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Inside NASCAR: Kenny Wallace: 'I know my place in life'

October 30, 2011, Joe Menzer,

TV star, leader in Nationwide starts wants to be remembered as quality driver

Dressed in customary blue jeans and white T-shirt, Kenny Wallace was on his way to the RAB Racing shop that prepares his Nationwide Series cars earlier this month when his cell phone rang.

It was Charlotte Motor Speedway calling. Officials there had someone special they wanted to make happy, and they knew just the guy to call to get it done.

Spur of the moment? No problem. Wallace said he'd be there.

"It really bothered me that people thought of me just as a TV guy."


A short while later, he pulled into the infield at the 1.5-mile track and met Ronnie Presnell a 62-year-old blind man with a unique request. A retired Mecklenburg County (N.C) sheriff's deputy, Presnell had lost his sight in a 1998 car accident that had left him in a coma for six weeks. His injuries were so severe that he not only permanently lost his eyesight, but also had to undergo reconstructive surgery on his face.

When he finally returned home from the hospital, he told his wife that he needed a project to work on and wanted to begin restoring a 1968 Chevrolet Camaro, complete with a 327 high-performance engine and Viper Red Metal Flake paint job that he could see only in his mind. He also needed a goal. Once it was completely restored, he wanted to drive it a couple of laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Some folks might have thought Presnell sounded crazy. Once he heard the story, Wallace thought it sounded just about right.

"Here was this guy. I tried to put myself in his position, where my life was normal and then, you know, you get into your late 40s and suddenly you lose your eyesight," Wallace said. "You know what everything looks like, but you can never see any of it again with your eyes.

"But Ronnie Presnell, he was so upbeat. He was happier than I was. And I was like, 'Oh my God, this is incredible.' "

A former dirt racer who competed on some North Carolina tracks on the same nights as the legendary Dale Earnhardt back in his younger days, Presnell turned a lap between 20 and 25 miles an hour as Wallace assisted him on when to turn.

"I thought at one point we were going to have to come in to make adjustments on Kenny," Presnell joked. "A few times during the ride, he kept saying, 'My heart's skipping a beat.' I was worried."

After his own lap behind the wheel, the two men swapped seats and Wallace gave Presnell a full-speed ride around the track. Presnall was grinning ear to ear. When they climbed from the car afterward, Wallace assisted Presnell and then talked with him for another 30 minutes. He later agreed to visit him at Presnell's home.

Kenny Wallace is great at talking. He's pretty darn good at making other people happy, too. The only problem is that, unbeknownst to many, it took him a long time in his life, now stretched over 48 years, to make the right adjustments and find happiness himself.

Kenny Wallace, shown here in the No. 09 at CMS in May, is currently seventh in Nationwide points -- two spots in front of his nephew Steve.

All-time starts leader

When the Nationwide Series returns to action Nov. 5 at Texas Motor Speedway, Wallace will make his 520th career start -- breaking the previous record for Nationwide starts held by Jason Keller. Wallace has been racing in the series since climbing into a car owned by none other than Dale Earnhardt for a race at Martinsville Speedway in 1988.

"Actually when I think of 520 starts, in a weird way I don't think of the Nationwide Series," Wallace said. "I've got 344 Cup Series starts. I spent 10 full years in Sprint Cup. So as appreciative as I am to be in the Nationwide Series, it's not really that 520 that I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about 864 combined starts and how that ranks 14th in NASCAR history.

"It is neat to be compared to Jason Keller and have that many starts in the Nationwide Series. But I've got to be honest with you: it's that 10 full years in the Sprint Cup Series that mean the most to me."

So take note: despite the fact that many may see Wallace as transparent, he frequently isn't thinking what everyone else is thinking. To him, for a very long time, all those starts in the Nationwide Series meant only one thing -- that he wasn't good enough to be running in the Cup Series.

"Let me be very clear when I say this: when I was growing up, all I wanted to be was a superstar race-car driver."


See, the reality is that Wallace's burning passion in life always has been to be a successful race-car driver. But starting more than a decade ago, when he first began making substitute television appearances for regulars Kenny Schrader, Johnny Benson and Michael Waltrip on the cable network then known as SpeedVision, he became something else. He became a celebrity, a television personality, an icon in the sport where, despite the family name, all he really ever wanted to do was blend in and have it be only about his driving.

The youngest of the three Wallace racing brothers, Kenny never emerged from even the edges of oldest brother Rusty's formidable shadow until Kenny started getting more and more air time on what became Speed TV. Now he's not only a regular, but one of the network's most recognizable and popular personalities.

But don't tell him he's a TV star to his face.

"Let me be very clear when I say this: when I was growing up, all I wanted to be was a superstar race-car driver," said Kenny, whose other older brother Mike won last Saturday's Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega. "I wanted to be like my dad, Russ Wallace. My dad -- you can ask anybody in St. Louis -- was the best. Dad won 12 weeks in a row one time. He set that record in Granite City, Ill., at Tri-City Speedway.

