Written by Briar Starr, Staff Writer
Kenny Wallace is a name that many people have heard of from the television side of things, but some in today’s generation may not know that Wallace was an ex NASCAR Driver and crew chief back in the day.
In this version of “Seasons One”, Kickin’ tires catch up Kenny Wallace, a Missouri native, and nine-time Busch Grand National Series winner to discuss how Wallace got his break into NASCAR with the help of his brother and former NASCAR Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace. In addition, Wallace discusses how he was a Cup Series crew chief in the early parts of his career, his fond memories of racing at Daytona for the first time and finally winning at Volusia County, and other topics related to his early years of racing in NASCAR.
While Wallace started driving in NASCAR in the 1988 and 89 seasons for his brother Rusty. He was the Cup Series crew chief a few years ago. The former driver discusses what led him to his first start and how Rusty helped give him his first chance.
“I love NASCAR, it was a dream as a kid in Arnold, Missouri,” said Wallace. “St. Louis wasn’t a big racing city at the time, we had some small dirt tracks. However, to get out of Arnold, Missouri, and get into NASCAR, it was a pinch-hit moment for me.”
“However, my story was a fun one, as NASCAR wanted to see me race before they would let me go to Daytona. In 1984 I am a crew chief in the Cup Series for Joe Rotman. After 1984 I came home to start my racing career. From 1986 to 1988, I run the ASA (American Speed Association) series where everyone was coming at the time.”
“My brother Rusty called me and said ‘Hermann, I’m doing really well now and I want to repay you for helping me all those years.'” I’ll start you on the Busch Grand National team. It was November of 1988. NASCAR came up to me and said, “We want to know more about you.” Dale Earnhardt loved me and Rusty.
In September of 1988, Earnhart let me drive his No. 8 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet at Martinsville. That was until NASCAR could agree with me. I ran well and finished 11th. I had to send a resume to NASCAR and they approved me. I could then run NASCAR after 1988.”
Wallace describes his first year in NASCAR which occurred in 1989 as a “story short”.
“I came down to Daytona for the first time in 1989 and David Evett is my crew chief,” Wallace added. “We go to Daytona and set a fast time with being in pole. I’m running really good and broke a cylinder but I’m still 10th. This whole deal is insane because Rusty was going to win the race, but he ran Dale Jarrett down the track into the wall.”
NASCAR is calling Rusty into the office and they’re considering not letting him run the Daytona 500 the next day. Before you know it, Earnhardt comes up to me and says ‘You might have to drive your brother’s car in Daytona.’ I told him, ‘I’m scared to death!’ (NASCAR) He chewed Rosty’s ass for this race but this was kind of the start of the season for me.”
For most drivers who enter NASCAR as rookies, some drive a part-time schedule with limited races the year before while others are thrust into the spotlight straight away. As for Wallace, Arnold, Missouri was already racing a full-time schedule in 1989 after only one start in 1988. Despite only having one start to his name, he says times were different back then.
“In 1989 we ran the full schedule on $600,000,” he said. “We had the Cox Treated Lumber, the Miller Brewing Company, and we had all of Rusty’s sponsors. Rusty pays me close to $25,000 and I live in an extensive mobile home. At the time, if you look at the numbers, everyone could work full time.”
“You didn’t need a lot of money because all of our days were one-day shows. So, in that flashback, everyone was full time at the time. I did it the right way. My story is unique. I didn’t start racing at eight, I started Driving at 22. I was a late bloomer because I was a builder and mechanic first.”
When Wallace first entered the NASCAR scene as a driver, setting expectations can be daunting at times. However, Wallace said he put a lot of pressure on himself because of his family’s success.
“I had a lot of pressure on myself because of my dad, who won 400 local races around St. Louis and my mom won Powerpuff races, and Rusty and Mike were really good,” Wallace said. “For me, I was helping out with their cars and I didn’t start racing until I was older. Yeah, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform because I was used to being with a family who won all the time.”
“I did really well winning the 1986 ASA Rookie of the Year. You have to remember, I didn’t even drive a hobby car growing up. I went straight into the big time with no driving experience.”
While Wallace was racing in the ASA Series and gaining experience, his first start occurred at the Busch Grand National at Martinsville in 1988. For Wallace, he described the scenery as magical with which he first started.
