Rare emotion on display as Wallace joins Hall of Fame
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Wallace couldn't look his father in the eye.
As the 33-year-old inducted his father into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Rusty Wallace wiped his eyes. Before a crowd that included some of the sport's greatest drivers, Greg did all he could to maintain his composure.
He was afraid he'd also shed tears.
"I was just trying to avoid eye contact,'' he said.
The final inductee of five honored Friday night -- joining Leonard Wood, Herb Thomas, Cotton Owens and Buck Baker in the Hall of Fame's fourth class -- Rusty sat through the videos, testimonials and tributes that honored those pioneers. He rubbed his eyes repeatedly as the stories of sacrifice, dedication and humility were told.
It was a side of Wallace few had seen.
A career built on 55 victories, braggadocio and bravado, Wallace is not one many would expect to become emotional even in this setting.
"I've never really seen him cry or shed a tear until we got involved in this Hall of Fame process,'' said Greg, vice president of brand management for Rusty Wallace Inc. "The persona that he has on TV, that's not really that much of a persona. That's really him all the time, 24 hours a day. He never really gets that emotional, to see that was kind of cool.''
As Rusty Wallace stood on the stage to accept his honor, he steadied himself by harkening to his flying lessons.
"Don't crash land right now,'' he said to himself. "In my aviation schools, when all hell is breaking loose, the right motor is on fire and the wiring is burned up, you say just keep flying the damn airplane, keep going, keep going. I told myself to keep talking.
"Then the storytelling took over.''
The emotion turned to laughter as Wallace, a broadcaster for ABC/ESPN, spun tales of his career. He told of how car owner Rick Hendrick funded his team when Wallace won the 1989 championship after running out of money. Wallace later estimated Hendrick spent about $400,000, allowing Wallace's team to continue racing, leading him to joke that Hendrick really has 10-and-a-half Cup series titles. Hendrick, sitting in the crowd, smiled.
Wallace told of a key moment in his racing career -- when his uncle fired him from his vacuum cleaner store after a botched delivery while a teen.
"I said, thank you, and my career started,'' Wallace said.
Wallace also shared how he convinced Roger Penske to remain a part of the sport in 1993.
"We go to Daytona to test and all of a sudden I get a phone call,'' Wallace said.
Penske was at a hotel across the street from the track and wanted to meet with his driver.
"He looks me right in the eye and says, "Son, this NASCAR thing isn't working like I thought it would,'' Wallace said Penske told him.
Penske wanted out. Wallace wouldn't let him go.
"I took my right hand and I shot it at him and I pointed and I said, "I want to be a Penske driver. "Damn it, I want to be a Penske driver. Don't spin out on me now.' He said, "Damn kid you're pretty convincing.''
Wallace won 10 races in 1993 and continued a partnership that lasted until he retired after the 2005 season. He is ranked ninth on the all-time wins list.
Then the 58-year-old spoke to defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who delivered Penske's first Cup title last year and had introduced a video saluting Wallace's career.
"I really think you ought to come out and congratulate Roger for not spinning out because I don't know if you would have had that run had Roger spun out on us,'' he said.
Wallace also recounted that when he won his first Cup race in 1986 at Bristol, the first person to congratulate him was Wood.
"And I'm going into the Hall of Fame with you, buddy,'' Wallace said, looking at Wood, seated in the front row.
Wood, a key component of the Wood Brothers, joined his brother Glen, who was inducted last year, in the Hall of Fame. When Leonard used part of his speech to list the drivers that won races for the Wood Brothers, ohhs could be heard from some in the crowd at the Crown Ballroom of the Charlotte Convention at the starpower.
Thomas, Owens and Baker were inducted posthumously. Baker's son, Buddy, a former Cup driver, inducted his father.
"I've never had been one to look for words but when you induct your father, that's a different story,'' Baker said. "I had anxiety today. I said, "God, don't mess this up. That was my childhood hero. When I started racing, he was my hero. When he passed away, he was still my hero.''
Steve Wallace could relate after watching his brother induct his father.
"I've always looked up to (his dad) like he's my Superman growing up,'' Steve Wallace said.
One no longer afraid to show his emotions.