Commentary

Rusty Wallace talks like he drove: Fast, and with purpose

February 8, 2013 

— Rusty Wallace burns calories when he talks.

We sit in a hallway near a glass wall at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the organization that Friday night will induct him. Wallace won 55 Cup races and one championship and is one of the sport’s great short-track drivers of all time. He was great on big tracks, too.

I ask one probing question: How you been?

And he’s off, down the straightaway and through the turns, standing, walking, joking, talking and never slowing.

Wallace, 56, stands as he imitates an old man he met at Honolulu International Airport.

“He says, ‘You’re Rusty Wallace,’ ” Wallace says in an old man’s voice. “Margaret, he’s going in the Hall of Fame, you know. Of course, the guy doesn’t say it quiet. Hey, there’s Rusty Wallace there.”

Wallace pulls out his cell phone and jumps up to show pictures. There he is with former football stars Tony Dorsett and Doug Flutie, and television host and author Mario Lopez. They shared a flight out of Honolulu on Jan. 29, two days after the NFL’s Pro Bowl.

Says Wallace: “I’m on the airplane with these cats and we’re talking about this and that they’re all, ‘Hall of Fame, Hall of Fame.’ And I said, ‘Man, thanks a lot.’ ”

Wallace was in Maui not for football’s all-star game but to give the keynote speech at the Terminix pest control convention.

“Hey, I learned all about bed bugs, too,” Wallace says, standing again, this time inside an imaginary hotel room.

Wallace talks with such enthusiasm everybody in the hallway begins to itch.

He knows if he talks long enough – to Terminix, providing racing commentary for ABC/ESPN or doing an interview next to a glass wall at the Hall of Fame – he’ll find his way.

Wallace found his way to NASCAR after running short tracks out of his hometown, St. Louis. His father, Russell Wallace, was a racer. A racer was what Russell’s oldest son knew he would be.

When Wallace was in his 20s, he bought a used bread truck for $2,000, painted it red, and in big letters added Rusty Wallace Racing.

“It was always a scramble for money,” says Kenny Wallace, race car driver, television personality and, at 49, the youngest of three Wallace boys. Middle brother Mike, of course, also races.

“I don’t even want to think about what we did – scrap metal, aluminum, copper,” Kenny says.

St. Louis offers major league baseball, the NHL and the World Chess Hall of Fame. It didn’t offer big-time race shops or a circuit that would pay a driver enough to live on.

So Rusty and Kenny and crew left St. Louis and drove that square red truck to tracks from Bakersfield, Calif., to Oxford, Maine. They drove to Mobile, Ala., the Wisconsin Dells, Schererville, Ind., Pensacola, Fla., and, Jackson, Miss.

“Nobody thought about racing outside a 25-mile radius of St. Louis,” Kenny says. “If it weren’t for Rusty, there’d be no Carl Edwards (Columbia, Mo.), no Ken Schrader (Fenton, Mo.), no Jamie McMurray (Joplin, Mo.), no Mike Wallace or Kenny Wallace. Dad was great. Dad got us in the right direction. But Rusty was the risk-taker in the family.”

Those short tracks were to Rusty Wallace what a playground is to an aspiring basketball player. You don’t learn by reading or watching TV. You go from hoop to hoop or track to track and figure out who you are.

“We blew that motor up in it probably four or five different times,” Rusty Wallace says of the truck. “We’d rebuild the engine and keep it going. … We towed the (race) car behind us on the trailer.

“… We had no money, but we won everything and, when I look back on it, that’s the best thing I ever did in my life.”

Jeff Thousand, a St. Louis man who worked on Wallace’s cars for decades, met him when they both were 19. They’d work day jobs, often at a shop building cars and parts for others. When they finished, they’d work on Wallace’s car until midnight or 1 or 2 a.m.

“Rusty had blinders on,” says Thousand, who works for Penske Racing. “He was going to race cars and he was going to win and nobody was going to stop him. He lived it and he breathed it.”

Don Miller was running a motorsports marketing company in St. Louis for Roger Penske when he met Wallace, with whom he would start Penske South. Wallace was 16.

“Rusty likes to talk,” says Miller, 73. “He was talking to a fan and the guy was talking about a football player who was well known. Rusty said, ‘I never heard of him. Who’s he drive for?’ ”

Wallace looks through the glass Hall of Fame wall and sees James Shiftan, his former producer on ESPN.

“Shifty!” Wallace yells.

Wallace is up and they’re talking and telling stories.

But when Wallace talks to Shifty, he invites me in. He thinks I should know Shifty and he needs to tell a Shifty story and says the story is going to be great and it is.

Wish I could print it.

When Wallace won his 1989 Cup championship, he realized the fellows at his Blue Max shop listened to John Boy & Billy, the syndicated radio show out of Charlotte. So, after each of his six victories that year, Wallace would call John Boy.

Dale Earnhardt, who finished second to Wallace for the championship, grew tired of listening to his buddy. So Earnhardt called the show after he won a race and said: “I guess you won’t be talking to your boyfriend today.”

Shiftan leaves to catch a flight.

“Where were we?” Wallace asks.

You were in the Midwest. You needed a reputation so you stayed on one circuit long enough to win the 1983 American Speed Association title. You parlayed that into a full-time NASCAR gig in 1984 and were named rookie of the year.

“I always had a problem with wanting to be in NASCAR forever and ever, but I always heard it was only for the good ol’ boys,” Wallace says. “I said, ‘Well, what do I have to do to be a good ol’ boy? Does that mean I have to be from south of N.C.?’

“But I think what helped me be a good ol’ boy was because every time those guys came and raced with us on the short tracks, they saw Rusty getting it done.”

If you can win in California, Maine and Wisconsin, why can’t you win in the Carolinas, Florida and Alabama?

“Rusty wasn’t afraid of anybody,” says Kyle Petty, analyst for SPEED and former Cup driver. “And that’s a good part of why he became so popular.”

Scott Hunter, NASCAR Production’s director of graphic designs, walks into the Hall of Fame hallway.

“Scott!” Wallace says.

Hunter, 49, gets the same sign: interview in session, walk away quietly and nobody gets hurt.

But Wallace is up and talking and what can Hunter do but respond? There are more stories and jokes and warmth and laughs.

Hunter, who has known Wallace since the 1980s, remembers going to Wallace’s shop for a photo shoot. Near the end Wallace asked if the staff members needed their photos taken. They did need mug shots for NASCAR ID cards. One by one they posed and Wallace took their pictures. Hunter still uses his, moustache and all.

“Rusty is who he is all the time,” says Hunter. “Constant energy. Great talker. But if you need to talk to him, he’s a great listener, too.”

Hunter leaves for an appointment upstairs. Asks Wallace: Where were we?

Almost finished.

Put yourself on stage Friday. What will the Hall of Fame induction be like for you?

You can tell how important the induction is to Wallace.

He sits.

“When they put you in the Hall of Fame it’s like this ultimate legitimization,” he says. “What you’ve done on the track is being appreciated and it’s being looked at. And when you’re not a driver anymore, like I’m not now, I get to go back and be recognized for what I did. That’s really important to me.

“And that after-party,” Wallace adds. “When I see all the people that helped me? There’s going to be a lot of stories going on.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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