Russ Wallace: Rusty, Mike & Kenny
These were the days before sleek, logo-covered uniforms, when drivers raced in T-shirts and jeans on dingy tracks off country roads. Russ Wallace, a muscular man with a flattop and flat nose, ruled those quarter-mile dirt tracks and asphalt ovals in the St. Louis area during the late 1960s and 1970s. Wallace's three bushy-haired sons, Rusty, Michael and Kenny, were his crew, turning wrenches, welding frames and rebuilding transmissions long into the night, prepping for the weekend races in Granite City, Ill.; Valley Park, Mo.; and Rolla, Mo.
There was little time for homework and no time for dinner, except for the bologna and cheese sandwiches Judy brought out to the double-deck, four-bay garage behind their ranch-style home in the St. Louis suburb of Arnold. Old fenders, hoods and engine parts filled the back of the garage. "I was truly a grease monkey," Kenny Wallace recalled. "I would get in so late from working on the race cars, all I would do is wash my hands and arms. I knew I was a hard-core racer when something very embarrassing happened to me at school. My teacher would tell me: 'Boy you smell like a shop.' At that time, I realized my life was obsessed with racing."
That obsession consumed Russ Wallace's sons, who emerged from St. Louis — hardly known as a breeding ground for racing — to the elite of NASCAR.
They trace their success to those nights under the hoods of their dad's '55 and '57 Chevys, '69 Chevelles and '72 Camaros and in pits all over the Midwest until they were ready to take the wheel. "We'd unload the car, fill it with gas, check the tire pressure and cheer Dad on," Rusty Wallace recalled. "Back then we didn't know anything about aerodynamics. Our deal was getting the right tire and the right spring...Dad taught me how to work on a car. He taught me how to weld, build an engine. After the races were done, we'd go to the window, get our payoff, load everyone in the truck and head up to the local restaurant and spend all the money we made."
Russ Wallace, who had various jobs as a dealership mechanic, newspaper carrier and co-owner of a vacuum and janitorial supply business in south St. Louis, raced on weekends strictly as a hobby. He'd collect purses of $300 to $500 on a drivers night, depending on the gate. "My dad had the best cars he could afford to buy and build at the time," Mike Wallace said. "Even though it was a hobby, I call it a professional hobby. That was our lifestyle...it still is our lifestyle. We focused entirely on racing."
Russ Wallace won so often, he made nearly as many enemies as fans. "When you were a kid growing up, you couldn't understand why when you went to the racetrack, your father, the person you loved, everybody else hated," Mike Wallace said. "They didn't know him, and the reason they hated him was he won all the time. After you start your own career, you come to find out you love to be hated. That means you're accomplishing something."
Russ Wallace was an aggressive — but clean — driver. Still, when he was ready to take the lead ... "If you're behind them, and they won't get our of your way you've got to give them a little tap and let them know you're there," said Wallace, now 66, retired and living with Judy near his sons outside Charlotte, N.C. "If they don't want to move over, you do it a second time. The third time, you move them."
While Wallace won the features, Judy Wallace reigned as champion of the Powder Puff races. She was so dominant, it took a male driver, dressed in drag, to finally beat her one night at Lake Hill.
Russ Wallace's biggest payday was a $1,800 purse for beating Terry Bivins of Kansas City in a 100-lap race. But the St. Louis area didn't offer higher-level and bigger-paying purses that would allow him to quit his day job. "There were a lot of racetracks around St. Louis, but it was never a media-oriented sport," Mike Wallace said. "We always said St. Louis was a stick-and-ball town because St. Louis Cardinals football and baseball is all anyone talked about. For the longest time, racing was a bunch of rednecked guys who had nothing better to do than go racing."
That changed when Rusty took it a few laps further than his father and tried to make a living at it. "In St. Louis," Russ Wallace said, "professional racing wasn't even thought of until Rusty somehow took it to heart and went on from there."
On Aug. 14, 1972, Russell William Wallace Jr. became old enough to drive, but not old enough to race. The minimum age to race at Lake Hill Speedway was 18, unless a driver obtained a court order. So Judy Wallace took Rusty to the courtroom of Judge Robert G.J. Hoester in the juvenile court of St. Louis County, signed a release and was granted the order.
Six nights later, Rusty Wallace climbed into his '66 Chevelle with the No. 66 affixed in masking tape on the doors (his dad drove No. 6) and won his first race, a heat race at Lake Hill. Rusty didn't finish the feature race. He ran out of gas. "I got so excited about winning my first race, I just forgot to put gas in the car for the big race," he recalled. "I think I lasted about 10 laps."
