Down South they like to make legends of their stock car racing heroes. If a driver is exciting enough, he doesn't have to wait very long. Take Rusty Wallace, a mere babe on the blacktop by NASCAR standards. At 32, Wallace has been around big-time stock car racing for only six years, not counting three years of sporadic appearances while he was trying to break in, and already a country ballad has been written about him, complete with a crashing chorus and roaring refrain. Inside and Out (The Rusty Wallace Story) by David Houston Bryant doesn't sugarcoat its subject either. A sample: "Some say he drives a little wild, but that's not the case, he said/'Cause after all, he's not afraid of the wall. His nickname's Rubberhead."
Actually, as a good ol' boy, Wallace doesn't quite cut it. He moves at the pace of a city boy, talks as fast as he drives, and looks—well, he looks a lot more like Dan Quayle than Dan Quayle looks like Robert Redford.
His crew calls him Rubberhead, because he can bounce back from almost anything and because of the day last summer when he tried to drive his Pontiac down the front straight at Bristol (Tenn.) International Raceway on his head. A front tire blew during practice, launching the car into six barrel rolls. The next day he checked out of the hospital and into a fresh car, and ran half the 500 laps on the tight, tough .533-mile banked oval before his whiplashed neck threw the red flag and he called for relief.
Attendance at NASCAR Winston Cup races took a healthy leap last year thanks largely to Wallace. Winning six times, he was named Driver of the Year by the National Motorsports Press Association. Bill Elliott, who also won six races in 1988, edged him for the point championship, 4,488 to 4,464, but while Elliott's victories were generally calm and measured, Wallace's were marked by thrills, spills and suspense. He would fall one, two, even Jive laps behind, and then blitz through the field to win.
His Blue Max Racing Team finished in a winning frenzy, taking four of the last five NASCAR races, including the final shootout with Elliott's boys at Atlanta International Raceway in November. There, true to form, Wallace fell a lap behind in the early going when a tire popped, but he went on to win going away. Elliott clinched the point championship by avoiding trouble and cruising to an 11th-place finish. Frustrated because Elliott hadn't mixed it up with him, Wallace said afterward, "Next year we're going to thrash on his butt."
Elliott broke his wrist in February while practicing for the Daytona 500, and he hasn't regained full speed, so Wallace has had to be satisfied with thrashing just about everyone else. He has won three races so far this year and stands second in points behind Dale Earnhardt as NASCAR heads back to Daytona this weekend for the Pepsi 400.
Wallace set the tone for '89 at the Grand National race that serves as an undercard for the Daytona 500. He was leading in Turn 3 on the final lap when Dale Jarrett attempted to pass him down low. Wallace moved down. Jarrett went high. Wallace drifted up. The cars touched, which sent Jarrett into the wall. Wallace fought to maintain control and Darrell Waltrip sailed by for the win. Afterward Jarrett said, "Wallace can't stand to have anyone beat him; he'll do anything to prevent it."
In May, Wallace was at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for NASCAR's all-star race, the Winston, which pays the winner at least $200,000. The unique format of this nonchampionship event is designed for maximum thrills. The drivers begin by running 75 laps around the 1.5-mile tri-oval. They then pause for a 10-minute pit stop before racing 50 more laps. After another 10-minute respite, there's a 10-lap dash for the 200 grand. The format is overloaded with opportunities for do-or-die efforts.
He'll race you inside and out, a slingshot won't do,
If you don't slam that door, son, he'll slide it under you.
Wallace led after the first segment, but during the pit stop his crew mistakenly put a right rear tire on the right front. As a result, his car did not handle as well, and he ran second to Waltrip over the 50-lap segment. Waltrip continued to lead through eight laps of the final mad dash. Then, as they came into Turn 4 on the next-to-last lap, Wallace made his move. He dropped under Waltrip and drifted, ever so gently, into the left rear fender of Waltrip's Chevy. The contact barely scratched Wallace's car, but it was enough to knock Waltrip off balance. Waltrip slid sideways for a few hundred yards, ending up in front of the main grandstand. A yellow flag came out as officials debated whether to penalize Wallace. Eventually they decided not to and let the race resume with two laps left. When the green flag waved, Wallace drove on to the win while Waltrip weaved back through the field, passing 11 cars to finish seventh.
