Rusty Wallace still runs with the young guns

June 13, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

Look past the wrinkles that have begun to spread and deepen around the edges of his blue eyes, and you can still find that 27-year-old rookie who lit the world on fire after lighting so many tires.

Has Rusty Wallace really aged two decades since that first year on stock-car racing's most prestigious circuit?

Is he really into his last season with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR)?

Is it really "Rusty's Last Call" farewell tour?


Somehow, even in the face of retirement, it seems Wallace just got going.

"The fire still burns as strong as ever in me," he said earlier this year on his fan media site. "It's as challenging and thrilling as ever and I want to win and enjoy the success just as bad as I did when I first got behind the wheel. All of that has never changed and probably never will."


Twenty-one years. Like gasoline through an engine, it has come as quickly as it has gone.

I remember the first time I met Wallace, back behind the old, cramped garages at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Ind.

It was the second year of the now-infamous Brickyard 400 and ol' Rusty was setting them on fire again. Except this time it was a bunch of kids he was chasing.

That year, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and a bunch of NASCAR's so-called "Young Guns" were chasing down titles and trying to push the older guys off the track.

But here behind the Indy garages was Rusty, edging into his 40s after he squeezed himself out of a car. Just a few years off a NASCAR title he was being labeled "too old" and "washed up," having to defend his place in the sport again.

As always, Rusty did it with style.

"I'll show 'em young guys a thing or two about driving," Wallace said that day, a look of determination burning brightly in his eye. "Just when they think they got ol' Rusty to kick around, I'll be back to kick them in the pants and show 'em who's boss."

And check out who is still around, scrapping for the checkered flag and rubbing fenders every Sunday.

Ol' Rusty is a little older now. But he's still showing the kids how to drive.

Last year, in his 20th season on the NASCAR circuit, he won the most money he had ever won: $4.9 million.

After 55 NASCAR victories, after 36 career pole positions, two driver-of-the-year titles and career earnings that top $43 million, Wallace is fighting it out every week with the best drivers in the sport. And he's still not giving them an inch.

Think he ever actually did?

After becoming a full-time NASCAR driver in 1984, he has finished in the top 10 in points in 16 of the last 19 seasons.

"When all is said and done, he'll go down as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history," Jeff Gordon told me three years ago at Indy. "There will only be one Rusty."

But driving isn't Rusty's only ambition.

Wallace is a team owner in the Busch Series, the minor leagues of NASCAR and he's an owner at the Nextel Cup level.

At his Diamond Aviation hanger in North Carolina, Wallace owns and flies a private jet as well as a helicopter.

Beyond all that, whatever he's doing, whomever he's teaching, Wallace is known as one of the purest gentlemen on and off the track, always willing to help a teammate, even an opponent.

More than 30 years of organized racing later, from that first start in 1973 at Lakehill Speedway near Valley Park, Mo., to his win at Darlington, S.C., last year on the NASCAR circuit, Wallace is always there.

And he's not about to slow up . . . just change lanes.

After he finishes his last NASCAR laps in November, he will set sail aboard a different ride on the "Rusty Wallace Cruise" aboard a Carnival vacation ship in December.

Then there are the numerous engagements and celebrity golf tournaments. And there's the work at the five car dealerships he began 13 years ago in Tennessee, selling everything from Honda to Mercury to Mazdas in places like Talbott, Morristown, Newport or Knoxville, Tenn.

"The dealerships are something I really enjoy," Wallace says. "Customer service . . . is something really important to me. Selling cars is important to me."

Of course it is.

Something says he wouldn't have it any other way.

That 27-year-old rookie still alive and kicking inside a 48-year-old frame.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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