Athlon Sports sat down with the 1989 Winston Cup champion who retired in 2005 and moved to the broadcasting booth
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Athlon Sports: Do you regret that you retired? That maybe you retired too soon?
Rusty Wallace: Let me say it this way: I miss driving the car. I love doing the television stuff with ABC and ESPN. Looking back at it right now I wish that maybe I would have run one more year. On the other hand, if I would have run another year I might have missed out on some of the good opportunities, but it’s awful hard to watch that No. 2 car run around that track without me in it.
AS: How does a driver know when to retire? When does that bell go off?
RW: I think a driver knows when to retire when in his mind he starts thinking about other things, he starts thinking about business. I’m content with my decision, because my mind was starting to move around on different things.
AS: If the TV deal hadn’t happened, what would you be doing this year?
RW: If the TV thing wouldn’t have happened, I would have been paying more attention to my car dealerships. I would have been paying much more attention to Steven’s Busch team. I would have had a lot of personal service agreements with different companies. I would have been biding my time until the TV thing did happen. The TV was going to happen, because I already had an offer before I had the ABC offer. So I had one of them already nailed down and that’s the thing that made me comfortable. I really thought that ABC and ESPN was definitely the best company to work for. I knew they were going to come in and really try to take NASCAR to a new level, and helping build the sport was really important to me.
AS: Was the TV deal the main reason?
RW: Honestly, the number one reason I retired was that I was just flat tired of 36 races. Really 38 — 36 points-paying races and the Bud Shootout at Daytona and the All-Star event in Charlotte. That’s 38 weekends out of someone’s life. And you get so dedicated to your racecar that you don’t understand what’s really out there in this world. People talk about all kinds of different things, business-wise or non-business-wise that are totally normal to people. I’m talking about a spring, shock or sway bar that doesn’t mean anything to anybody else. But it means everything to me, because it’s all about performance; about how fast it will make the car go around a corner.
AS: As for the Car of Tomorrow, do you think it is going to make some of your generation’s drivers more competitive? Like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin?
RW: I don’t really know what to think about the Car of Tomorrow yet. We gotta see it in competition. They can test that thing all they want, but until the track gets slicked up and everyone gets in real good positions, we don’t know. They can talk safety all they want, and yeah, safety is one of the main reasons they built that car, but also, another reason was to try to get these cars where they can run side-by-side. They don’t pick up these big aero pushes that everybody talks about. A lot of the problem with this is that some of the racetracks absolutely need a better design in order to pass on. They need to have more banking. At a lot of the racetracks the banking falls out from underneath the car at crucial places. Bruton Smith was one of the leaders; he saw the problem happening and caught it quick enough at Las Vegas to change that track. So Bruton redesigned the racetrack because he knows he wants to create side-by-side racing. I think the fix for a lot of these tracks is compound banking.
AS: Like they did at Homestead.
RW: Yeah, if you expect a car to run on the outside of you and as fast, the next angle needs to have more banking. It just needs more help. And if you get further away, it needs more help. So the only way to do that is get the compound banking.
AS: We keep hearing about aerodynamics and aero push, but do you think the problem is as much the racetracks as aerodynamics?
RW: Yeah. I think you can take a stock car with the amount of downforce it has and only go so far in trying to fix the aerodynamic push problem, or the lack of being able to pass a car. I think you can only go so far, and the next thing you gotta do is fix the track so it will make for better racing.
AS: Do you think NASCAR has become too commercial and politically correct for there to be another “Bubba” from the south make it as a Cup driver?
RW: Well, NASCAR personnel got up in the meeting — at the ESPN meeting we had with like 300 people — and said they don’t want us singing any country music because it showed “Bubba’s” and kinda going back in time. I jumped up in the meeting and really threw a fit. And when it was all said and done, the guy said that he really didn’t mean to say (it) that way, but we knew what the deal was.
They are attempting to appeal to teenage people. And look, I have a big problem that we keep promoting all these young kids, young kids, young kids and that’s the way to go. There are a lot of veterans out there — and I’m not saying it because I’m one, it doesn’t make a difference to me because now I’m retired — but I think the longer you run the smarter you get. And I think the better you get behind the wheel, personally.
