Down South they like to make legends of their stock car racing heroes. If a driver is exciting enough, he doesn't have to wait very long. Take Rusty Wallace, a mere babe on the blacktop by NASCAR standards. At 32, Wallace has been around big-time stock car racing for only six years, not counting three years of sporadic appearances while he was trying to break in, and already a country ballad has been written about him, complete with a crashing chorus and roaring refrain. Inside and Out (The Rusty Wallace Story) by David Houston Bryant doesn't sugarcoat its subject either. A sample: "Some say he drives a little wild, but that's not the case, he said/'Cause after all, he's not afraid of the wall. His nickname's Rubberhead."
Actually, as a good ol' boy, Wallace doesn't quite cut it. He moves at the pace of a city boy, talks as fast as he drives, and looks—well, he looks a lot more like Dan Quayle than Dan Quayle looks like Robert Redford.
His crew calls him Rubberhead, because he can bounce back from almost anything and because of the day last summer when he tried to drive his Pontiac down the front straight at Bristol (Tenn.) International Raceway on his head. A front tire blew during practice, launching the car into six barrel rolls. The next day he checked out of the hospital and into a fresh car, and ran half the 500 laps on the tight, tough .533-mile banked oval before his whiplashed neck threw the red flag and he called for relief.
Attendance at NASCAR Winston Cup races took a healthy leap last year thanks largely to Wallace. Winning six times, he was named Driver of the Year by the National Motorsports Press Association. Bill Elliott, who also won six races in 1988, edged him for the point championship, 4,488 to 4,464, but while Elliott's victories were generally calm and measured, Wallace's were marked by thrills, spills and suspense. He would fall one, two, even five laps behind, and then blitz through the field to win.
His Blue Max Racing Team finished in a winning frenzy, taking four of the last five NASCAR races, including the final shootout with Elliott's boys at Atlanta International Raceway in November. There, true to form, Wallace fell a lap behind in the early going when a tire popped, but he went on to win going away. Elliott clinched the point championship by avoiding trouble and cruising to an 11th-place finish. Frustrated because Elliott hadn't mixed it up with him, Wallace said afterward, "Next year we're going to thrash on his butt."
Elliott broke his wrist in February while practicing for the Daytona 500, and he hasn't regained full speed, so Wallace has had to be satisfied with thrashing just about everyone else. He has won three races so far this year and stands second in points behind Dale Earnhardt as NASCAR heads back to Daytona this weekend for the Pepsi 400.
Wallace set the tone for '89 at the Grand National race that serves as an undercard for the Daytona 500. He was leading in Turn 3 on the final lap when Dale Jarrett attempted to pass him down low. Wallace moved down. Jarrett went high. Wallace drifted up. The cars touched, which sent Jarrett into the wall. Wallace fought to maintain control and Darrell Waltrip sailed by for the win. Afterward Jarrett said, "Wallace can't stand to have anyone beat him; he'll do anything to prevent it."
In May, Wallace was at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for NASCAR's all-star race, the Winston, which pays the winner at least $200,000. The unique format of this nonchampionship event is designed for maximum thrills. The drivers begin by running 75 laps around the 1.5-mile tri-oval. They then pause for a 10-minute pit stop before racing 50 more laps. After another 10-minute respite, there's a 10-lap dash for the 200 grand. The format is overloaded with opportunities for do-or-die efforts.
He'll race you inside and out, a slingshot won't do,
If you don't slam that door, son, he'll slide it under you.
Wallace led after the first segment, but during the pit stop his crew mistakenly put a right rear tire on the right front. As a result, his car did not handle as well, and he ran second to Waltrip over the 50-lap segment. Waltrip continued to lead through eight laps of the final mad dash. Then, as they came into Turn 4 on the next-to-last lap, Wallace made his move. He dropped under Waltrip and drifted, ever so gently, into the left rear fender of Waltrip's Chevy. The contact barely scratched Wallace's car, but it was enough to knock Waltrip off balance. Waltrip slid sideways for a few hundred yards, ending up in front of the main grandstand. A yellow flag came out as officials debated whether to penalize Wallace. Eventually they decided not to and let the race resume with two laps left. When the green flag waved, Wallace drove on to the win while Waltrip weaved back through the field, passing 11 cars to finish seventh.