There’s a classic photo of Rusty Wallace in his rough-cut, pre-NASCAR days, kneeling next to a first generation Chevy Camaro racecar at one of countless weekly short tracks in the Midwest, where he raced and won countless Friday and Saturday night feature events. The image shows a slender young man sporting a mane of curly red hair in a '70s "frizzy" style, a crooked smile on his baby face and eyes full of fire and determination.
Who would’ve guessed that, some 35 years later, the same young man — his familiar face lined, yet still youthful — would be standing on a stage in Charlotte, N.C., accepting a formal induction into NASCAR’s prestigious Hall of Fame. It had been a long, often bumpy road for the Missouri native. Thousands of miles spent travelling from one racetrack to another, in little towns and big cities. Tens of thousands of laps on oval tracks and road courses from coast to coast. Triumph and tragedy. A story of grit, guts and — finally — glory.
In the early days, it was dusty little dirt tracks and paved bullrings around Missouri and border states. Daytona, Darlington, Bristol and Talladega were only in the dreams he had as he slept in the truck while one of his part-time crew of friends drove, towing that Camaro to yet another short track. They say that the cream always rises to the top, and talent plus guts and determination will prevail. So it was that the carrot-topped kid from Rolla, Mo., got on a hot streak, and set the Midwestern short-track world on fire.
Ability without ambition is impotent, however, so in order to break through and break out of being a perennial winner and champion in just one region, Rusty had to sell himself to the right people who would give him the opportunity to prove his ability on a national stage. After winning the 1979 "Rookie of the Year" honors in USAC’s stock car division, finishing third in points just behind the iconic A.J. Foyt, another racing icon – Roger Penske — gave him a shot in his No. 16 AMC Matador in the NASCAR premier division race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The result? Rusty rewarded the man who would later become his partner in the Miller-sponsored Penske South Racing team with a second-place finish. "The Captain" was impressed, and, after just a few more "transitional" years, Rusty was on his way to fame and fortune in NASCAR racing.
An American Speed Association (ASA) national championship in 1983, competing against such NASCAR stars-to-be as Mark Martin, Alan Kulwicki and Dick Trickle, convinced Rusty that he was ready to make NASCAR his full-time racing home, and he had many top-drawer teams eager to sign him on. Good choice, too. In his first season (1984) of NASCAR premier division competition, he won the coveted "Rookie of the Year" award while at the keyboard of Cliff Stewart’s No. 88 Gatorade Pontiac.
From there, it was a stint in the No. 27 Alugard Pontiac in 1985, and then to one of the most successful pairings in the history of NASCAR, a five-year run in drag racing champion Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max Racing No. 27 Kodiak Pontiac. Rusty would win his first-ever NASCAR Cup race in Beadle’s hot Pontiac Grand Prix (Bristol, 1986) and, numerous victories later, a NASCAR Cup championship in 1989. But wait, there was more to come.
Teaming up in 1991 with the man who had given him his first big-time NASCAR ride, Roger Penske, Rusty was both a championship-winning driver and team co-owner. It would be a 15-season ride for the man who had become one of the biggest stars in the world of motorsports. More races were won — 55 in all at the close of his storied career in 2005 – and more legends grew about the man whose "take no prisoners" driving style matched that of his on-track rival and off-track friend, Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
For a man like Russell William Wallace, Jr., there is no such thing as "retirement". Sure, he willingly stepped out of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge in November of 2005, and turned the keys over to his replacement, Kurt Busch. But even while racing in his final NASCAR premier division season, Rusty was busily designing the 7/8-mile tri-oval track at Iowa Speedway, and negotiating a plum post-racing career as a color commentator for the ABC/ESPN networks.
Today, Rusty Wallace busies himself with his several auto dealerships, a NASCAR Nationwide Series racing team, a hectic television schedule encompassing both on-camera and "behind-the-scenes" work, serving on the Board of Directors and fundraising for the charitable NASCAR Foundation, and doing literally anything we ask of him to promote "America’s Place to Race" in Newton, Iowa.
Is it any wonder that the staff members at Iowa Speedway were bursting with pride when, last Friday, Feb. 8, in front of family, friends, the legendary names of NASCAR and an international television audience, Rusty Wallace was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame?
Even the Governor and Iowa Legislature will take time to honor him with a special proclamation at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
Rusty, we love you. And all of Iowa loves you too!