If you watch a sport long enough, people come and go. Racing is no different; in the dozen or so years I’ve covered the NASCAR, drivers have entered this realm and left it – some with fanfare, many with barely a whisper. Some I’ve gotten to know over the years, others not as much. The list of “whatever happened to that guy” and “hey, remember him? I liked him; he had some talent” grows longer each year, and it’s all part of the ebb and flow of a sport that by nature is generally a young man’s game. This year, Jeff Gordon will make his exit, taking with him one of the finest legacies a driver has ever created. He’ll be missed; he was the best of an era that we’ll never see again. Others will enter the sport not to take his place but to carve out their own. It’s just how it works. Ebb and flow.
Except this time, it’s personal.
When the engines quiet and the air stills at Iowa Speedway Saturday night, longtime driver Kenny Wallace will climb from his racecar one more time. He’s got a good ride for this race, a Joe Gibbs car, one of the best, and I’m glad. He’s had some pretty good cars in his career as well as some pretty bad ones, and this is one of the best. He’ll do right by that team if he possibly can.
I’ve been writing about Kenny as long as I’ve been writing about NASCAR. I knew him, through mutual friends, for a few years before that. Because a friend was handling his website at the time and needed a writer, I began writing about NASCAR. So I suppose you could say this is all Kenny Wallace’s fault.
Through that site, I made some friends, many of them still friends today. A couple of them are responsible for me sending in an audition to Frontstretch all those years ago. We traveled together to some races. We had a chat room (remember those?) on Kenny’s site at the time, with Monday night chats on all things racing (and otherwise). When logging in, you had to choose a simple icon. I chose, for some reason, a pair of lips. Those lips had attitude. For some reason (insert innocent whistle here), those lips became synonymous with me to everyone. The first time we met at a race, the rest of the group greeted me with a sign, as people who haven’t met sometimes do in airports. Except it didn’t have my name. Oh, no. It had those lips. Someone dubbed me the Official Lips of KennyWallace.com. It stuck for years.
I talked to Kenny weekly for 10 seasons. We talked about the most recent race and previewed the next one, along with some insider stories for fans. After the good races and the bad, the highs and the heartbreaks. He ran for some good teams and some not-so-good, had very good cars and ones that couldn’t compete. He never complained and always pointed out the bright spots of the weekend with a smile. His fans believed because Kenny made them believe.
There were times when we all felt like the next win was just around the corner and years when it was a struggle to find the bright spots some weeks. There were a lot of laughs and lots of frustration. I got to know Kenny’s family as well as the family from the website. Dale, our webmaster, pretty much is family, kind of like the older brother I never had. He and Kenny together made two of them sometimes.
It was sometimes frustrating when times were lean, but it was always fun. Take Daytona. Kenny ran the 24 Hours of Daytona race a few years back. A few of us were invited along. We met in Daytona Beach the night before the race at a sponsor dinner to kick off the weekend festivities. The rest of the group had gotten together at the track earlier in the day; I was the last to arrive so hadn’t seen Kenny yet. We got to the dinner first, as he had team obligations at the track. I happened to be seated with my back to the room, in between the others, and we were talking and having a drink and generally enjoying the evening. The next thing I knew, Kenny came up behind me, grabbed both my wrists and sang, out loud, the theme song from Barney, while waving my hands around like I was conducting an imaginary band. Yeah, that really happened.
(Incidentally, 24 straight hours of racing isn’t quite as awesome as it sounds. The company was great, but there’s only so much racing you can take. I took it by about 3 a.m. But the trip was fantastic. There was mini-golf. With actual alligators.)
Kenny was also one of the first people to call me after I won my first NMPA award. He’s given me advice, some very good and some really bad (good advice rarely comes at 3 a.m. after about a million hours of racing), and called me when he knew I was having a rough time. Dale and I traveled to Texas when he broke the record for starts in the Xfinity Series. A few of us went to St. Louis for an anniversary party. Those moments, much more than most of the ones on the track are what I remember about the last dozen years. During it all, I became a better writer, learned, spent more and more time in the sport.
The ebb and flow continues. This is, after all, a young man’s game. Kenny spends his racing time on dirt these days. I see him at the track from time to time; I always get a hug and some kind words. I know I’ve thanked him, over the years, and I hope he does know how grateful I really am, for everything, and especially for getting to do this. I’ll miss seeing him on the track when I’m covering the races, because he’s been a part of NASCAR since the first day I watched a race. He let me be a part of it. So this is all his fault.
Thank, you, Kenny Wallace, for everything.