“My first start was magical,” said Arnold of Missouri. “I remember racing on I-70 in Kansas City and I couldn’t go because I went down to Mooresville, North Carolina to hook up with (former crew chiefs) Tony Urey Sr. and Son to test the car in Martinsville. I practiced on that car and when it was time to race, Earnhardt and Rusty were there. “.
“It was Youth Cup weekend and all I remember was changing the engine. When we started the race the car was leaking oil. Rusty was telling me ‘Take it easy’. Earnhardt was like ‘Get the hell out!
In 1989, Wallace made his first trip to Daytona. Wallace remembers almost everything about the trip including setting up on pole.
“I remember going there to audition,” Wallace said. “When I came down to Daytona to test, it was my first time on the track. I ran three laps and got into the pits and someone asked me ‘What’s wrong?’ I replied, ‘I never hold the throttle wide open.’ So I just remember I used to On wide open throttle.”
When we set a fast time it was magical. I remember doing all the radio shows after I won the pole. I remember coming to the green flag and my heart was pounding. During the race, I remember the engine crashing, and the red flag coming out late in the race. Someone was calling my name from the stands saying “Herman, I’m from St. Louis, Missouri!” Something like that I will never forget. There were so many things I remember about that race.”
Before winning his first race at Volusia County in 1991, Wallace had to stand out at the Nashville races finishing third after leading 154 laps and seventh at Louisville. However, it was the race in Nashville that was the saddest for Wallace’s loss.
“She won that race in Nashville,” he said. “Everyone was competing except for the top three. I came to the pits and they lifted the car, and the car fell off the jack stand. If it hadn’t happened, I would have won the race but instead I finished third. I was absolutely devastated not to have won the race.”
After missing a win in Nashville in 1989 and coming close two more times in his career in ’90, the Arnold, Missouri native finally pulled off a win in Volusia County. Winning the race was a great day for Wallace and his buddies.
Wallace describes winning his first race: “This whole deal was pretty wild.” “In victory lane, I looked at my wife and said ‘It’s finally over.’ We went into the fictional press conference room after the race and I was questioned by the press when I said ‘It’s finally over, what do you mean by that?’”
“I told them what I mean I finally won in NASCAR. I finally proved to myself that I could put together 200 laps and finish the race. I want to say this. It’s been 20 years and you went back to the exact same track to learn how to drive dirt cars and won again on dirt. It was insane. I am the only driver in NASCAR history to win a NASCAR race and come back to win on dirt.”
As Wallace continued to reflect on his early career in NASCAR, he explains what his favorite cup was.
“I would say when I won three straight races at Richmond from 1994 through 1996,” he said. “Richmond quickly became the track I understood what to do with my car. However, the only magical trophy for me was the 1994 Richmond race.”
“I was driving for Fil Martocci and we had Red Dog Beer and TIC Financial as our sponsors. However, we weren’t allowed to put Red Dog on the car, we were only allowed to put a bulldog on the car.”
“The only thing that stands out the most to me about this race is when the caution came out with 20 laps to go. I looked in the mirror and I had Dale Earnhardt and behind him was Mark Martin. I said to myself, Kenny breathed breath. When the race was completed, Earnhardt came out and said ‘Hermann, we couldn’t Who caught you and he was right. I changed my racing line and pulled away from them to win this race.”
As Wallace continues to look back on his NASCAR career, he says 1989 was the most fun year.
“We had a lot of fun in 1989 because we had such a great group of people,” said the Arnold, Missouri native. “That was the era of NASCAR to compete in. The most fun I ever had was coming back from short tracks and racing body beats the hell out of it. You know, coming home from Hickory, Orange County, Myrtle Beach. That was fun.”
As the interview drew to a close, the nine-time Busch Series winner looks back at what he could have done differently with his career.
“I had a lot of high blood pressure at the time, and I wasn’t going to be so hard on myself,” Wallace said. “You were my own worst enemy. I really thought I was going to fail and live under a bridge in a cardboard box. I wanted it so much that it was merciful. I swear if I died early it was because of the stress I was going through at the time. Still, I’m so happy.” Now, I’m very comfortable with a piece of myself. I’d say to my little self, Kenny, you’re a good race car driver, take it easy on yourself.”
Throughout Wallace’s career, the Missouri native has competed in the Cup Series in 344 starts earning six top fives and 27 top 10 finishes along with three pole positions. In the Xfinity Series, Wallace has nine wins in 547 starts and has 66 top finishes, 173 top 10 finishes and 10 pole positions. He also ran in the Truck Series in 13 races and had two Top 5s and four Top 10s.