News & Media

Wallace matures while getting back on track

May 02, 2012, David Caraviello,

Steve raises new team from ashes with minimal help from his famous father

Steve Wallace's return to the Nationwide Series last weekend was roughly two months in the making. Shortly after the Daytona 500, his shutdown Rusty Wallace Racing team bought a car from Roush Fenway Racing. The shorthanded crew that remained at RWR -- essentially Steve Wallace, crew chief Blake Bainbridge and a few others -- took possession of the vehicle about the time the rest of the industry headed to Las Vegas. They spent the next seven weeks double-checking every part and retightening every bolt.

The effort paid off Friday night in a clean, 11th-place run at Richmond International Raceway. It was Wallace's first event since his team was put into mothballs prior to the season because of sponsorship losses. It was a big night for more reasons than one -- not only was it a first step back for an organization that had placed two cars in the top 10 in the final Nationwide points last season but also it brought a great deal of personal satisfaction for Wallace, whose famous father let his son quarterback the effort.

"When you've got to restart your rebuilding process and do it single-handedly by yourself, with a couple of friends, it's very humbling, that's for sure. It makes you want it so much more."


"I'll tell you what, Friday night was, as weird as this sounds, the smoothest race weekend we've had since we've been open," said Wallace, who with help from JTG/Daugherty Racing's crew chief and pit crew recorded his best finish since placing fourth at Montreal last summer. "It was just me working on the car, and my crew chief Blake Bainbridge. We had about two months to look over everything twice, all the nuts and bolts, and make sure everything was prepared. When we got to Richmond, we didn't finish where we wanted, but we ran good all night. ... It was a really smooth weekend for us, for sure."

RWR had been on hiatus since January, when the team shut down its racing operations after sponsor 5-hour Energy left to back a Sprint Cup program at Michael Waltrip Racing. The organization's other driver, Michael Annett, was released and eventually latched on at Richard Petty Motorsports. It was all a jarring wake-up call for Wallace, 24, who had driven cars fielded by his father's team for his entire Nationwide career. Suddenly, that career appeared in jeopardy.

"It was wild," he said. "You hear the talk of, hey, our finances aren't right, we need to have a sponsor, 5-Hour Energy's leaving, the Michael Annett deal blew up. That was really a tough pill to swallow for sure when they told all the employees we're shutting down. Then you've got guys coming in and out of the gates buying parts and pieces. It's just like vultures. When we made that announcement, there were literally vultures here at the shop buying parts and pieces. That was the part that was the big eye-opener to me -- holy moly, this is really happening."

Wallace raced his late model a few times during the winter, but in February he felt the itch to get back on the track for real. Although Rusty Wallace was supportive of and enthusiastic about the effort, he left it up to Steve Wallace and Bainbridge to make it happen. Rusty Wallace helped by providing some contacts and assistance that eventually led to the LoanMax sponsorship for the Richmond race. But preparing the vehicle, finding a crew, handling the logistics -- all of that was left to his son, who did it shoulder-to-shoulder with Bainbridge and gained a dose of perspective in the process.

"When I mean it's the two of us, I mean it's the two of us," Steve Wallace said. "It's me, my sister, my brother and about two other people who work at the shop now. When it comes to putting the car together and building it and setting it up and stuff, it's just me and Blake doing it and another one of my friends. It's definitely a small effort, but in all honesty, I feel like we've all learned from it. Especially me. I really feel like it's helped me mature a ton. It was just definitely such a big upset having to shut the team down and having to let everyone go and the whole nine yards. And then when you've got to restart your rebuilding process and do it single-handedly by yourself, with a couple of friends, it's very humbling, that's for sure. It makes you want it so much more."

And it makes you learn what you can do without. As devastating as the process of shutting down was, Wallace said, those who stayed to manage the remains of the operation realized they had too much. "Our overhead was huge," he said. There were too many parts they didn't need, too much money spent in the wrong areas.

"I feel like everybody learned a lot from it, especially me, that's for sure," he added. "But just being able to sit back, to reorganize the race shop, reorganize the offices, clean stuff out, get rid of stuff -- we needed to do that really bad. But we kind of never did, because we were all working hard and trying to go racing and the whole nine yards. But just literally to stop and hit the timeout button was really good for us. It was just a bummer having to do what we did."

The comeback is taking place at a much smaller scale, with Wallace and Bainbridge working late into the night. Monday afternoon, Wallace was cleaning the car and going down checklists in the hope of racing May 20 at Iowa Speedway. He learned how to paint the car during the hiatus. The return to Nationwide on Friday night was meaningful not just because they were back at the race track but because he and Bainbridge had invested so much effort to get there. The Steve Wallace who climbed into the car at Richmond seems different from the one who climbed out of the vehicle after his last event, at Homestead-Miami in November.

"You talk about the best feeling of your life, it was last Friday night," he said. "We literally worked and worked and worked for two months now, like crazy. Just an insane amount of work. Staying here 'til 10 o'clock every single night. And it felt awesome to get to the race track and see everybody. People were happy we were back. For me and Blake Bainbridge, it just felt good. At the end of the day, we did everything we needed to do. We ran good, people saw me race, we didn't tear anything up, everything went smooth. That's all we could ask for."

Now the task is to get to the next one. Wallace hopes to run between 10 and 15 Nationwide races this season, but he's essentially doing this on his own, and he's one of many searching for funding. The team has circled Iowa, Richmond, Bristol and the inaugural Nationwide event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as potential targets, but everything hinges on finding sponsorship.

"We're working real hard on trying to find a sponsor, just like everybody is," Wallace said. "We're working really hard here at the shop, getting this car turned around. We're going to try and race Iowa, which is in three weeks, but we obviously don't have a sponsor for that yet. When it's just the two of us here, we have to act like we are going to race it, so if we do get something, we'll be prepared and have enough time to get the car finished up. We're planning on going to Iowa. We might go, we might not. I'm not sure. But that's what we're shooting for."

In the immediate aftermath of his team shutting down in January, Wallace fretted about his career path, especially since he didn't have sponsorship to bring to another organization. RWR might have made its first few steps back, but the concern is clearly still there, and the future is still uncertain. One surprising run at Richmond, as personally satisfying as it may have been, doesn't wash all the worry away.

"It still is a big eye-opener for me," Wallace said. "I don't know where my career goes from here. The team's shut down, really, and we're working really hard at making a comeback. That's why we ran Richmond. But that was definitely a very scary part, for sure, because if you don't have a sponsor, you don't race. ... I didn't have anything to bring to anybody. So yeah, it was really, really scary. And it still is scary. I just have to hope and pray we find a little sponsorship here and there to get this going."