But you can tell that they are really trying to get the new fan; the new young fan. And when I heard that comment — myself and the late Dale Sr. are pretty big country fans. And when I heard that one official say we really don’t want country western around here, I had a big problem with that. And they tried to retract and reword it, but I heard them loud and clear. I heard that particular fella loud and clear, and it really pissed me off.
AS: Well, you know Brian France has come up with the idea that he doesn’t want Confederate flags flying in the infield.
RW: Well look…there’s nothing wrong with cleaning it up a little bit, but I think you gotta stick with your roots. You have to figure out how to take care of your loyal fans and at the same time understand how to get new fans. You can’t just say, “Okay, screw the old fans. We’re going to go all new now. And screw the country western people, we are gonna go with all rock ’n’ roll and the new young crowd.” I know I’m probably saying some controversial things, but I really don’t care because I believe in what I’m saying.
AS: Is there one thing that you’re most proud of that you have accomplished in a racecar?
RW: I’m real happy with having a lot of finishes — and my average finishes — and stats that I’ve got that I don’t toot my own horn (over). I’m proud that I won the last two races ever run at the Riverside Speedway. When you look at (the list of names that includes) Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts, you know A.J. Foyt and all that and you get right down there and you see Rusty Wallace…Rusty Wallace. I’m proud of those.
I’m proud that I won nine races at Bristol, which was a big record. And that I won enough short track races that they keep calling me “Rusty the Short Track King.” And that’s how I got the phone call from the Iowa Speedway, they said, “Call the drivers who design tracks,” and I said, “There is not one.” They said, “Wait a minute, drivers don’t design the tracks?” They said, “Well, let me ask the question a different way: We’re kinda gonna build a short track…whose won the most short track (races)?” And I go, “Rusty Wallace.” And that’s simply how that deal with the Iowa Speedway came along. I don’t need to sit here and pound my chest, but I’m proud of it (my career).
AS: So, let’s go to your very first Cup start. You ran for Roger Penske in Atlanta in 1980 and finished second. Was that too much success for your first Cup race, and did that give you the attitude that this Cup deal was going to be easy?
RW: Yeah, it did. When I finished second I said, “My gosh, my first race and I finished second?” I’ve won a lot of races now. I’ve won a bunch of ASA races and jumped right into that and finished second. I went, “Wow.” But I tested a lot there, and I had Penske behind me. The only thing I do regret out of that is that we didn’t hold course and stay working at it. Later, I got together with BlueMax and started winning races. After I won the championship and my car owner Raymond Beadle started falling on tough times financially, I called Penske and asked if he would like to get back together. He said, “Hell yeah.” We won a pile of races together, an enormous amount of races together.
AS: It’s always been said, “To win a championship you have to lose one.” You lost a tough one in 1988 to Bill Elliott. What did you learn in 1988 that helped you win the title in 1989?
RW: In ’88, I just wanted to win the race and I never did put a big importance on trying to lead laps. When I saw how little I lost the championship by (24 points) and went back and looked, I said, “My god, if I would have looked more at the bonus points that would have won it for me.” Back in ’89, I drove my guts out. I led all the laps I could and did everything I possibly could and I won the championship. I still think I only won it by like 12 points over Earnhardt. That’s how critical the bonus points were, and if I would have put that in effect in ’88 I might have won in ’88.
AS: Besides Daytona and Indy — which you never won — is there any other trophy missing from your trophy case you wish were there?
RW: Well, Daytona and Indy are the biggest ones that I wish that were there. The other one was Darlington. I finished second in the Southern 500 one year, but I always ran good there. There were times that I ran bad there, but the old Southern 500…not the first one, but the one with that special ring, the Southern 500, I wish I could have got.
AS: It’s been said that when a driver gets hurt he is never the same. We saw that with Darrell Waltrip in ’83 at Daytona. Some people will argue that happened with Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Talladega. You almost got killed at Bristol back in the ’80s. How did that wreck and the two horrific crashes in 1993 affect you?
