Being Kenny Wallace
April 24, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Newer fans may be wondering why any reputable driver would have anything at all to learn from Wallace. After all, he’s never won a Winston Cup race, right? For those of you who were still mastering Play Station until the last few seasons of racing, Wallace is pretty handy behind the Busch champion, four more than a certain young four time Winston Cup champion and nine more than last year’s runner-up in the Winston Cup title chase. (He said carefully avoiding using their names so as not to accused of picking on anyone.) Wallace was the 1989 Busch series Rookie of the Year and won the Most Popular driver honors in that series twice, in 1991 and 1994. He finished in the top ten in Busch series points in his rookie season and the next three years. In 1991 Kenny was involved in a nip and tuck battle for the Busch Series championship with none other than Bobby Labonte but a mechanical DNF for Wallace in the season finale ended his title hopes. In 1992 Wallace was one again a key player in the Busch championship hunt until he was injured in a bad wreck at New Hampshire. Who knows? If Kenny had beaten Labonte in 1989 for that title, maybe he’d have wound up with Bill Davis and eventually Joe Gibbs, and he’d have won a Winston Cup title like Bobby did. It’s one of those chicken or the egg quandaries. Does a guy get a great ride because he’s a great driver, or does getting a great ride make him a great driver?
One area young drivers won’t want to emulate Kenny’s career in is putting loyalty ahead of self interest. Wallace drove the famed 28 car ten times in 1994 in place of Ernie Irvan who had been badly injured at Michigan that year. He had a few good runs in that car including a fourth place result, but not enough that Texaco and Robert kept him in the seat. Dale Jarrett took over the ride for th 1995 season.
Wallace spent three of the best year’s of his career with the bumbling Martucci 81 team, enduring blown engine after blown engine, and sticking with the team despite better offers. That outfit turned out to be a black hole for a career where nobody could hear you scream. Last year Wallace signed with and old family friend to drive for the struggling (to put it mildly) 27 team with the understanding turning the operation around wasn’t going to happen overnight. At least he managed to qualify for some races before he got canned. I’d argue you could have put any current Winston Cup driver in that 27 car last year and he wouldn’t have run worth a damn either. Some fans might not see Kenny as much of a driver, but the DEI bunch has a pretty sharp eye for talent and they quickly hired him to sub for the injured Steve Park. And once again Wallace had some good runs in the 1 car, but he eventually turned the wheel back to Steve as he knew he’d have to one day when he took the job.
So much for the distant past. This weekend at Talladega Kenny had a pretty rough time of it. After apparently finishing fifth he was demoted to 21st place because NASCAR says that he passed below the yellow line on the final lap. That had to be a terrible shock and disappointment for a driver who thought he’d just had a great finish for a new sponsor and team he hopes will enable him to get back into the Winston Cup series full time next year. Nothing like a little early success to get those contracts signed, right? Kenny learned of the penalty from a FOX reporter live on nationwide TV. Yet he didn’t choose to throw a temper tantrum, throw down the reporter’s microphone, end the interview and storm off to the trailer. Instead, without insulting anyone, he firmly insisted that he’d been forced out of bounds by Sterling Marlin and stated in his heart he knew he’d finished fifth. He did not go running after Sterling Marlin and grab him by the fire-suit to express his displeasure. His team owner did not have to restrain Wallace from attacking a NASCAR official. He didn’t hop back in his car and slam into the back of the 40 car in the garage area to express his displeasure. Kenny just dealt with the media because that’s part of his job description, and made his case that he’d been robbed.
Kenny appears on ESPN2’s RPM Tonight Monday evening, and once again he had a perfect forum to lash out from the Bully Pulpit, calling everyone and anyone idiots for what they did to him. What could NASCAR have done to him? Instead, while steadfastly maintaining his innocence though admitting it was a judgment call he didn’t call anyone names. Wallace said he called Mike Helton to express his displeasure with the call this morning, which was well after he had some time to think things through and cool off. That’s a driver’s right. You get a lot more consideration talking rather than yelling.
Saturday wasn’t a great day for Wallace either. He lost an engine while running in the top three with no real competition from behind. Wallace is solidly in the title hunt this year, yet after retiring in the garage area, he conducted the normal post race interview, and while he was obviously irritated again he didn’t point fingers. Nor did he duck questions on whether he triggered the savage 27 car wreck that decimated the field. His own teammate, Shane Hmeil, accused Wallace of triggering that huge pileup live on nationwide TV and that’s a serious allegation. Concerned, Wallace decided to sit down with NASCAR officials to view video of the onset of the wreck to give his perspective on what happened. Apparently after careful review all parties were convinced Wallace was not at fault. (Nor am I blaming Riggs or Hmeil. This is restrictor plate racing. When cars are running at 190 MPH so close together that when one driver lifts, even the highly trained reflexes of an athlete don’t allow the driver behind him to brake quickly enough this is going to happen. It’s the nature of the beast not the fault of the gladiators.) Wallace could have chosen to make his case in the media, telling the pressbox corps something along the lines of “Aw, that kid’s a rookie. He don’t know what the Hell he’s talking about. Hey, if he hadn’t been in that wreck he’d have found another way to destroy the car. He’s wrecked about every race he’s run, hasn’t he?” He could have run to the team owner and issued an ultimatum, “Either Shane goes or I do.” Instead in the interest of team unity and getting everyone back on the same page, Wallace sat down in a team meeting and hashed out what happened with Shane and the team. Apparently there’s no lingering resentment and hard feelings and you won’t see Kenny parking Shane out on the racetrack at Richmond. Throughout two thoroughly irritating days at Talladega, Kenny Wallace conducted himself as what he is paid to be, a professional.
That’s not to say Wallace is one of those sponsor spewing automons either. Kenny is always himself and he’s often not politically correct. He’ll give you an honest answer and call a spade a spade even when it might be easier to duck the question. Some drivers say they are adding needed “color” to the sport by being themselves. Wallace has been doing that his whole career without coming across as arrogant, abusive, short tempered or unappreciative.
Right or wrong today’s competitors have two main components to their job description. Naturally they have to drive racecars and produce some results out on the track. They also have to be corporate spokespeople for the sponsor that writes the big checks that keep drivers racing and pay their salaries. You can’t have one without the other, though it would be a lot easier job if the drivers could just focus on racing, which is after all what they signed up to do. Hey, it would be great to be able to earn a lot of money and not have to write big checks to the IRS as well, but that’s not how things work. So for newer drivers trying to figure out this racing game, I’d suggest trying to drive like Dale Earnhardt Junior did this weekend, and try to behave off the track like Kenny Wallace did during those same three days.