"When I started driving, I had immediate success. ... So I really thought in my mind that I was destined to become a really good driver, like, say, Matt Kenseth."

Kenseth, winner of 21 races and one Cup championship? And not older brother Rusty, winner of 55 races and the 1989 Cup title?

"Kenseth is just a damn good driver. Rusty is my hero," Kenny explained. "I love my brother with my life, and our whole family worships Rusty. That's the way it is. He's the one who took us all out of St. Louis and made everything possible for us.

"I guess I never wanted to come across as looking greedy. To be Rusty would have been asking too much."

Bunch of rednecks

To say the Wallace household was a busy one fixated on racing as Kenny grew up would be a massive understatement. It was frenetic at times, and almost everything revolved around preparing Russ' cars for the next trip to one of two local dirt tracks near their home in south St. Louis. Even the mother of the boys, Judy Wallace, was an accomplished driver who once won so many Power Puff races at a local venue that it took a male driver dressed in drag to finally end her streak of dominance.

Russ Wallace worked at various jobs to support his racing hobby, which generally produced no more $300 to $500 per night in winnings even on his best evenings. By day he was a mechanic at a local automobile dealership, a newspaper carrier and co-owner of a vacuum and janitorial business.

The three boys worked constantly in the family garage next to their modest home. Kenny had a dual job as lunch-time chef and part-time mechanic.

"We would just wash our hands and face and go to bed. After a while, you could look at our bedsheets and tell where we slept -- because we worked in the garage. "


"My job drove me nuts -- because I wanted to stay in the shop so bad, but I was so much younger," said Kenny, who is four years younger than Mike and long ago earned the nickname of Herman from his brothers. "The No. 1 thing, and I can still hear my brother Rusty saying this today: 'Herman, go inside and make me a baloney-and-cheese sandwich.' Or he would say, 'Herman, go make us about six baloney-and-cheese sandwiches.' So my job was hand Rusty and Mike tools, and clean some small parts and do the essential things like make baloney-and-cheese sandwiches. I would run into the house, make baloney-and-cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise on 'em, and bring 'em all out.

"And we would eat our baloney-and-cheese sandwiches with dirty hands. I get a big kick out of Rusty these days. I call him out in public all the time. That's not Rusty -- the guy you see today. I call him Penske-ish. When Rusty met Roger Penske, he changed so much. His back got straighter, he started ironing his jeans. I mean, what we grew up under in that Wallace household is 180 degrees different than what you see now. But it was a good life -- and I wouldn't live a different one even if I could."

Kenny has fond memories of laying on the couch with his mother, watching Johnny Carson on television as she stroked his hair until he was nearly asleep. There was only one steadfast rule in the house: stay up as late as you want, but you had better then not make a fuss about getting up on time for school in the morning.

Young Kenny also watched as Rusty and Mike frequently mixed it up as only brothers can do.

"One of the funniest things was one time when Rusty and Mike got in the biggest damn argument," said Kenny, chuckling. "My Mom could not separate 'em, so she would literally turn on the water hose and hose 'em down until they quit fighting. Man, when they would fight, whether they fought outside or inside the house, it was wild. If it was inside, you thought the whole house was coming down. As a little kid, I was just sitting there, watching. I'd make sure I kept my distance."

It wasn't until many years later, when he took a break from the NASCAR racing circuit for a return visit, that Kenny realized his roots were decidedly red. After driving along his old street, he called his mother.

"Mom, my God, that's a really redneck area. The grass is growing up, their houses are falling apart," Kenny said.

Then he paused.

"Mom, were we rednecks?" he asked.

Judy Wallace laughed hysterically into the phone and replied, "Kenny, I'm afraid we were."

Kenny Wallace laughs now at the memory.

"We were rednecks and didn't know it," he said. "What that means is that when we would go to bed for the night, we wouldn't jump in the shower first. We would just wash our hands and face and go to bed. After a while, you could look at our bedsheets and tell where we slept -- because we worked in the garage. All of us Wallaces, we're fabricators and mechanics. That's all we did."

Mike Wallace has another memory of growing up in the Wallace household.

"Kenny has always been a character from Day One -- and when I say Day One, I mean from when he was a little boy," Mike said. "Picture this: we were all in elementary school or maybe Rusty was in middle school by this time, but we're sitting around the kitchen table and Kenny always had these little Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars he was always playing with. Kenny was eating some cereal and playing with his cars. He was playing in his own world, so you're kind of tuning him out but you're still sort of listening. And he hit his bowl of cereal and spills some milk, and Kenny, without missing a beat in his best race announcer voice, just keeps right on talking. 'And they hit Turn 3 and slide through the milk, and keep on going!'