RW: The short track one never affected me. The one that affected me is the one that I went over my roof for the second time within, like, five weeks. I went upside down at Daytona in ’93, running third with like 20 laps to go. Michael Waltrip and Rick Wilson get together and they came flying across the racetrack and one of them tags me. I forgot which one of the characters it was that did that, but I went end-over-end. When I got out I said, “Doggone, every time one of these cars get sideways the air catches them and throws them upside down.” Well, then I went to Talladega and me and Earnhardt got together coming up to the start/finish line. He tapped me accidentally, and I blocked him off, he had a big run, and I take half the blame on that one too. (If he were still alive, he’d sit there with a cold Miller Lite with me and go, “Yeah, it’s 50 percent your fault and 50 percent my fault.”) He’d laugh about it now. He thought he killed me then, but now I think back and you know after we got hit again the car got sideways and the air caught it. So, it went in the air again. I said, “You know what, this is starting to spook me out. Because every time one of these (cars) get sideways they turn over.” Well NASCAR — at the same time — after my wreck — said enough is enough. That big wreck at Talladega in ’93 is what led NASCAR to create the roof flaps. So, if anything good came out of that, my crash helped develop the roof flaps that has made racing much safer for all competitors now.
AS: Since we’re talking points: You’ve been in it and out of it, and now this year you’ve had a chance to look at it from outside the cockpit. What’s your opinion of the Chase?
RW: My opinion of the Chase is that there is a lot of talent out there that deserves to be in the Chase and they need to open the thing up for a couple more spots. I really think that in my mind they will maybe open it up from 10 to 12, but NASCAR is so big right now and there’s so much money in it that there are some big guys that have big sponsors that really need to be in it. Like not having Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. in it was something that seemed weird last year.
AS: You’ve talked a couple times about Dale Earnhardt. It’s been said that when Dale was alive, he was “the guy” in the garage. It seemed once we lost Dale like you became that guy. Did you?
RW: NASCAR has been really willing to listen to anything that they think will improve the sport — whether on the track or off. There has been a lot of time that drivers would say, I’m thinking this or that, but they wouldn’t say anything. (They’d say) “Rusty, go in there and talk to them. They’ll listen to you; they won’t listen to anybody else.” Which was nonsense; they listened to me, but they would listen to anybody.
I think that Earnhardt would go in there and he would sit down and talk, and I would go in there with Dale and sit down and talk, and they would listen to Dale and Rusty, and it was kinda fun. When Dale passed on, I would still go in there and talk, and they would say “do this or do that.”
There’ll never be (another) Dale, like the one we had; he was definitely the focal guy. He was the guy that NASCAR could be in a 10-person meeting and he would bust the door open and say, “Hey, what y’all doin’ in here?” He would cause them to start laughing and he would sit down and wiggle in between them. “What’s goin’ on? Do ya got any coffee? Hey, how ’bout this.” He would start a funny conversation, and they could be in the most serious thing about how they’re trying to fix the world. (But) Earnhardt would slam right down in there and they would laugh and love it.
But now, nobody has replaced Dale. I was not strong enough to replace Dale, nor would I have even tried to. Tony Stewart’s not. There’s not anybody out there strong enough to replace Dale. Even his son, as popular as he is with the fans, I don’t think he wants that role.
AS: I don’t know if it had any effect, but you didn’t win very many races after Dale died. Did his passing have an effect on how you drove?
RW: No, it didn’t have an effect on me (as a driver). It did have an effect on me that we lost him. I had a long talk with Mr. France (Jr.) one day — long talk meaning about 20 seconds — and he said, “Wallace, you’ve won a pile of races, but right now your career is right at the very peak and you’re teetering about going down hill.” He said, “You need to think about retiring. I don’t need you or Earnhardt, or guys like that getting hurt. You’ve accomplished all you need to accomplish. You need to think about it.” He told me that, and a month later Dale got killed and we were in the hospital at Daytona, and I looked at Mr. France, and he goes, ‘Well, we’ve lost Earnhardt.’ And I said, “Well, I remember what you told me and you’re probably right.”
