to receive some help to put it away and move on. It (could have) killed me. My head came out, hit the B-post, no HANS or anything. In 1991, we didn’t have any of that stuff.”
Later events have also given Wallace some perspective on that twist of fate. Labonte never wanted to win that way. To this day, he’ll tell you he regrets not being able to race Wallace for that championship the way both young men wanted to. Wallace knows with certainty there was nothing he could have done differently. And there have been reminders, painful ones, of what that wreck _could_ have cost.
“Bobby called me when I got hurt at New Hampshire, he came to the hospital and then called me the next day and said, “‘Buddy, I don’t want to win it this way.’ But there was nothing I could do. I had a part failure, the car broke, and I went slamming into the wall. I had such a hard time accepting that but then it was like 10, 12 years later and I looked back and understood how lucky I was. Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin got killed in that exact corner, in that exact spot. I’m so very grateful. I’m just thankful that I’m still alive after hitting the wall so hard in that corner. “
That near-championship led to Cup rides, some of them great ones, some of them coming with difficult lessons, as his first Cup ride with an upstart owner named Felix Sabates, did. “Felix Sabates asked me to drive for him in 1993 for Rookie of the Year. I went up against Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon and at the end of that year, Felix let me go. Now, he told me he let me go because Dirt Devil decided to leave. But still, him letting me go stunted my growth. It made other car owners believe that ‘Well, Felix fired him because he couldn’t get the job done.’ It was a long time ago. But I did go on to win three (Nationwide Series) races the very next year with TIC and Filmar racing. So, I’m happy with the way it turned out, but I’m not happy about the way Felix went about it. He did replace me and went on to run the car another year and then sold the team to D.K. Ulrich and they ended up shutting down. But once a team fires a driver, it kind of puts a damper on that team, kind of makes everybody think he couldn’t get it done.
And then, there was DEI. In the early 2000’s, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was an up-and-coming force in the Cup garage. The team suffered some heavy blows in 2001 though, with the death of Dale Earnhardt and the life- and career-threatening injury to Steve Park in a Nationwide race at Darlington. Out of Park’s crash would be a silver lining for Wallace when he was asked to fill Park’s seat for the rest of that year and maybe the next. Wallace says that DEI was the ride of his life, and the numbers back him up. From that race at Darlington to the season’s end at Atlanta, Wallace was in the top 10 in points earned during that span. He came achingly close to winning at Rockingham. It revived Wallace’s career.
“I was sitting there in 2001 and driving the Gould’s Pumps car,” Wallace remembers. “Steve Park is in my Busch race and his steering wheel comes off and he gets hurt. Before the race was over, Paul Andrews said he’d looked at the rundown and said I’m going to get the best available driver for the next week. They looked at my stats in my Busch and Cup career and Paul said I had the best stats. So they put me in that car. When they hired me, I think there were 11 races left and I had ten top 10s in 11 races. Such really good runs, qualifying fifth at Dover and then running good all day, and the pole at Rockingham and finished second. That team saved my career then.”
“The one thing I am most proud of was that during those times that I thought I was losing my way, I’ve had teams that were incredible, like Jack Roush hired me, at Phoenix, Robert Yates hired me to replace Davey Allison. Richard Petty Motorsports hired me for Bristol. I’ve had a lot of great teams, and everybody called me the go-to substitute, things of that nature. It seemed like it was a lot of ups and downs, that’s for damn sure.”
Looking back now, a decade down the road, Wallace wonders what might have been at DEI; whether Park’s premature return to the car changed two careers. The years since have been a roller-coaster ride with some real lean times to lend perspective.
“I truly believe in timing and circumstances. I truly believe that I have the talent, or else I wouldn’t be here this long,” Wallace says. “I guess this year is the biggest example. The last four years, I struggled, then I get with this great team I’m with. I would say that for years I’ve been with start-up teams. I know that’s true. I wouldn’t do anything different because when I look back on it, every team that was good I ran good. Every team I ran with that was a new team – Andy Petree was a new team, and Bill Davis folded up after I left, the Sabco team – I wouldn’t do anything different, I would just say that my timing was off.”
“Who knows what would have happened if I had just stayed in that Pennzoil car. Steve wasn’t ready to come back. They put him in there and it ended his career. When we all look back at it, even a lot of people at DEI told me we should have given Steve more time, we should have kept Kenny in the car. I think that if I had kept driving that car, because there was no doubt that everybody went ‘wow, Kenny Wallace can flat get it done’, but I also think God gave that to me, that God knows that I can handle those circumstances better than any driver. I think that’s what this year is about. I had Jason Keller call me and congratulate me on 500 starts he says, ‘I want to race, but unless I can get in a good car I’m not going to do it. Look what you’ve done this year. I weathered some pretty tough storms. Jay Robinson Racing, while I appreciated the opportunity, it sure did downgrade my status as a racecar driver, and I’ve had to overcome that.”
“For awhile, it was like OK we’ve got the US Border Patrol, we’re going to do what we can do, and then it was just ridiculous. It was like, we’re not even going to race, we’re going to start and park, we’re going to put used tires on, and it was OK for Jay, but it wasn’t okay for my fans or my sponsors. Now I’ve got sponsors calling me and saying hey, can we sponsor you for 5 or 6 races. That’s how we got G-Oil; they came on because of my story. It’s a double-edged sword: if you don’t have the money, you can’t run good, but if you don’t run good, you can’t get the money.”