However, neither driver slowed down at the checkered flag. During the victory lap, Waltrip continued pursuing Wallace, who kept his foot on the floor and fled for the safety of Victory Lane. Said Waltrip afterward, "I hope he chokes on that $200,000." Wallace said he would have felt the same way if he had been Waltrip. But he added, "If you're not ready to trade some paint when you line up, you shouldn't be here."
Says Jarrett, who at 6'2", 215 pounds, is big enough to say almost anything he wants, "Anybody can spin another driver out to pass him, but it takes a good race driver to make a clean pass. Rusty's a hell of a race driver, but somebody's got to knock him down a peg. If it doesn't happen on the track, it might happen off it."
In the grandstand, say. On that fateful fourth turn at Charlotte, Wallace lost a lot of fans. As the field motored around behind the pace car during the caution period caused by the spinout, boos by the thousands rained down on Wallace. Down-turned thumbs reached out at him through the fences. "I broke into a cold sweat," he said later. "It was like someone stuck a knife in me and tore my guts out."
Not since Earnhardt has anyone driven so fast, close and loose. But Earnhardt, who is nicknamed Ironhead and who is Wallace's closest friend on the circuit, doesn't say much about his take-no-prisoners driving style or anything else. Wallace, on the other hand, likes to work the crowds and the press. After the final race of each season, when most of NASCAR's good of boys go off hunting and fishing, Wallace enjoys making appearances on local radio stations, at auto parts store openings, in malls—you name it, he'll be there, smiling. While the other NASCAR hotshoes stalk bear and bass, Wallace stalks attention.
"I want the whole damn world to see me," he says. "It gets back to the type of person I am. I like to have people around me, people liking me. I like making people happy. I like making people laugh. I can't hardly imagine somebody not liking me. I love people. I could never ever be a loner, ever."
Unfortunately for Wallace, the Coca-Cola 600 was scheduled for the Charlotte Motor Speedway on the weekend following his run-in with Waltrip. When the drivers were introduced to 165,000 fans, Wallace was roundly jeered. Waltrip went on to win his fifth 600, while Wallace dropped out of the race with a broken valve spring. His departure was cheered. Afterward, Wallace stayed inside the team trailer, drained of any enthusiasm for interviews. One of the team's p.r. reps was deputized to speak to the press on his behalf.
"Earnhardt has it right," says Wallace now. "When the race is over, his wife is waiting with the motor running in the van, and he gets out of town. He lives 100 miles out in the woods, and no one knows how the hell to find him. I always wondered why he did it that way. Now I know.
"In one race it all happened," continues Wallace. "It hit me like a ton of bricks. Aw hell, I've had boos before, because I've been the center of controversy a lot. But I just can't take it, being a person not liked."
Unlike Earnhardt, however, Wallace never escapes racing for long. He and his wife, Patti, and their three children-Greg, 9, Katie, 4, and Stephen, 1—live 10 minutes from the Blue Max shop just outside Charlotte. Ten minutes the other way is the speedway. Rusty and Patti have been married for nine years. They started going together seven years before that, back in St. Louis, Mo., where their families were close, when he was 17 and she 14. "She's learned what to expect from a racer, and she's handled everything well," says Wallace. "The home front is definitely Patti's territory." She also maintains the books for Rusty Wallace Inc., the company through which Rusty's personal interests such as endorsement contracts and souvenir sales are handled.
"Flying is the only thing other than racing that I've ever seen him take an interest in," says Patti. But even that activity is pursued for the greater purpose of winning car races. Like many Winston Cup drivers, Wallace flies his own plane to all but a couple of the 29 races. Still, it would be an injustice to call his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron an indulgence. After races the five passenger seats are filled by members of his pit crew. That way Wallace can get home for Sunday night dinner, and the crew can be fresh for work at the Blue Max shop on Monday morning.
