Tom Higgins' Scuffs: A new kid on the block

- Contributor
Wednesday, Feb. 06, 2013

The young fellow looked so skinny that if he was standing under a clothesline during a rainstorm he wouldn’t get wet.

His hair was a wild mass that looked like an orange basketball had been shredded and turned into spaghetti-like strands.

Clad in a driver’s outfit, his energy seemed boundless as he ran from one end of the garage area to the other on March 14, 1980 at the track then known as Atlanta International Raceway. He was alternating in practice for two races. He would drive a Chevrolet entered in the NASCAR Grand National Division’s Atlanta 500 two days later. Then, he would get in International Race Of Champions Series Camaros being readied for a special event in just 24 hours.

Curious, I walked over to NASCAR veteran Dave Marcis, who, along with old-timers Dick Trickle and Jim Sauter, also was doing test duty to make the IROC cars as identical as possible. The cars were to be raced by some of the most famous drivers in the world, including Mario Andretti, Bobby Allison, Rick Mears, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker and Bobby Unser.

“Who is the kid?” I asked Marcis.

“Rusty Wallace,” replied Marcis.

“Very young, it seems to me, to be setting up IROC stuff,” I observed.

“Yeah, but he knows what he is doing,” said Dave.

I decided to interview the slender, red-haired youngster.

I found Rusty to be friendly, engaging and a good talker.

“Hmm, he is going to be my column for tomorrow,” I told myself.

And so it was that I met Rusty Wallace.

Following, paraphrased, is some of what I wrote:

“The drivers in today’s International Race Of Champions Series finale are relying, at least in part, on a fresh-faced youngster with only a fraction of their experience …

“Rusty Wallace is just 23, but some prominent auto racing officials are so impressed by his potential that he was assigned to help make the IROC cars equal.

“Wallace, of St. Louis, was brought to Atlanta by Goodyear, and his new employer, motorsports magnate Roger Penske.

“ 'Yes, I was a bit surprised at being asked to help with the IROC cars,’ conceded the carrot-thatched Wallace. ‘After all, I don’t have that much experience on mile-and-a-half speedways like this. But I never hesitated at accepting such an honor.’ ” “ 'We were aware from tire tests in the Midwest that he has a tremendous touch, a feel, for how a car is handling,’ Goodyear’s Phil Holmer said of the selection.

“Said Allison, who has acted as a mentor to Wallace: ‘He has got the talent, so why not give him the job? I’ve been very impressed with him. We’re going to see lots of him in the coming years.

“ 'I’ve known about him through mutual friends for some time, and from seeing him on the track in a few USAC races I’ve run. He’s a neat, aggressive kid who isn’t afraid of work. I’ve helped him out with his work on some cars. He has beaten some real pros, so he’s no fluke. All that is holding him back is a lack of big-track experience.’ ”

“ 'Guess you could say that I am in the sport due to both heredity and environment,’ said Wallace. ‘My dad, Russell, was one of the top Midwestern short track drivers and won hundreds of times, so I grew up around it. “ 'I started as a driver myself in 1974. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.’

“For the past three seasons Wallace has entered a minimum of 50 races per year. In 1978, at an age when some young men might still have to ask to borrow the family car for a date, he was the champion at two tracks and won 43 features in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and other nearby states.

“His biggest victory came in the Governor’s Cup 250-mile race in 1979 at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds.”

Despite his splendid record, Rusty wasn’t known very well in the South.

I continued, with the intent of introducing him, in that column 33 years ago in the Charlotte Observer:

“ 'I’m very intent on two things this weekend,’ said Rusty. ‘I want the IROC cars to run in a pack from start to finish. And I want to make my Grand National debut a respectable one as a step to racing on that circuit fulltime. I really dream about making it!’ ”


After qualifying seventh-fastest for that 500 of so long ago at 162.795 mph, Wallace put his No. 16 Penske Caprice in contention throughout the race in what has evolved into the NASCAR Cup Series. He stunningly finished as the runner-up, 9.55 seconds behind Dale Earnhardt, who scored his first superspeedway victory. Trailing Rusty in third and fourth were Allison and Marcis.

I thankfully felt like Nostradamus for typing that column. I’ll be honest. It was fulfilling.

Now, NASCAR fans know the rest of the story.

Wallace came to the major stock car racing tour full time in 1984 and was rookie of the year. Before retiring after the 2005 season, he won 55 races, eighth-most alltime while earning almost $50 million in purses. He was the Cup Series champion in 1989. Fittingly, he was the IROC overall champion in 1991.

His younger brothers Mike and Kenny were destined to follow him to NASCAR. A few years ago they became the first trio of siblings to start a race at the Cup level since the pioneering Flocks--Bob, Fonty and Tim.

Friday night in Charlotte the gregarious Wallace, now an ABC/ESPN motorsports commentator, will receive his biggest honor, induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He will join the likes of one-time mentor Allison and his friend Earnhardt.

Fulfilling his dream, the skinny new kid of 1980 with the Carrot Top hairdo really made it.

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