AS: Tell us about running without a restrictor plate at Talladega a couple of years ago.
RW: Well, I went to do a little check for Nextel. (They were talking about using the radio towers to do the communication so (that) when a driver pushes a button in the car, it would go to a tower, from the tower down to the pit area. They had a source that let the fans tie into communications.) They wanted me to run about 200. So we put on a restrictor plate and the car should have run about 195, but it didn’t run that fast. We went to get the other restrictor plate and I remember (NASCAR series director) John Darby saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but we don’t have the plate, we’ve left it at home accidentally. Why don’t you just take it off? Be careful.”
We took that plate off and that car ran over 230 mph on the straightaways. I ran like two laps and averaged something like 220 mph. It was just amazing. I came through the tri-oval with (the) whole front end hydroplaning off the ground and I was able to run two laps. I was taking the right front tire and tearing the rubber off in just two laps. That’s how fast that car was going. That was a real cool feel, but that feel taught me right then that a stock car running that fast is basically uncontrollable. I totally understand the roof flaps. And by the way, the roof flaps operate up to about 197 mph. If you get a car going any faster than that it (the speed) will take it out of what the roof flaps can control. That’s one of the main reasons the cars stay below 195 mph. If they start pushing that upper limit, they can get in a situation that the roof flap won’t help. And we like the roof flaps! These things aren’t IndyCars; they don’t have near enough downforce to keep them on the track. So, the speeds that NASCAR has chosen in my mind are correct.
AS: You spent a lot of years racing before you got to NASCAR. Now we see young guys coming in with the best equipment available and start winning almost immediately. Does that offend you? Or is that just the way the sport evolved?
RW: Well, I would be a liar if I said it didn’t offend me. Yeah, it offended me. It doesn’t offend me any longer, but it did for a while. (Because) that’s not the way I did it. They didn’t pay their dues like Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. Like I had to do. We all had to pay our dues to get into this sport. Well, there’s young kids that have run some short track races and run real good. And they put ’em in the car and they perform good. And why do they do that? Because they got really good assistants nowadays and they can. So that’s the normal way of life nowadays. I don’t fight it at all. But originally, I will tell you the truth; originally it did bother me.
AS: Speaking of young kids, you own a Busch team now and your son is one of the drivers. Is it nerve-racking as a parent watching him out there?
RW: It is very nerve-racking, but the thing that I like about Steven is that he is bullet-fast. He is one of the fastest drivers I have ever seen.
We put him in the Busch car this year for like 15 races. He really had a lot of experience — he’s incredibly fast. A lot of the big drivers come to me and say “That kid’s gonna be something.” Those are the things that excite me about Steven. He is gonna run the Busch Series full-time in 2007. We are still working deathly hard on sponsors so we can get it to where he can run all those races. Steve’s gonna be big in this sport, because he’s better than I am, that’s for sure. He’s more aggressive, he’s faster, but he scares me to death and his mother can hardly watch.
AS: You’ve seen the sport evolve over the course of 25 years. What is your opinion of multi-car teams? Are they ruining the sport or helping it?
RW: Well multi-car teams…it takes a lot of money to make these cars go quicker. And the more teams you got, the more money you got. The more teams you got the less money it takes to operate it, because a lot of the infrastructure is already in (place). If you got 50 people in place, it doesn’t take 50 more people to run another car. Multi-car teams allow more technology to be shared between the teams; it allowed more money to come in. Now, I’m not a believer that you have to be a multi-car team to win. I still think a good single-car team can win. You know with all the flack that I had last year with Ryan Newman, I would think that if Ryan Newman was sitting right here, he would still tell ya that we operated as single-car teams. Our beliefs in the way things needed to be done were absolutely opposite, and he would tell you that Rusty never came up and made him win. And Ryan never came up and made me win the last year we were in it.