But before the private planes there were years of cheap motels and hamburgers. "I'm 32, but sometimes I think I'm 102," says Wallace, who started making a living from racing when he was 17. "I've run every racetrack in this whole damn world 10 times."
Those early years were rough on Patti and Greg as well. "It was hard to be a family at that point," says Patti. "Not only did Rusty travel all over to race, but he also worked on the car every night he was home, and he was building cars for other people too. I remember a couple of times at the kitchen table writing bills—the shop bills and our bills—and when I was done, I'd have maybe $50 left in the account. That would have to last for like two weeks. I'll never forget when I got my first gas credit card. I was thrilled."
In 1983, Wallace built a superspeedway car and went to Daytona for the 500. In the three years before that, he appeared in nine races on the Winston Cup circuit; he had a second-place finish to his credit, but he failed to finish five of those races. This time he didn't make the start. In a qualifying race, he was tapped on the backstraight, and his car flipped five times. He was unhurt, but the car was destroyed.
"All the money we had was in that damn car," says Wallace. "I was too young and stupid to let anything like that bug me back then. Nothing, I mean nothing, could bother me. I had no fear. I can't remember ever being scared in a race car. Money is what makes me nervous. I've been broke, and I don't like it."
Wallace regrouped after that accident and decided to become a big fish in his heartland pond before returning to the big time. He got a loan from a bank, built a car and won 14 races on the All-Pro Association circuit, which is based in the Southeast, and the Midwest-based American Speed Association circuit. In 1983 he won the ASA championship. That led to a Winston Cup ride with car owner Cliff Stewart, and in 1984 Wallace was named NASCAR's Rookie of the Year. In '86 he moved to the Blue Max team, owned by Raymond Beadle, a Texas cattle rancher and former funny-car drag racer.
The NASCAR schedule includes two road races a year. Wallace won three of the four in 1987 and '88 and finished a close second to Ricky Rudd in the one he lost. "In a road race, I can't run fast unless I just drive the hell out of the car," says Wallace. "Sliding sideways, locking the brakes, smoking the tires, running over curbs—none of this smooth perfection b.s. In a 3,500-pound car you just got to get loose."
The first of this year's road races came three weeks after the run-in with Waltrip at Charlotte. It was held at Sears Point International Raceway, a hilly 2.52-mile circuit in California's Sonoma Valley. Wallace led for the first 10 laps but was passed by Rudd, who was in the same green Buick Regal with which he had beaten Wallace in last August's road race at Watkins Glen. With two laps to go in the race, Wallace was pushing Rudd through the snaking turns. He was so close he could have nudged Rudd. Instead Wallace tried a clean, bold pass on the outside of a downhill curve, and as they accelerated out of it, Rudd went wide. Wallace had nowhere to go but off the track. He came back and caught Rudd but didn't have enough time to make another move for the lead. Wallace finished second, just a few car lengths back. "Ricky drove a great race," Wallace said with a good sport's smile. "We just ran out of racing room."
"He hit the dirt, and we hit Victory Circle," said Rudd with a winner's smile. One of the keys to NASCAR's success is the fact that the drivers police themselves. No call was needed because Wallace didn't lodge a complaint. The racers have an expression for such situations, an earthy equivalent to "What goes around comes around." Wallace had known his time was coming, and he'd known how he would have to deal with it. After getting booed at Charlotte he had said. "I'm going to get a shotgun shoved down my throat every now and then, and this is just one of the times I've got to grin and bear it."
Wallace was acutely aware that Sears Point was being televised in the Carolinas and that NASCAR fans there had seen the finish. He had driven with impressive heart, daring and skill. He had had the opportunity to try another bump-and-run, but he had restrained himself. He got knocked down a peg, and he took it without complaining. If folks don't like him after that—well, they ought to.