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Archive for Thursday, June 3, 2004

A man with a plan

Wallace considers retirement, reflects on past

June 3, 2004

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Rusty Wallace is talking about retiring, and as much as he loves racing, why wouldn't he?

At 47, he has health, a family of which he's proud, and RWI, Rusty Wallace, Inc.

He has raced 20 years in the Cup series and 20 times has finished in the top 20 and 16 times has finished in the top 10. He won a points championship, engaged in legendary duels with his old buddy, the late Dale Earnhardt, and won last month in Martinsville, Va.

Although the Cup victory was his 55th, it was his first since 2001 and, based on his reaction, it was one of the sweetest.

His youngest child, 16-year-old Stephen, already has flashed talent as a race-car driver. And Wallace owns the new Busch team for which Billy "Catfish" Parker drives. Wallace can envision Parker, 27, taking his Nextel Cup ride when he walks away.

The new trend for race team owners is to recruit young drivers to become the next Jeff Gordon, the next instant star. Wallace didn't want a kid.

He wanted a driver who reminded him of him, a driver who had built cars and chassis and been broke and paid dues and maybe had a little fun along the way.

"I guarantee I'm going to race two more years at least," Wallace says. "I'm not guaranteeing anything after that."

"It's the three-year plan," Stephen says. "He's been on the three-year plan for 10 years, honest."

Here's how much Wallace's life has changed because of racing: Now, he goes to work in a sleek Bell Ranger helicopter. He gets out of the 'copter, for which he is a spokesman, walks to his Mooresville, N.C., office, sits behind a long desk and glances at the large computer screen on his right as he accepts a cup of coffee from a smiling employee.

In the corner of the office is a new driver sent to him by Calloway, the golf company for which he is a spokesman. On a wall is a picture of one of his four auto dealerships.

Wallace used to be a driver. Now he's a brand.

"Now it's fun," he says. "But not nearly as much fun now as then."

Here's then: Wallace used to go to work in a one-ton bread truck with a whole lot of miles on it when he bought it for $2,000.

He and his buddies built a plywood wall in the back. They went to a furniture store, bought a sofa and stuck it behind the wall. Above the sofa they built a platform on which one of them could sleep.

They added new tires and chrome wheels, covered the truck with bright red paint and added big white letters on the side that said, Rusty Wallace Racing No.66.

On the front was a tire rack. Hanging from the back was Wallace's race car, the very fast 66 Camaro. Wallace was thrilled to paint 66 on the Dodge Parker drives.

Wallace and his cronies would throw open the doors, crank up the engine and the stereo, and drive from their home in St. Louis to Pensacola, Fla.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Mobile, Ala.; Ontario, Calif., or anywhere else they could run fast and make money.

There was no bank account. There was a wallet. They kept it in a corner beneath the platform. When they needed money, one of them would grab The Wallet.

Wallace was so excited when he finally received his first credit card from American Express. And he was so hurt when, at the Sheraton in Jackson, Mich., where he had planned to rent one room for four of them, he saw a screen flash, "Take Card. Keep." And the man behind the desk did.

"I didn't pay my bills," Wallace says.

So why were those pre-helicopter days so good?

Says Wallace: "We'd bounce across the front straightaway and unload that short track car of ours and go out and win. And all the money I won, I'd spend on beer and hamburgers and cheeseburgers."

The bread truck blew an engine on I-55 en route from St. Louis to Pensacola. Wallace coasted down the exit ramp into a gas station at 2 a.m.

They found a junkyard with a used engine and bought it for $100 and put it in themselves. They won the race in Pensacola and, on the way back to St. Louis, blew another engine.

"Everybody remembers those days," says Wallace, wistfully.

Wallace's first race was in Valley Park, Mo., in 1973. Ten years later he won the American Speed Assn. championship. His reward was $10,000 -- $8,000 went toward racing bills. A second reward -- Cliff Stewart invited him to come to Charlotte, N.C., to run Winston Cup races.

"I think Patti (Wallace's wife) and I had $3,000 to our name," Wallace says. "We came in an old Ford Econoline van. First year I went to work they paid me $40,000 and, oh my God, I thought I was a millionaire."

What happened to the bread truck?

"Honestly, I think the earth took the bread truck," says Wallace. "It just wore out."

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