Russ Wallace won the late-model feature that night, but clearly a new star was born. "Russ had a talent," said Springfield driver Larry Phillips, who built many of the cars the Wallaces raced. "He was aggressive, and he passed it on to the rest of the guys. But I've never seen anyone who had the ambition to race and the want-to to win races more than Rusty. You knew he was going someplace. And there was nothing that was going to stop him."
Rusty Wallace, still working as a vacuum repairman and driving a delivery truck for the business co-owned by his father and uncle, won more than 200 features during 1974-78. When Rusty joined the USAC circuit, where he won five races in 1979, Russ Wallace retired and began helping his son.
Meanwhile, Kenny began traveling the circuits with Rusty, who won the 1983 ASA series championship and earned Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 1984. "My desire to see Rusty make it was so enormous," Kenny Wallace said. "I would sit in class my senior year in high school and think about how to make race cars go faster and handle better. I would literally run out of seventh-hour class, run to my car and could not wait to get to the shop."
Kenny Wallace devoted so much time accompanying his brothers to races he nearly didn't make it out of high school. He missed 72 days during his senior year at Fox High School and had to make a plea to administrators who were threatening to hold him back. "Look, this is my life," Kenny told the administrators. "I love racing. I've been all over the United States traveling. I've learned a lot. I'm not smoking dope, please don't hold me back." He won the case.
With Mike Wallace returning to Winston Cup this season, the possibility of all three Wallaces running bumper to bumper exists every week for the first year on a consistent basis. In 1992, all three ran in a Winston Cup race in Phoenix, the first time three brothers competed in the modern era of NASCAR.
Twice last year, Rusty beat Kenny for the pole by thousands of a second. "It's always fun to compete with my older brother, because I know he's on top of his game," Kenny said. "He's a benchmark for a lot of drivers. Rusty has always been a winner. You can talk all the stuff about my brother being cocky, or whatever, but the bottom line is, you go to work for Rusty Wallace, you're going to victory lane one time or another."
Kenny and Rusty finished 1-2 in the 1998 Bud Shootout at Daytona when Kenny helped Rusty draft past Jimmy Spencer. "I had my choice to help Jimmy Spencer or help my brother," Kenny said. "I couldn't get by them because it would have been three wide, and there wasn't enough room. I went with Rusty, and I literally lifted him up in the rears. I had to hold off the gas pedal a little bit because I was going to spin him out, and I pushed him on by."
That night, they were at a restaurant when they caught a glimpse of "CNN Headline News," proclaming how the Wallace brothers won the Bud Shootout. "That was the greatest feeling in auto racing," Kenny said, "to realize Rusty and I had done something....The Wallace brothers..."
None of the brothers have forgotten how their father paved the way for them. Russ Wallace was a perfectionist in how he prepared the cars, a lesson that was passed on to his sons. "Rusty and I delivered newspapers for my dad on Tuesday nights," Mike said, "and we'd leave, and Dad would be sanding the roof of his race car, getting ready to paint it. When we'd get home, he was still sanding. He said, 'I want to make it perfect.' That stuck in my mind. Preparation is so much of a key in racing. Get it perfect the first time and you won't have to come back and do it over."
Russ Wallace's meticulous attention to detail and ability to win races created high expectations for the next generation. "We grew up around him winning races, and once he set the pattern, we didn't know you weren't supposed to win," Mike Wallace said. "We couldn't understand those guys who raced every week and never won a race. What were they even here for?"
That donut mark was Dick Trickle. He got into me twice out there today. I don't know what was going on. Maybe that four and five-wide had something to do with it.
Kenny just couldn't stay out of the Winner's Circle when Trickle won his second Busch Grand National Race at Darlington in September, 1998. A disciple of his brother Rusty, the 1989 Winston Cup champion, and short-track legends Dick Trickle and Larry Phillips, Kenny Wallace challenged for the Busch Series title from 1989 through '91. After all, he has been going to racetracks all his life, first with his father Russ, a legend of the St. Louis area, and then with brothers Rusty and Mike, as well as Kenny Schrader, a close family friend.
Kenny says that, "Growing up with my dad was probably the wildest part. It was nothing for us to win 11, 12 weeks in a row in the Midwest on dirt or asphalt. So the fans hated us. We had to fight on a weekly basis. But I also learned that second was no drivers." Fortunately, Kenny was a drivers learner, because if all the stories are true, he wasn't much of a traveler. As a youngster, Wallace was hyperactive — that's not hard to imagine — and his constant talking got on the nerves of even his mother, Judy. Kenny continued, "We traveled the same route every week from St. Louis to Rolla, Mo. She'd say, 'If you can just be quiet to St. Clair, Mo., I'll give you a dollar. Well, I could do it. I'd shut up and make a buck at a time."
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