Rusty Wallace’s ability as a driver is unquestioned.
He won 55 times – ninth most in NASCAR premier series history – during two decades against rivals named Bodine, Earnhardt, Elliott, Gordon, Jarrett, Labonte, Martin, Richmond and Waltrip.
But Russell William Wallace Jr., the 1989 series champion, did more than just drive the 900 horsepower stock car. His mechanical intuition was equally responsible for career achievements that will be capped Feb. 8 with Wallace’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame along with champions Buck Baker and Herb Thomas; championship car owner Cotton Owens and innovative crew chief, mechanic and engine builder Leonard Wood.
“It was like having on-board telemetry,” said Barry Dodson, Wallace’s championship crew chief at Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max Racing, of his driver’s phenomenal ability to judge – and correct – a vehicle’s handling.
Dodson labeled Wallace a high-strung thoroughbred. “You had to keep the bridle on,” he said. “I knew I always had (all) 100% in that seat.
“You didn’t have to be a cheer leader for Rusty. I never have seen a more determined guy.”
Robin Pemberton, crew chief for 15 of Wallace’s 37 victories at Penske Racing, likens Wallace to NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, another hands-on driver/mechanic.
“He was looking for feel; what he needed. He just knew what he had to have,” said Pemberton, now NASCAR vice president of competition. “He trained a lot of us how to think.”
Fellow NASCAR premier series champion Dale Jarrett concurs with both crew chiefs.
“He was probably if not the best, certainly one of the best of all time knowing his car, being totally involved in it from the chassis all the way to the aerodynamics of it,” said Jarrett, a fellow ESPN analyst. “He was probably as much of a hands-on driver in making changes to his car as anyone else that I can remember.
“He was a fair but hard-nosed racer.”
Wallace, 58, grew up in St. Louis, the eldest of three racing sons of short track champion Russ Wallace. He made his competitive debut at age 16 in 1972 at Lake Hill Speedway near Valley Park, Mo. After winning several area racing championships, Wallace moved to United States Auto Club stock cars where he was the 1979 rookie of the year and third in points to champion A.J. Foyt. He won the 1983 American Speed Association title.
Wallace made his NASCAR premier series debut in the 1980 Atlanta 500 driving a Chevrolet owned by Roger Penske to a second-place finish. His first full season, in Cliff Stewart’s Pontiac, saw Wallace claim rookie of the year honors. Victory No. 1 came in the April 6, 1986 Valleydale 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway with Wallace in the seat of Beadle’s Pontiac.
With the Blue Max organization from 1986 through 1990, Wallace won 18 times. He lost the 1988 championship to Bill Elliott by 24 points despite a late-season charge in which Wallace won five of the final six races. Motivated by the near miss, Wallace out-dueled Dale Earnhardt to capture the 1989 title. Wallace won six races; Earnhardt five.
Wallace joined Penske Racing in 1991, and remained with the organization for the remainder of his career. He finished second in points in 1993, won 37 times and extended to 16 the number of consecutive seasons with a victory. From 1986 through 2002 Wallace finished outside the top 10 in points just once.
“Rusty had so many memorable races with our team and he was a big part of our development with Penske Racing and how we were able to grow our NASCAR program,” said Roger Penske, the 2012 championship team owner. “Not only was Rusty a great driver but he has continued to excel after his racing career with his work as a team owner, an announcer and in his development of Iowa Speedway.
“He has meant so much to this sport and we are very proud of all he has accomplished.”
Wallace won 25 short track races and on all three road course – Riverside, Sonoma and Watkins Glen – contested during his career. He scored victories with six different crew chiefs: Dodson, Pemberton, Larry Carter, Eddie Dickerson, Buddy Parrott and Jimmy Makar. His last victory came at Martinsville Speedway on April 14, 2004.
Wallace retired after the 2005 season to pursue a multi-faceted post-racing career as broadcaster, track designer and promoter, motivational speaker and businessman. Both brothers, Mike and Kenny, remain active NASCAR competitors as does his son, Steve.
Induction ceremonies will take place at 7:30 p.m. ET in the Crown Ball Room at the Charlotte Convention Center which is directly connected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The event is the first half of NASCAR Acceleration Weekend followed on Saturday, Feb. 9 by NASCAR Preview 2013. Tickets for the ceremonies start at $45 (available at www.nascaracceleration.com) and the NASCAR Hall of Fame box office. In addition, a $20 ticket will gain fans all-day access into NASCAR Preview 2013 and the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday, Feb. 9.