Rusty rallied through trying times throughout his entire career
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rusty Wallace stood in a hotel room across the street from Daytona International Speedway, leveled a finger, and with anger rising in his throat delivered a terse message to his car owner.
“Don’t spin out me now,” he told Roger Penske in 1992. In the midst of a trying season, Penske had shown up unexpectedly at a Daytona test session to deliver a shocking message -- that he wanted to get out of NASCAR. Penske told his driver he would sell his interest in the organization to Wallace and team vice president Don Miller, and go focus on his open-wheel efforts.
Wallace wouldn’t hear of it.
“I got mad,” he remembered Friday night during his induction speech into the 2013 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I was in disbelief. I took my right hand, and I shook it and I pointed and I said, ‘Dammit, I want to be a Penske driver. Don’t spin out on me now.’ ”
Friday marked the apex of Wallace’s long and illustrious career, one in which he won 55 events and the 1989 title in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But there were so many moments where it could have come undone, where one circumstance or another could have intervened, and Wallace could have been left as a driver with a good record rather than a great one and ultimately watched someone else join Leonard Wood, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas and Cotton Owens on NASCAR’s grandest stage.
Penske’s indecision. Financial struggles, even in the midst of what would become a championship campaign. Violent crashes that resulted in injuries -- and in one instance, a near-death experience. Wallace overcame them all and went on to enjoy one successful season after another, and as a result took his place in the Hall of Fame in the first year in which he was eligible.
“I feel so happy,” he said after his induction. “I feel like my career has a period on the end of it. I feel like my career has a legitimized feeling. I said something about being in the club. And talk about being in the club. When I look at who I’m standing with up there … it just blew me away. I can’t believe I’m standing next to these guys.”
It didn’t come easy, or without difficulties to overcome. Even as he was running for his 1989 championship with car owner Raymond Beadle, finances were an issue. “I was running Raymond out of money,” Wallace said in his speech. “I was saying, ‘We’ve got to have this, we’ve got to have that.’ He was always, ‘No problem, no problem.’
“We even said, ‘Hey, we don’t know if this Pontiac is good enough, we want to build a Ford.’ He said, ‘Go do it.’ … He just wanted to satisfy us by letting us do what we wanted to do. It was incredible. There were a couple of close calls there, but they all hung in here.”
But not without some help from a friend. By the end of a 1989 season in which Wallace edged Dale Earnhardt for the title by 12 points, his Blue Max team was running out of money. In stepped Rick Hendrick, who was close friends with Beadle, and pitched in cash to help the team complete the year. Wallace estimates that Hendrick spent about $400,000 to aid an organization he didn’t even own.
“So Rick Hendrick right now will tell you that he’s got, I don’t know how many championships, and a half of one,” Wallace said of the 10-time championship car owner. “Rick paid for that last part of that to keep us going. So I really have kind of driven for Rick Hendrick, too.”
The big scare had come a season earlier, and in a much different form. Wallace was practicing at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that in his day he dominated, when he crashed and his No. 27 car went end over end. In an era before today’s safety advances, Wallace was knocked out. He was drifting in and out of consciousness when he noticed the form of Earnhardt ripping the windshield away of his damaged vehicle, trying to pull him out. Then he felt a hand around his neck -- which he would discover later belonged to television pit reporter and trauma physician Dr. Jerry Punch.
“He saved my life,” said Wallace, who would later break his leg in another airborne crash, at Talladega Superspeedway. “I was dead, not breathing, and he got me going.”
Wallace was allowed to continue the career goal he had worked toward -- a ride with Penske, for whom he had driven briefly in ARCA before the car owner decided the effort was too much of a drain on his open-wheel teams, and his young driver needed more seasoning. Wallace’s Cup championship convinced Penske the time was right, and the two joined forces for the 1991 campaign. Their first season together, Wallace won twice -- but also failed to finish 10 times. The next year, there were more crashes and mechanical failures. All of which led Penske to drop in on the Daytona test and tell his driver he was moving on.
Wallace had always dreamed of racing for Penske, and turned down a ride in Junior Johnson’s No. 11 car -- which would instead go to Geoffrey Bodine -- to do it. So when the Captain broached the idea of abandoning his NASCAR effort, the future Hall of Famer would hear nothing of it.
“I just wanted to stay with him because I knew what kind if operation he ran,” Wallace said. “The operation was so first class and so polished. He had a real defined mission -- he wanted to be the best, he wanted to have the best equipment, all that. When he brought me in that hotel room that day in Daytona and said, ‘Hey, I want to quit,’ it made me mad, because I had turned down Junior Johnson. … I said, ‘No, I want to go with Penske.’
“I think it shocked him,” Wallace added. “He said, ‘OK, I’m not going to spin out.’ ”
Wallace would go on to have his best season the next year, rewarding Penske’s faith with a 10-win campaign. It was the most Wallace ever won in a single season, and he finished second to Earnhardt in the championship race.
“We got everything back on track,” Wallace remembered. And in the process, he set himself on a path that would result in a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.