"Rusty and I just looked at each other and laughed and laughed."

Kenny Wallace, shown here during Cup practice at Darlington in 2002, never won a race in the series. Despite three second-place Cup finishes, Wallace realized he wasn't going to be the driver he thought he would be, something he described as 'real hard' to get over.

The Nationwide journey

Kenny finished 11th in that first Nationwide start (then called the Busch Series) at Martinsville in 1988. In 1991, while driving a car owned by brother Rusty, he began a string of five consecutive seasons with at least one trip to Victory Lane. He finished second in points in 1991, won a career-high four races in 1994 while finishing fourth in points, and seemed poised to move on to even greater heights at the Cup level.

It didn't happen. It was another five years before he won again at the Nationwide level, and he never won a single Cup race.

About the time he returned to full-time racing in the junior circuit, first in competitive rides and later in not-so-competitive rides, his television career began to take off. Suddenly he was getting noticed and praised for something he didn't necessarily want to be. He found himself increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that his greatest future might be in television.

Some people would have run over him in their race cars to be in his place. But he wasn't where he wanted to be in life.

Kenny Wallace the TV analyst trims the beard of Tom Giacchi, crewmember for Carl Edwards, after Edwards won at Michigan in '07. Giacchi made a bet with Edwards in '05 that he wouldn't shave until Edwards won again.

"The further I got in my driving career, after nine Nationwide wins and 10 poles and three second-place Cup finishes, I realized I wasn't going to be what I thought I was going to be. And it's been real hard for me to get over," Kenny said. "That's why it bothered me when people wanted to compliment me for being something I didn't care about being. I didn't care about being on TV."

Sometimes, the usually happy-go-lucky Wallace would snap at folks who told him he looked great on television. It wasn't what he wanted to hear. And then was his trademark laugh.

Folks made fun of it -- and sometimes when they did, the sensitive side of Kenny Wallace thought they were decidedly laughing at him and not with him.

"My whole career, people have been labeling me. I wasn't labeling myself," he said. "People would say, 'My God, when Kenny Wallace laughs you can hear him in the whole garage area.' Well, let me really break my laugh down for you: when I laugh, that's just my laugh. But this should be in bold, black print: why am I laughing? Because somebody made me.

"Ken Schrader made me laugh, or Jeff Gordon made me laugh. There is this picture that I sign all the time and it's from off-stage at Loudon, New Hampshire. I'm laughing and I mean my mouth is wide open. But I didn't tell the story. Schrader did -- and all I did was laugh. So people always thought I was the crazy one. I'm telling you I was not. It's that damn laugh -- my loud, God-given laugh. People always thought I was crazy and I'm like, 'No, I'm laughing at somebody else. Don't you get it? Schrader's the funny son of a bitch!' That has been a misconception forever -- and I've never been able to clear it up. Finally I just let it go.'

As his reputation of being footloose and fancy-free in front of the camera grew, Kenny Wallace thought it was hurting his career as a serious race-car driver.

"You can ask any team I've ever been with: I'm as serious as a heart attack when I get to that race track," he said. "But there are those who have always thought, 'That Kenny Wallace, he's too happy; he's too funny.' There were times when that label went against me. There were car owners who thought I was too happy to be a good race-car driver. There is a sense of misery that was required to be good -- and I do think some people thought I was too happy and wasn't focused.

"I think he's great on television. I think he's hysterical."


"It's actually the opposite. I've probably worried too much my whole career. And the laugh and all that? I have to blame it on Ken Schrader. He's a funny, funny man."

So is Kenny Wallace when he turns on the charm. And even when he was down about his own driving career, he was able to hide it from viewers who grew to love his straight-forward, entertaining style on television. Rusty and Mike both tried to talk to him about accepting his seemingly enviable fate, with limited success at first.

"I think he's great on television. I think he's hysterical," said Rusty, now a TV analyst in his own right for ESPN. "The particular shows that Kenny does are all about having fun, and he's the best guy in the world for that. A lot of people love what Kenny does.

"So I've said to him: wouldn't it be great to be good at multiple things? You're a good driver. You're a good personality -- and you're a good person. Don't get upside down because some people think you're more of a television personality than a driver."

Mike added: "The TV personality Kenny grew into second-handedly, if you want to say that. He's a very, very good race-car driver. We've talked about this a lot. We both always wanted to be known as great race-car drivers. He's always wanted to be remembered as someone who put his heart and soul into going out there and being competitive enough to win races.

"I think the way you judge someone like Kenny is not just on what they've done or what they continue to do, but you judge his success off his longevity. This is a sport that will spit you out very quickly if you don't do things properly. Not just if you don't have success, but if you don't treat people right, you're gone."

Earlier this month, Ronnie Presnell, who lost his sight as a result of a 1998 automobile accident, drives his restored 1968 Chevrolet Camaro around Charlotte Motor Speedway with a little help and enthusiasm from Kenny Wallace.

