When he retired from the rigors of more than a quarter century of NASCAR Cup racing at the end of 2005, Rusty Wallace envisioned a slower pace of life, less work, more time with his family and the ability to enjoy the fruits of his labors.
Instead, Wallace is busier these days than he ever has been – and he’s loving every minute of it.
An average week is anything but average for the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. He might start Monday in Daytona performing board of director duties for the NASCAR Foundation.
The next day, Wallace, who has been in the car dealership business for the last 27 years, might be in Eastern Tennessee, checking on his seven auto dealerships that are on track to sell as many as 14,000 cars in 2017.
The following day, he could be on the West Coast, giving a speech, or checking in with the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience (RaceWithRusty.com). Thursday, he may be back home in his native Missouri, checking out a short tr
ack race. And Friday, he may make an appearance as an official ambassador for International Speedway Corporation then head back in his adopted home state of North Carolina.
Then, during the racing season, he’s likely to spend Saturday and Sunday at most ISC racetracks, serving as an analyst on Motor Racing Network broadcasts of NASCAR Cup races.
Heck, given all the things he’s doing, maybe Wallace should go back to racing to get some relaxation time.
Oh wait, he already is.
“I still feel like I can get in a car and run and give good feedback and be competitive at the age of 61,” Wallace told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “One of the most fun things I did was last year when I was asked to compete in the Ferrari Finali Mondiali, which is the big Ferrari race, for the first time at Daytona International Speedway.
“There were 123 cars show up and I finished 10th. I was pretty proud of that. The other fun thing I did was driving for Robby Gordon in the X Games. I literally got my ass kicked and had it handed to me. I ended up flipping the truck in the race, but I had so much damn fun that it was unreal. But I really learned to respect guys like Ken Block, Robby Gordon, some of those big names.”
WHAT LIFE IS LIKE TODAY
Wallace used to think he was living the good life when he was competing in NASCAR Cup, a career that saw him make 706 career starts, earn 55 wins, 202 top fives and 349 top 10s, earning nearly $50 million in winnings and capturing the 1989 Cup championship, the only time he ever did that.
But since stepping out of the legendary Blue Deuce after the 2005 season, Wallace’s plate keeps getting fuller and fuller. Yet he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I love doing all that,” he said. “I stay super busy and I’m real super happy. My personal life is better than it’s ever been. My wife Patty and I are having the greatest time.
“I was talking to Roger Penske the other day and I said ‘Everything is going great.’ He looked at his team guys and asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing great.’ That was pretty funny.
“I’ve found life after racing and I’ve got to meet a lot of real cool people and I’m having a great time.”
SO MANY MEMORIES, SO MANY STORIES
Wallace wasn’t only a great race car driver and fan favorite, he also is one of the sport’s most prolific storytellers. His memory is crystal clear, recalling things from 40 or more years ago when he was just starting to get into racing.
When asked what is his favorite story in racing, Wallace goes way back – nearly 35 years – to his pre-NASCAR days.
“I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all the help from the late Dick Trickle that got me into this sport,” Wallace said. “He taught me a ton about the car and never lied to me. He was an open book.
“Any time I learned about my ASA car on the short tracks, the bullrings of America, I always shared it with Dick.
“In 1983, I decided I was so fed up with what I was doing, I didn’t feel like I was building any credentials. My name was out there, everybody knew about it, ‘Rusty’s done this or done that, but Rusty never had a major title.’ I felt like I needed that major title.
“I shared that with Trickle and said, ‘I want to get out there and kick ass.’ He said, ‘You’ll have to get past me first, but kid, I’ll help you.’ So in 1983, my mentor and teacher was going for the championship and I’m also going for it.
“When it was all said and done, he never lied to me one time. He told me every setup he had, and I told him every setup I had. And when it came down to it, I won the 1983 ASA championship, he finished second and I think I beat him like 10 points. It was one of the tightest margins around. He gave me a big, old hug and congratulated and said he never lied to me. Two weeks later, the phone rings and it was Cliff Stewart, wanting to give me a Cup ride (Wallace began his first full season in Cup racing in the No. 88 Gatorade Pontiac in 1984).
“That’s how it started. It all started with the late Dick Trickle taking me under his wings and winning that championship. He respected it, he actually loved it. He and I were pretty tight and he was a great guy, a man who won over 1,000 races. Just unbelievable.”
