News & Media

Wallaces relieved at shuttering of race team

January 18, 2012, Dave Rodman,

Closing doors at Rusty Wallace Racing, at least temporarily, greeted with sighs

His charity event this week in Mexico finally made Rusty Wallace -- the Nationwide Series owner, former Cup Series champion and ESPN motorsports analyst -- open his eyes to a light he probably should have seen a while ago.

Wallace announced Friday afternoon he would temporarily shut down Rusty Wallace Racing, the three-car Nationwide team that in 2011 placed its two full-time drivers, Michael Annett and Wallace's son, Steve Wallace, both in the top 10 in the points.

Rusty Wallace's second go-round as a team owner has produced just one win in eight years. (Getty)

Rusty Wallace Racing

NNS statistics since 2004
Laps Led362
Lead Lap Fin.198
Avg. Start19.7
Avg. Finish19.7

The 2011 season -- actually its aftermath -- marked the tipping point for the owner, whose cars had occupied at least one spot in the Nationwide drivers' top 10 for the past three years, with both pilots there in two of the three. The current iteration of RWR was launched in 2004, though Rusty fielded his own cars in the Busch Series for the first time in 1985.

"This type of [charity] stuff I enjoy it and have fun at it. It makes me wonder why I didn't do this earlier rather than hitting myself in the head with a baseball bat week in and week out trying to make a Nationwide team run," Rusty said with a laugh Friday night from Cabo San Lucas.

Hemming and hawing and seeking more and more financing to field competitive cars finally wore Rusty down. He and his wife, Patty, reached the point of saying the equivalent of "enough is enough," with the emotion of the moment obvious in the 1989 Cup Series champion's voice.

"I gotta tell you, this was just occupying too much of my brain and I've never worked so hard in my life at something that doesn't make any money," Rusty said. "My wife and I sat down and said, 'You know what, this is stressful.' It's hard on us. I haven't made any money on anything in Nationwide since 2004.

"[Patty] and I just gotta step back and reset. It got to the point where I wasn't having any fun and it was too stressful. It's hard on us."

Rusty launched the team with an eye to a future for his race-driving son, who was 16 at the time and showing some promise.

"And people say 'Why do you do it?'" Rusty said. "I do it because my family's in the business, I enjoy racing and I like to contribute to it. But there comes a point in time, right now, where I was getting too frustrated. Once I had to start dealing with other agents and people that were not the type of people I wanted to deal with on a daily basis, I got sick of it.

"So I said, 'Stop, time out, we're done for now.' I don't want to compete like this. I want to have the best cars and the best equipment and to be sponsored properly and unfortunately, right now, in this day and time, the money's not there to do it the proper way. So we just made a tough decision and said, 'Let's just stop for a while...' And we'll see what happens."

Steve, 24, who has shown fits and starts of performing up to expectations, highlighted by top-10 finishes in the points the past three seasons, summed it up even better.

"I would rather run 10 races in the best equipment money could buy than run the whole season in half-[baked] stuff, like I've been doing," Steve said. "Nothing against my dad's race team -- we had a great race team, great cars, the nicest race shops money could buy, the nicest equipment money could possibly buy -- we just weren't affiliated with a Cup team.

"We didn't have 100 engineers and tons of hours of wind tunnel time and tons of hours of this and that the Gibbs teams have and the Roush teams have, and the Kevin Harvicks and Childresses and those guys have. We simply had everything but that. But unfortunately in these types of times, where this new car is so much like the Cup car, all the Cup teams have this huge, giant advantage. Looking back at it, no wonder we ran like we did."

But for Steve, as bad as he felt, the phone calls began shortly after the announcement. He said he had spoken to "a couple teams" and hoped he could land on his feet. And as much as it lifted a load off his father, Steve said his feelings were similar.

"I don't want to say that I'm relieved... But for a family team on this level -- it's so hard," he said.

Steve's two siblings -- older brother Greg, who is vice president of brand management, and sister Katie, who Steve said is the team's receptionist -- make it a complete family package. But even that has limits.

"When things are bad and you're trying to find sponsors and all this stuff, it just brings family tension," Steve said. "And I'm almost relieved in that aspect, that all of that stuff will kind of calm down [but] it's very sad to me that we've had to shut the team down due to some financial stuff.

