It’s rare that you won’t find a smile on Kenny Wallace’s face. The veteran racer is one of the funniest and most happy-go-lucky persons you’ll ever meet.
That’s why it’s no wonder that six years after his final race in NASCAR, Wallace remains a fan favorite as one of the last old-time barnstorming drivers, racing from coast to coast primarily in his dirt modified car.
RELATED: Kenny Wallace career stats
In fact, the man nicknamed “Herman” (after an old-time cartoon character) is racing more now than he did in his NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity days, logging tens of thousands of miles driving from track to track and competing in 75 to 100 races each year.
As his 58th birthday approaches on Aug. 23, Wallace spent time talking about his life, his racing career and what the future holds.
Along the way, Wallace showed why he’s still the king of the one-liner.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How are you so happy?’” he quipped. “I tell them it’s a lot of work. It’s not easy being Kenny Wallace.”
Even though he wasn’t blessed with the kind of talent that older brother and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty was, Kenneth Lee Wallace still enjoyed a long NASCAR career — 904 starts across the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series.
When asked what he considers the biggest highlight of his NASCAR career, Wallace said, “It’s pretty simple: making it to the Cup and Xfinity Series and being very competitive. I had something like (a combined) 200 top 10s. That tells me I was competitive.
“The lowlight was not getting what I wanted out of the Cup Series. When you count to (904), it’s an observed number. I think that’s my highlight, literally staying around and being worthy enough to run (904) NASCAR races. To me, that’s like an out-of-body experience, like how the hell did I do that?”
While he’s been asked countless times about comparisons with Rusty, Kenny has learned to embrace the differences in a positive fashion.
“There were plenty of jokes made about how better Rusty was than me and (middle brother) Mike,” Kenny said. “It hurt like hell when they did it, but the older I got, it’s true and it’s funny. I remember one joke where someone once said, ‘Mike and Kenny sit in the back seat while Rusty drives.’
“I’m a fan of the late comic, Joan Rivers. One thing I learned from her is, ‘Never be afraid to make fun of yourself. After all, you might be missing out on the greatest joke of the decade.’ But here’s the opposite of that: Rusty Wallace is damn good and he’s a Hall of Famer and he’s my brother and I love him. I’m so proud of him.”
Kenny readily admits he never won a single Cup race, and earned just three runner-up finishes and overall, six top-five showings in 344 starts.
While he would have liked better results in Cup, he’s still proud of what he achieved in his Xfinity career: nine wins and 66 top-five finishes in 547 starts, with the topper being falling just short of Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte for the 1991 championship.
In a sense, Wallace became the every-man type of driver fans could identify with, a blue-collar guy from Arnold, Missouri (just south of St. Louis), who maximized the talent he had.
That’s why he was so popular both during and after his NASCAR career. Even today, he has nearly 340,000 Twitter followers and countless more on other forms of social media.
“I almost feel like I represent that person that just didn’t get everything they wanted,” Wallace said. “People told me all the time I sucked at NASCAR. They were being vicious. It wasn’t that I sucked, it’s just that I wasn’t that great, and that’s 99.9 percent of America. There’s only one Tiger Woods or Jeff Gordon and the rest of us are just here.”
But Wallace became quite successful and popular as a TV broadcaster for Speed TV and later FOX Sports. He’s even become an in-demand motivational speaker. Diagnosed hyperactive as a child, he learned how to channel his energy into the kind of persona that fans loved.
“I think everyone can relate to me because I’m brutally honest,” Wallace said. “I think I represent people. I have people come up to me right now, guys I race with, they feel that if I quit, it will make dirt racing less important. They come to the races when I’m there because there’s more of a spotlight on that race, and if I quit racing, then it won’t mean as much anymore.”
Which leads us to one of the most significant conundrum’s of Wallace’s life.
After well over 40 years of racing, Kenny is thinking about hanging it up after next season or 2023.
“Sometimes, I lay in bed and think to myself why do I push the issue to race so much,” he said. “I really believe it was the way I was born. It’s no secret I was diagnosed hyperactive by a therapist. I was very unruly in grade school. I wasn’t mean, but I couldn’t calm down. For me to stay in my house is very hard. I feel like if I’m not doing something, I’m very, very bored.
“Someone once asked me, ‘Are you still racing because you didn’t get what you wanted out of NASCAR?’ I said absolutely not whatsoever, even though my Cup career wasn’t the greatest. But that’s not why I race so much. I race because I love racing. I truly don’t like golf, I really don’t. I don’t know how people golf. It’s hot, the ball never goes where you want it, and I go to so many foursomes to raise money (for charity) and by the ninth hole, I’m just done.
