Rusty Wallace: A popular, charging champion

- Contributor
Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013

With the approach of the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, we're taking a closer look at the five men to be honored on Feb. 8. The fourth inductee we're featuring is Rusty Wallace.


Born: Aug. 14, 1956, Arnold, Mo.

Family: Wife Patti; sons Greg and Steve; daughter Katie.


Began racing in 1974, following his father Russ, a champion driver in Missouri, into the sport.

Won approximately 200 features while competing from 1974 through '78 across the Midwest.

Was the U.S. Auto Club's stock car division rookie of the year in 1979.

Made his first Cup series start on March 16, 1980, in the Atlanta 500, driving a Chevrolet fielded by Roger Penske and finishing second to Dale Earnhardt.

Won the American Speed Association series championship in 1983, racing against such future Cup rivals as Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki.

Moved to the Cup Series full time in 1984, driving for a team owned by colorful High Point industrialist Cliff Stewart. He posted two top-five finishes and four top 10s. He finished 14th in the Cup standings and was rookie of the year.

Joined the Blue Max Racing Team fielded by drag racing champion Raymond Beadle in 1986 and logged two victories en route to placing sixth in points. His first Cup win came April 6 in the Valleydale 500 at Bristol International Raceway. He later won the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Established himself as one of the big-time tour's best road course racers in 1987 by sweeping the two events at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Riverside Raceway in California.

Notched six wins in 1988, including his first on a superspeedway with the June 26 event at Michigan International Speedway. And in giving Pontiac its first triumph at the track near Detroit, Wallace edged Bill Elliott by 0.28 seconds.

Won four of 1988’s last five races to almost overtake Dale Earnhardt for the series title. Earnhardt won by 24 points. Among Wallace’s six victories was the Oakwood Homes 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers.

In 1989, Wallace scored a sweep of May’s major events at Charlotte, taking both The Winston all-star race and the Coca-Cola 600. He rolled to Victory Lane in the all-star show after a late-race tangle with then-leader Darrell Waltrip. The incident triggered a fight between the pair's pit crews, which produced a pair of famous quotes. "I hope Rusty chokes on that $200,000!" Waltrip said of the winner’s purse. And this from Barry Dodson, Wallace's crew chief: "Someone bit my little brother John's ear almost off. I think that's very unprofessional."

The Charlotte success catapulted Wallace to six points victories overall and the championship, holding off a charging Earnhardt by 12 points. Despite the title, problems had been developing between Wallace and team owner Beadle, leading them to split at the end of the season.

Teamed with his old friend and mentor Penske in 1990 and was to remain with Penske Motorsports for the next 14 years.

Began his tenure with Penske by winning twice in ’90, taking Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and the road course race at Sears Points, just north of San Francisco. He finished sixth in the standings.

Was joined in the field at Phoenix in November 1990 by younger brothers Mike and Kenny Wallace. They became the first trio of siblings to run the same race at NASCAR's top level since The Fabulous Flocks – Bob, Fonty and Tim – in the 1950s.

Won the International Race of Champions title in 1991, two decades after working as a test driver for the series. He also added a superspeedway victory at Pocono to his resume.

Won an astounding 10 of 30 races in 1993, but finished the season second in the standings, 80 points behind Earnhardt. Among his victories: Sweeps at N.C. Motor Speedway in Rockingham and North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Won eight races in '94, four more than anyone else. Included were three straight superspeedway triumphs, at Dover, Pocono and Michigan.

Won five races in '96, second to Jeff Gordon's 10.

The 2000 turn-of-the-century season brought four victories, including "super" wins at Pocono and Michigan.

Pushed his streak to 16 seasons with at least one victory in 2001, tying Ricky Rudd for second all time in that statistic. He won at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a track founded by his team owner, Penske.

Posted his final Cup Series victory on April 19, 2004, at Martinsville Speedway.

Announced that the 2005 season would be his last during an emotional news conference at Daytona International Speedway on Aug. 30, 2004.

He ran all 36 races in ’05, not winning, but posting eight top five finishes and 17 top 10s. He finished a solid fifth in the point standings. His last race was at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20. Won 55 times, placing him eighth on the all-time list.

Was hired in 2006 as an analyst for ABC and ESPN motorsports telecasts, a role in which he continues.


Retired Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins and contributor Tom Higgins on Rusty Wallace:

I first saw him: On March 13, 1980, in the garage at Atlanta International Raceway as he test-drove and helped set up cars for an International Race of Champions event two days later. "Quite a responsibility for a guy that young. ...He must be good," I thought. The 23-year-old with a wild shock of red hair proved so engaging that I wrote my Sunday column about him. I later felt a little like Nostradamus when Wallace finished second in his first Cup race at Atlanta.

First impression: Energetic, friendly and talkative, and obviously driven to succeed in racing.

My favorite memory of him: At Phoenix in 1990, I gave Wallace a lift to the speedway from a downtown hotel on the day before the race. Since there was no tunnel to the infield, we had to sit in line and wait to get across the track while Southwest Tour drivers ran their practice. Fans soon spotted the '89 Cup Series champion and dozens of them crowded the car for autographs. An animated Wallace signed, joking and chatting with all of them. And they loved it. I saw why officials with the series' title sponsor at the time said he was among the best at being a champion.

What people might not know about him: Wallace is an astute businessman. In addition to owning a Nationwide Series team, he owns five auto dealerships in Tennessee. An avid aviator with a jet-rated pilot's license, he owns planes that are available for charter.

Most memorable quote: "I ain’t forgettin' this Dale, and I ain't forgettin' Talladega either!" – Wallace to Dale Earnhardt, usually a pal, immediately after hurling an empty plastic water bottle, bouncing it off the nose of “The Intimidator” during a post-race confrontation at Bristol. Earnhardt had spun Wallace early in the race. And at Talladega in May of '94 Earnhardt had sent Wallace tumbling wildly in a horrifying crash on the last lap, breaking one of Rusty's wrists.