WALLACE’S LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH DALE EARNHARDT SR.
When asked who was his favorite and least favorite competitor in his NASCAR career, Wallace responded with somewhat of a curve ball – but one that is definitely entertaining.
“Is it possible to have the same guy for both?” Wallace said with a laugh. “My favorite competitor was the late Dale Sr., because if you beat him, you were recognized around the world that you have really done something, because he was always known as being the best.
“My least favorite competitor was Dale Sr., as well. When I looked in my rearview mirror and I’d say to myself, ‘Ah crap, I’m going to have to deal with this guy again. Here we go. It was like wrestling a bull. I never have, but it felt that way. I’ve had him all over me, trying to intimidate me. So, he was my favorite and my least favorite.”
For all the times Wallace and Earnhardt tangled at places like Daytona, Talladega, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, it was North Wilkesboro that the good friends wound up being anything but in one of the most memorable confrontations they had.
“The race was going on and I was coming off Turn 2, I was leading the race and he got close to me and kept hitting me, kept hitting me, trying to rattle me,” Wallace recalled. “So as we got to the back straightaway, I said to myself, ‘You know what, I’m pissed. I don’t give a (expletive) if I win this race or not.’
“He was right on my ass, so I just locked the brakes down and brake-checked him. He hit me so hard that he actually tore the grill off his car, the front fenders were all torn to hell.
“So after the race, he comes up to me and says, ‘What in the hell did you do?’ I told him, ‘Dude, I’m sick of you beating my ass and if you keep doing that stuff, I’m going to do it again. I don’t think I won the race, and obviously, he didn’t.
“Then, the late Bill France Jr., came up to me and said, ‘What in the hell were you doing out there?’ Right before the race, Bill Jr., came up to me and Earnhardt and me and we were talking about how much the fans were liking our new-designed T-shirts and how popular they were.
“So Bill Jr., asks me again, ‘What in the hell were you doing out there, Wallace?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Just selling T-shirts, sir.’ It was funny as all get out. We had a great time and it was a really neat deal.”
BETTER FRIENDS OFF-TRACK THAN ON-TRACK
Even though they could be bitter foes on the racetrack at times, Wallace and Earnhardt had mutual respect for each other. Earnhardt could be hard for some drivers to get along with both on and off the track, but Wallace wound up being one of his closer friends.
That extended to vacations and time away from the sport, where the two drivers and their families would oftentimes hang out with each other.
“We used to go to the Bahamas a lot, rent some boats and hang out a little,” Wallace said of Earnhardt. “As his wife and friends would tell you, one of his most favorite things was being on the water and his fishing boats.
“Back around the end of 2000, he ordered and still didn’t get his new ‘Sunday Monday,’ his new 100-foot Hatteras motor yacht. He was so looking forward to that, and then he passed away and didn’t get to enjoy it.
“We’d spend a lot of time together on our boats and Mr. France is the one who started us on all that. He was neat. Off the track, we had a fun time. He was the kind of guy I always looked up to.”
BACK BEHIND THE MICROPHONE
Shortly after retirement as a driver, Wallace joined ESPN as an analyst and remained in that role for several years until it lost its share of the NASCAR broadcast rights to NBC.
Even though he’d do occasional interviews after his ESPN days, Wallace missed being on the air regularly. An opportunity arose earlier this year when he was approached by MRN to reprise what he did on TV and convert it to the radio.
“It’s one of my favorite things right now, I love doing that,” Wallace said of his work with MRN. “I had the opportunity to go to work for MRN and that kept my name in the sport and kept me involved in the sport and it’s been fantastic. They treat me like a million bucks and we get along fantastically. I do almost all the ISC Cup races. You won’t hear me on a Truck race or an Xfinity race, but you’ll hear me on all ISC Cup races. There’s three or four I may not do, but I’ll be doing about 21 races for MRN.”
One thing Wallace won’t do now and likely never is get into owning a team again, particularly a NASCAR Cup team (he still maintains Rusty Wallace Racing that competes in Super Late Models and occasional ARCA races).