“I truly love the process of what I do, working on the car, stopping at truck stops, loading the car, trying to figure the chassis out and number one, I love driving the car, competing. Sometimes, people around me ask why doesn’t Rusty or Jeff Gordon still race? But then, why does Tony Stewart and Bill Elliott still race? When our NASCAR career is over, we look for something to replace it, and that’s what I did — (barnstorming) replaced what I loved.”
Yet with Kenny’s upcoming birthday, the physical wear and tear are definitely impacting him.
“It’s a big deal,” Wallace said. “I’ll go all day long, race at night, drive part of the way, sleep for three or four hours, get back at it and do it all over again the next night. Yes, It’s completely exhausting, I should not be doing it (from a health perspective) and I’m kind of split down the middle: I’m kind of looking forward to (continuing racing) but I know it’s going to take a toll on me.”
But one thing keeps tempering the thoughts of calling it quits.
“I have to start running bad first,” he chuckled. “The issue I have right now is I’m running too good. I’m 58 years old and I’m setting track records against these 20-year-old kids, I’m winning heat races, I’m driving violently fast. We’re getting the job done. That’s the hard part for me right now, how do you quit when you’re racing these young kids and you’re outrunning them?”
Wallace is also having pushback about quitting from several of his closest friends, including 10-time off-road champ Walker Evans and drag racing legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.
“I told them I’m thinking about racing one more year and then quitting,” Wallace said. “They both said, ‘Absolutely not.’ Walker Evans won his last championship at the age of 61. And Snake quit at 54 as a driver, but he stayed as an owner. …
“The bottom line is this: there’s no way in hell I’m going to do what Kenny Schrader (66 years old) or Red Farmer (88 years old) do. I love life, I love doing things, I want to go to Europe, I want to do other things and I just can’t, I just can’t take that (racing) away. My wife doesn’t want me to quit racing because she knows me better than anybody. If I quit racing, I have to have something to do.”
But there’s one guy who is pushing Kenny to hang up his fire suit. And of course, Kenny can’t help but crack a joke about it.
“Rusty wants me to quit because he wants a friend, he wants me to hang out with him,” Kenny said with a laugh.
When asked how much Rusty is going to pay him to hang out with him, Kenny again laughed, but then said soberly, “I probably owe my brother Rusty $10 million. He spent millions on me, he loves me, he’s a guy that’s tough love. He moved me out of St. Louis to North Carolina, literally started my (Xfinity) career, built a shop for me, owned Wallace Racing. Me, my wife and three daughters owe Rusty my life.”
Being the brother of a Hall of Famer can be intimidating to some, but not to Kenny. It took a conversation with Prudhomme to make him understand why.
“When Snake told me they were showing me more on TV because I was having good finishes (in the Xfinity Series), I said I wish I had the talent Rusty had,” Kenny recalled. “What Snake said back to me changed my life.
“He looked me in the eyeballs and said, ‘Your brother Rusty is damn good. You can’t change that you’re Kenny Wallace.’ When I looked at myself in the mirror later that night, when I realized Don Prudhomme said I was Kenny Wallace, that changed my whole outlook on my career. I can’t help who I am. I am who I am and I’m Kenny Wallace.”
The Kenny Wallace file:
* Age: 57 (turns 58 on Aug. 23)
* Hometown: Arnold, Mo.
* Personal: Has been married to wife Kim for 37 years. The couple has three daughters: Brooke, Brandy and Brittany.
* Notable: Made 904 career starts across all three premier series in his NASCAR career (16th overall of all NASCAR drivers). … Youngest of the three racing Wallace brothers: NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty is the eldest (65 years old), followed by Mike (62) and Kenny (turns 58 on Aug. 23). … Kenny won Rookie of the Year honors in the American Speed Association in 1986 and in the NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) in 1989, the same year older brother Rusty won his only Cup championship. … Three-time Most Popular Driver in the Xfinity Series. … Was heavily influenced by the late Dale Earnhardt. Wallace’s first-ever NASCAR start was in 1988 when he drove for Earnhardt’s Xfinity team. (He would then spend the next three seasons driving for Rusty’s team.) Kenny finished second to Earnhardt in the latter’s 76th and final win of his Cup career in 2000 (at Talladega). It was one of three runner-up finishes Wallace had in his Cup career.
* NASCAR Cup career: 344 starts, 0 wins, 6 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes. Also 3 poles. Best season finish: 22nd (1999).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 547 starts, 9 wins, 66 top-five and 173 top-10 finishes. Also 10 poles. Best season finish: second (1991).
* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 13 starts, 0 wins, 2 top-five and 4 top-10 finishes.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski and @TheRacingBeat, as well as The Racing Beat podcast, available on most podcast platforms.