When Kenny Wallace took the green flag on Saturday in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge, he made Nationwide Series history with his 520th start, the most in the series for any driver. All told, Wallace has nearly 900 NASCAR national touring races under his belt. He has nine wins in the Nationwide ranks and was the 1989 Rookie of the Year. He’s also one of two drivers to win the series Most Popular Diver award three times, a testament to his outgoing personality.
Wallace is also the perfect ambassador for NASCAR in a day and age of drivers who are often considered by fans too vanilla or too arrogant or sometimes. Wallace is neither. As the co-host of Race Day, SPEED TV’s pre-race program, Wallace is outgoing and engaging. He gets the fans excited about… well, everything. If you need a good laugh on a lousy day, see if you can get Wallace to do the “string dance” and just try not to laugh. Wallace is a straight shooter; he tells it like he sees it, with no punches pulled. If he tells you something, you can take it at face value.
But don’t let the TV persona fool you; Wallace is a fierce competitor on the racetrack. He’s a racer first, and this year has rejuvenated the 48-year-old Missouri native. After three seasons of making the best of the low-tier equipment at Jay Robinson Racing, Wallace came to RAB Racing at the start of 2011, and team and driver immediately saw results. In 66 races prior to 2011, the team had a single top-10 finish (a win by road-course specialist Boris Said at Montreal).
In 2011, they have 11 top 10s with Wallace in 32 races. Wallace has finished outside the top 20 just five times and has wrecked out of just a single race, at Bristol. Even that was not of his doing. Many of the other drivers in the top 10 in driver points can’t make that claim, and they’re running successfully on a budget that Wallace estimates to be on the very low end, especially among the teams whose drivers are in the top 10 in points. For Wallace, this year has seemed like a rebirth, and he’s helped bring RAB Racing to the next level.
On a Saturday that was dominated by the news of a driver being parked for rough driving, Wallace spoke with the media about his accomplishment. “I’m very grateful to have come out of Arnold, Mo., and if you would have told me that you can make a living in NASCAR and that’s all you’re going to do – I mean, I’ve made a living driving a racecar my whole life and it looks like I will retire racing cars for a living.
“That’s the perspective I can personally put it into. I’m thrilled to death. I’m grateful to all the car owners who have given me rides” he said.
Wallace isn’t arrogant. He doesn’t fly to the races on a private plane or live an opulent lifestyle; in many ways, he’s still the kid from Arnold – the one his wife Kim fell in love with in high school, the one who loves nothing more than watching his hometown St. Louis Cardinals play baseball. (St. Louis pitcher Arthur Rhodes surprised Wallace in the media center.)
If you want a driver who is truly good for the sport, Kenny Wallace is a shining example. He’s humble and kind, but also honest. He treats fans who he meets for five minutes as if he’s known them his whole life, not because it’s good PR or because his sponsor makes him, but because that’s the kind of person he is. He understands and appreciates the media, the fans and the hard work of the race teams.
He’s a sponsor’s dream as well as an owner’s. He won’t bring home a torn-up racecar, but he will most certainly bring home the best finish the car is capable of on any given week. In a week when drivers were in the spotlight for doing the wrong thing, Wallace was in it for the right thing… a history-making career and for being just what the sport needs in a driver.
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