"Michael Annett's group and our group couldn't meet with the price it was gonna take to have really competitive cars [in 2012]. And when we couldn't commit to stuff, our whole team fell apart."

RWR had cut back from its employee high of just over 50 to about 35, even as some key employees had begun leaving. Doug Randolph, the veteran crew chief who worked with Steve, left last week. Annett's car chief, Ryan McKinney, left before that.

Larry Carter, who'd worked with Rusty as his crew chief at Penske Racing and most recently was team manager and a crew chief on RWR's third car, had an opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports. Greg said Carter didn't want to leave his longtime friend, but Rusty told him to take the opportunity.

Greg said 35 competition employees were released on Friday. Annett's crew chief, veteran Rick Viers, said the call surprised him, but he was "exploring all his options" and that he hoped to continue working with Annett, who carries a family-connected sponsorship from Pilot Flying J.

Rusty Wallace Incorporated, Rusty's branding and marketing arm, will continue to seek sponsorship to expand Steve's schedule. And as much as he loves to race, Steve said it's not likely he'll be in a Nationwide car at Daytona.

"I've got a good team, just for that race, but it's not really what I want to do," Steve said. "I'm gonna sit back and play all the cards right. I've got some good stuff working and I would love to run 10 races in solid equipment that I know could win races."

The multi-dimensional aspect of NASCAR racing in 2012, for the moment, has taken a serious toll on all the Wallaces.

"You pretty much gotta be Cup affiliated," Steve said. "And when you want to be Cup affiliated that costs a lot of extra money [laughing]. We had every intention on doing that, and at the very last minute it all fell apart."

Steve Wallace has made all of his NNS starts under his father's banner. (Getty)

Steve Wallace

Nationwide statistics
Laps Led57
Lead Lap Fin.84
Avg. Start18.3
Avg. Finish20.0
Top 10 Ranks3

While that prospective deal may not have come together, Rusty said he hasn't given up hope that his son can end up with a team at that level.

"I would not put Stephen in a car unless it can win on a weekly basis," Rusty said. "We're not going to do any cheaper cars, no start-and-parks, none of that stuff. I'd rather have him work for me at the race shop than do that, because it's not good for your career.

"He's a great kid and a great driver and he's really had a tough time. I don't feel like I've gave him as good of cars as we needed to give him, that's for sure because we were squeezed so much on our finances. If Stephen gets back at it, I want to see him involved with a Cup-related team."

Rusty now reaches a serious crossroads.

He said he'd consider leasing his 60,000-square-foot shop complex, which he called "probably one of the most beautiful race shops in all of NASCAR."

"I'm not giving my stuff away because my stuff is probably the very nicest out there -- my tractors, trailers, my pit equipment, my shop is just five-star quality stuff," Rusty said.

"So I'd rather just keep it mothballed and not do anything rather than just lease it to somebody that's not gonna do a good job with it. And it's not something that I'm gonna give away, either -- I want to get the proper price out of it, but if somebody wanted to lease it, I would.

"I have a complete, two-car team and if somebody wanted to bring their cars it would be ready to go."

Rusty said for him to consider doing a full Nationwide Series season in 2012 would take $6.5 million "to run in the top five." Without the necessary funding, it's hard to get a read of just what's next. A "fire sale" is obviously out, but Rusty has options.

"That's the next step we're gonna look at," Rusty said. "We've completely rebuilt our shop. I've had all the guys fix everything perfect -- the main shop floor's been recoated and it looks like a laboratory in there.

"It's a great facility; it has paint and body shops, pull-down rigs and great fabrication shops. I think it's plenty big enough to run two Cup operations. To run two Nationwide operations it's almost too big."

But for Rusty, when he planned the facility, there was only one way to go.

"It's mine, that's the way I built it and the way I liked it and it's a really gorgeous race shop," he said. "I would love at one point to get into Cup, but the financials are hard right now. The Nationwide Series became impossible for me to deal with because everybody was trying to cut their prices on sponsorship so much, and I found out if I can't do it right, I just don't want to do it.

"There's a lot of people calling, wanting Stephen to drive their cars -- different types of people -- [but] I hate that we had to shut the operation down for now and the thing I hate the very most was that I had to let a lot of really wonderful employees go without work right now. A lot of them were my friends.

"But it got to where the sponsors were just squeezing me way too much and you just can't do it right on that little bit of money."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.