I will tell ya when I originally started the No. 2 car I was winning like crazy and when we went to multi-car teams that’s when my wins started falling off. And I think that the major concentration that was on that No. 2 car got spread. I’ll tell Penske this all the time, I think that was one thing that hurt the teams. And I learned that from Dale Sr. Dale said to me if you are gonna have a multi-car team you better have a teammate and another team that could absolutely help elevate your game — that you could get along with really well; that you have dinner with, hang out with, and you know in your heart is making both of your (teams) better, or else you better not do it.
AS: And you never had that situation with Jeremy Mayfield or Newman.
RW: I never had that situation with Jeremy or Ryan. I like ’em both. I had more of a problem with Newman. But I really think with him being in his 20s, being a youngster, me being in my later 40s, the generation gap — if you wanna call it that — was too far apart. And there was no fixin’ it. I really admire his driving and how good of a driver he is when they put the right equipment underneath him.
AS: You basically drove for three owners in your career: Cliff Stewart, Raymond Beadle and Roger Penske. Was there ever any time during that span when somebody made you an offer that we’ve not heard about publicly?
RW: Yeah. The biggest offer I had in my life was (from) Junior Johnson. It was after we had such a successful year winning a championship in ’89 with Raymond Beadle. And we knew we were starting to get into financial problems and Junior Johnson came up to me and said, “Look…I wanna hire ya.” It was a big contract and a lot of money in those days but I had another year on my contract with Beadle. I had to honor it, and I did that. It was nice to be thought of because some of the greatest drivers drove (for Junior).
When you think of Junior Johnson, you think of Darrell Waltrip, you think of Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte. And Junior was the guy. I still think he is one of the greatest car owners in the world.
AS: Is there one move in your career that you would like to take back?
RW: Yeah, there are a lot of things I would like to take back, Some of the boisterous things, (the) ridiculous comments I used to make when I was a youngster. I wish I could take some of those stupid cocky words I use to say back then.
I don’t wanna take back about speaking the truth and being a guy the media could come to and get the truth. Or being a controversial or non-controversial figure among NASCAR. I think NASCAR needs more controversial figures to make it exciting.
AS: Nothing on the racetrack?
RW: On the racetrack…I’m thinking right now…I’m sure there is a lot. Now I can’t think of anything.
AS: The ’89 Winston?
RW: The ’89 Winston, Uhhh…No, I’m OK with that! I really am, ’cause I know what happened. I know we won the first segment and I know what we did wrong in the second segment — by putting the right side tires on backwards. I knew I had it (the car) right in the third segment, and I still think I had the car to win. It was a controversial way, but I watched my buddy, Dale Earnhardt Sr., do it a lot that way. And I’m not saying he’s the one who taught me how to do that, but it happened. Darrell and I…I think Darrell Waltrip will tell you right now that him and I are really good friends and we laugh about it now.
AS: So you did mend the fences?
RW: Oh yeah, absolutely. We mended the fence the next week. The very next week we mended the fence.
AS: The ’04 Food City 500 at Bristol, when your power steering went out, were you going to tag Kurt Busch to win?
RW: (Long pause) Yes! And I tried. I couldn’t get it done because I couldn’t turn the damn car as quick as I needed too. I was going to try to do the bump and run. My biggest mistake of my life was probably the last race at Bristol (the 2005 Sharpie 500), the one that Matt Kenseth won. I had a car that I think had a shot at winning too, and I elected to stay on the racetrack and not pit, because I wanted to assure myself a spot in the Chase for the Championship. The fifth-place finish I had basically did that for me.
AS: Without naming names, is there any driver you constantly intimidated and how did you do it? Did you just have anybody’s number?
RW: I think the one I intimidated the most was Jeff Gordon, because after he hit me at Bristol — for the next seven races in a row — I kept pounding on his bumper. Finally, at the very last race in Homestead I had him screaming on the radio going… “He’s crazy. He’s crazy. Tell ’em to get off my butt.” And I’d still like to take him out one more time.
AS: (Laughing) You still owe him one.
RW: I would still like to take him out one more time.
AS: Is there anybody that ever intimidated you?
RW: Dale Sr.
AS: Did he?
RW: Every time Dale Sr. got behind me I went, “Oh boy, I don’t know what he is gonna do.”