Now, in 2011, Wallace has found a home at RAB Racing, another upstart team that, like Wallace, found itself at rock bottom in 2010, until one race saved the future. Wallace and RAB needed each other. Wallace, who wanted to prove that he’s still got it, needed a team who could put fast racecars under him. RAB needed an experienced driver who would finish races and finish them right. Together, they have proven to each other that they had what it takes all along, they just needed the right opportunity.
“RAB is overestimated,” Wallace claimed. “We’re so new that nobody realizes it. This is only the third year in the Nationwide Series for this brand-new upstart team. The win with Boris Said saved the team. Robby Benton, my car owner, told me that after that race, they were shutting down. True story. When they won that race, it saved them. I believe in timing and circumstances. Here we were pitted next to them and Robby told me they had been through 14 drivers that year. Robby is old enough to know… he’s seen all my wins as a kid. He’s 31 years old. He’s got a picture of him wanting my autograph. So Robby knew that I was a winning racecar driver, and I knew that he had good parts on his cars.”
“But still, there was just no money. But we were able to get Toyota factory backing, we were able to get new tires, good motors, but still, the cars we’re running are used Red Bull racecars. But they’re like new. That’s how we had to do it. We couldn’t afford to go out and build new. We’re a top-15 team, I feel like, when we do it right, we’ll get in the top 10. We earned our top 10 at Phoenix big time. We earned the top 10 at Vegas. We had a top 5 easy at Richmond before we made a mistake. Some crazy stuff has happened or else this team would be even better. When I look at the whole Nationwide Series, at best we line up 20th, because you’re looking at Roush, Gibbs, Penske, Turner, Michael Waltrip Racing, Rusty Wallace Racing… if you put everybody in order, we’ve got about the 20th or 21st-most money. We still don’t have enough. So we’re basically the 20th or 21st financially, but we’re sitting there 13th in car owner points and seventh in driver points. I think my team is overachieving. I think my guys are really doing a good job.”
I asked Wallace what’s next. And not surprisingly, he’s got it all figured out. “I know what I want to do next,” he says with quiet conviction. “Here’s what I have planned. I’m going to be 48 in August. My goal is to turn 51 in August of my last year in NASCAR. I want to go three more years. The reason I want to do that is I’ve been given some great advice by my brother Rusty. Rusty said, ‘Don’t make the mistake I made. I quit two years too early.’ He said, ‘You tune out everybody. Race, get it out of your system.’ The only thing that would cut that short is if it’s this hard to get the money to be competitive. That’s my goal, three more years. The only thing that would cut it short is if the money wasn’t there. I need a hundred grand a race. And then I want to continue doing TV. I love TV because I love the sport. It’s no different than anybody in the media center wanting to be a part of the sport. And then – my career has been kind of backwards – I want to continue to keep my one employee, Billy Smith, and I want to keep my team going and I want to race dirt until I’m 60. I love dirt racing. My career has kind of been backwards. I want to travel all over the United States and hit all the dirt tracks. I told my wife, go with me, sell souvenirs. Even when I’m done racing at 60, I’m only 60, you know? That’s young! So that’s what I want to do. And even if I were to wind up quitting everything at 60, then what? We’ve got Jack Roush at 60-something years old and he’s running around the pits like a damn Tasmanian devil. You hit 60, you’re still really young. I don’t see myself ever shutting it down.”
Anybody who’s ever met Wallace will agree that he rarely, if ever, shuts it down. What you see is what you get with Wallace: outgoing and gregarious in front of the camera, but what you don’t always see is also what you get: the deadly serious racecar driver that straps into the car every week, focused and hungry. Driven. It’s that Wallace that has turned heads during Nationwide races for 22 seasons. It’s the first one that endears himself to fans. To meet Wallace is to feel like you’ve known him for years. He’ll throw and arm around you and talk to you for a minute, and never treats anyone like a stranger.
Wallace knows there have been critics throughout his career, some of them nasty. But the worst critic is the one he spends 24 hours a day with. And in the end, he’s comfortable in his shoes. He’s a man who is grateful for having a career he loves and a family he loves even more. He’s come full circle in the sport he loves, the sport he will always love. Wallace understands how hard it is to make it in racing because he has done it through his own blood, sweat and tears.
“I’m the hardest on myself, I truly am,” Wallace says. “I look at a lot of great drivers, a lot of good friends of mine who have said, if I can’t get a good ride I’ll just quit. And I’ve seen a lot of good drivers like Randy LaJoie, like Steve Grissom, Ricky Craven, a lot of my friends. I’ve held great conversations with all three of those drivers. I talk to them weekly, they’re great friends of mine. The latest was Ricky Craven. A lot of drivers just say, ‘look, I’m done. I’m tired, can’t get in a good car anymore’. So I feel fortunate to have loved the sport this long. I think that’s one reason I run my dirt car, cause I truly love driving cars. I love it. I truly like dirt racing…I just love cars. My career has been one of those where just something here or there could have made it. But I truly feel that I’m a good driver, and I get to be here.”
Wallace will likely break the record for all-time starts in the Nationwide Series this fall. He could reach double-digit wins in the series as well. He’s come through the darkest hours of a long career and shown that he’s still, has always been a racer. Respected on the track, popular off it, Wallace will end his career in the series he began it in. It’s been good to him, but he’s been good for it, too. It’s full circle at last (or for the racer in Wallace, is that full oval?), and the best is yet to come.
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