“No, that’s a real technical area and honestly I don’t think I’m real good at the management role of it,” he said. “There’s a lot more smarter people that have a lot more patience than I do. … When I’m promoting this sport or talking on the radio or owning car dealerships with the right partners, I feel comfortable. I don’t think I would be the same way if I got into team ownership.”
WHERE DID THE TIME GO?
Time has flown for Wallace since retiring as a Cup driver. It seems almost like yesterday, but his firesuit has been collecting dust for the last 11-plus years.
“It’s crazy how long it’s been, 11 years, but it doesn’t feel like that,” Wallace said. “I feel like just the other day, I was in Daytona in Brad Keselowski’s car, testing it for the Daytona 500 and like it just happened. I know I’m 61, but I sure as hell don’t feel it.”
Even though Wallace never won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award – which was monopolized during much of his Cup career by either Bill Elliott or Dale Earnhardt Jr. – he still was one of the sport’s most popular and recognizable drivers.
And he remains that way today. Be it on an airplane, in a store or at a restaurant, Wallace can’t seem to go very far without being recognized and engaged by race fans, particularly those who used to follow him in his racing days.
“It’s amazing when you get older how they treat you different, and also when you get in the Hall of Fame and the way they treat you different,” Wallace said. “In the past, they’d see you walking by and it usually was, ‘Hey man, what’s going on?’ Now, it’s always, ‘Hello, Mr. Wallace. How are you?’ Everybody now calls me Mr. Wallace, not ‘hey, man’ or ‘hey, Rusty’ or ‘what’s kicking?’ I’ll be on an airplane with a lot of crew guys and they’ll come down the aisle and say, ‘Hello, sir. Hello, Mr. Wallace.’”
Then, he added with a laugh, “They make me feel so much older!
“I really appreciate (how fans still show their appreciation of him). The sport is so competitive. It used to be people would walk by and think, ‘I hope that jerk dies. I can’t wait to kick his ass on Sunday. I hate it that he knocked my driver out of the way.’ Now, I don’t get any competitive comments anywhere. They’re just nice people.
“And I love it when people come up to me and ask questions. I love to educate them on the sport of NASCAR. We have a great time.”
REGRETS, HE’S HAD A FEW …
When asked if he has any regrets from his career, Wallace answered candidly.
“In 1988, I lost the championship by 24 points to Bill Elliott, and then I won in 1989,” Wallace said. “I was so close to winning in 1988 and then in 1993, I finished second to Earnhardt (by 80 points). That was the year I had the big crash at Talladega.
“I could easily be sitting here today with three championships, losing two by minuscule points. I think about that a lot and it bothers me. The other day, I was telling the story and wished I could say I was a three-time champion. But, I’m glad I was able to at least win one (championship).”
When asked his thoughts about the current crop of young drivers that are increasingly taking the place of former stars – guys like Chase Elliott (who Wallace believes will be the sport’s next Most Popular Driver), Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and others – Wallace said he’s a big fan of the young guns.
“I just think this sport is going to keep going, we never quit,” Wallace said. “Even though I’ve retired, Dale’s (Sr.) gone and Gordon and those guys are not around anymore, the sport’s got to keep going on.
“There’s going to be more Rusty Wallace’s among these young guys. The way a guy like Kyle Larson runs, it just blows me away how fast he is. And who would have thought that Chase Elliott would be the class of the field at Hendrick Motorsports this year? And I never thought I’d see the Ryan Blaney kid running this good, either, but they are.
“Gosh darn it, these young kids are really looking great there. So I’m proud of them and hope they get real aggressive and help build the sport like some the other guys over the years helped build this sport.”
RUSTY TO YOUNG DRIVERS: NEVER FORGET THE GIFT YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN
But Wallace also hopes the young up-and-coming drivers appreciate the sport in the same old school way he and many of his peers did over the course of their careers.
“I care for this sport and still want to see it grow and how I love trying to build it and educate people on it,” he said. “I just hope the young people do that, too.
“I hope they don’t just show up at the track, drive the car and just can’t wait to get out of there and go home.
“I hope every day they wake up and go, ‘Man, I am blessed, I can’t believe I got this opportunity, can’t believe I’m making the money I’m making, I can’t believe what I’m doing, I’m having fun and by God, I’m going to do everything I can to build this sport.’ That’s the approach I had, and I hope they do and that they continue to do that.”