The legacy

So what is Kenny Wallace's legacy to be? Well, maybe Ronnie Presnell should weigh in on that. Or Nannie Sue Neal from Waxhaw, N.C., the woman who turned 102 years old the day after Wallace recently gave her a pace-car ride around Charlotte Motor Speedway as well.

Neal, the state of North Carolina's oldest living breast-cancer survivor, was the special guest of CMS track president Marcus Smith at the Nationwide race held two days later. Smith called Wallace over at one point and told him, "Nannie Sue really likes you. She can't stop talking about you."

Wallace knew it. He already had taken time out of his busy day, just before driver introductions, to visit with her again. She rewarded him with a kiss on the cheek.

See, people like Kenny Wallace. They just can't help themselves.

And as time has gone by and Wallace has reconciled himself to the fact that many folks can't separate Kenny Wallace the driver from Kenny Wallace the unwilling TV personality, he has come to relax his self-deprecating view of what he has accomplished as a driver.

This year, in more competitive equipment than he's been in for several seasons, he's seventh in points -- two spots in front of his nephew Steve -- and has earned nearly $726,000 in winnings. That pushed his career earnings as a Nationwide driver to more than $10.5 million. Not bad for the youngest son of a legendary dirt devil in Russ Wallace whose biggest race payday was $1,800 for beating a hotshot from Kansas City named Terry Bevins in a 100-lap race.

"I would say I'm a B-plus or an A-minus. I tried really hard to be in that other 0.1 percent. I'm OK with it now, but I tell you what: it's taken my whole life to be OK with it."


So Kenny Wallace's legacy in NASCAR is likely to be mixed, but for the better. He's an accomplished driver and an ambassador of the sport, a hustler who never seems to tire publicly while scrambling to keep admirers smiling ever more all around him. Don't forget that he's also an accomplished pusher of sponsor's products, who has in recent years been left to relentlessly pursue his own sponsorship dollars so he could keep racing.

"The list of drivers who have come and gone in this sport is long," Mike Wallace said. "To become the all-time starts leader in the Nationwide Series is an incredible feat. It takes a lot of work to be involved in it for this many years. If he were to just chuck it the first time someone said, 'Well, you don't have ride,' he would have been done a long time ago. As the years played out, and as they continue to play out, it's a record that's probably never going to be broken."

Rusty Wallace added that he sees a difference in his little brother this year that he believes will be lasting.

"Last year Kenny was really down in the dumps," Rusty said. "He was driving a car that was basically almost a start-and-park car. They weren't putting a lot of money into it. I kept thinking as his brother, 'I know he's a lot better than that.' So we put some funding together for him and we took a third car to St. Louis -- and he flat-out flew. He qualified good, ran top 10 throughout the race, and the kid got out of the car afterward and was so excited, he couldn't see straight. It kind of reinvigorated him in his career."

Kenny is appreciative of what can't really be called a second chance. It's more like one of several chances he's had -- but the best to come along on the racing side in several years.

"It was important for me to get back to being competitive. As I looked at all the faces [of friends, media and fellow competitors], it was really embarrassing there for a while," the youngest Wallace brother said. "When I dropped back [to Nationwide from Cup], I got in a lesser ride and it wrecked my career -- because everybody made fun of me. Everybody told me I needed to quit, that I needed to go do TV. Although I'm real appreciative of SPEED, I wanted to quit on my own terms."

Now he's purchased some property less than two miles from the old St. Louis neighborhood where he grew up and he's thinking about the end to his driving career. He'll drive at least one more season in the Nationwide Series and then see where he's at. But he's feeling more at ease with himself these days, and that's a good thing.

"It really bothered me that people thought of me just as a TV guy," Kenny said. "I've had literally not hundreds but thousands of people tell me how good I am on TV, and I've struggled with it my whole life. I'm good at something I don't care about being good at.

"And now, at 48 years old, I'm very grateful. Now I know my place in life. It doesn't bother me like it used to. It used to tear me up, but now I'm almost there. I would say I'm 90-percent OK with it and I've come a long way -- because I used to be 100-percent not OK with it."

As for what others think of him as a driver, he said he no longer cares. He said he knows exactly what he is and where he belongs.

"I am in the 99.9 percent category. I know for a fact that there is only one Albert Pujols; there is only one Babe Ruth; there is only one Micky Mantle. And in the racing world, there is only one Jimmie Johnson and only one Jeff Gordon," he said.

"So, you know what? I have come to peace with myself that I'm part of the other 99.9 percent -- a really good race-car driver. I would say I'm a B-plus or an A-minus. I tried really hard to be in that other 0.1 percent. I'm OK with it now, but I tell you what: it's taken my whole life to be OK with it."

Related: Wallaces' stories intertwined with Gateway's