I have to admit, I was never a big Rusty Wallace fan, but the guy could drive a stock car, and deserves all of the accolades that come with being inducted into the NASCAR Hall Of Fame. The 56 year old driver who will be inducted tonight, was part of the Golden Age of stock car racing. Yeah, I know you think the golden age was in the sixties, but not really. The eighties and Bill France Jr were mostly responsible for moving the sport into television, and Rusty Wallace, along with Dale Earnhardt, and Bill Elliott were part of that history.
During the fifties, and sixties, most of us didn’t have televisions, and if we weren’t able to attend a race, we only caught the cars and drivers on news reels at the movie theater, and in the news paper. The only NASCAR personality you ever saw was Richard Petty. If the king wasn’t winning, we got no NASCAR news(it was all about baseball in those days). I never knew what David Pearson looked like until I became an adult, and NASCAR showed up on television.
Watching Rusty being interviewed on The Race Hub this morning, took me back in time to the end of the 1997 season. You remember, it ended at Atlanta Motor Speedway in those days. Bobby Labonte won the race, and Jeff Gordon, the title that year. It was Ernie Irvan’s last race in the famed Havoline Ford.
As we were driving back to Florida on Monday, they were broadcasting the John Boy and Billy show from the track, and they had Rusty in the interview seat. Rusty was telling stories about his relationship with Dale Earnhardt, you know he threw a coke bottle at Dale once for spinning him out, but Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt were good friends(except on the track).
He also told a story that he had spun Dale out once, and when he was leaving the track with his wife and kids in the car, he had to stop at a red light, and was rear-ended. When he looked back, it was Dale Earnhardt waving at him with the “gotcha back” smile on his face.
Those were the days when racing was a fun sport to be involved in. The tracks were sold out, the racing was great, and a lot of money was spent at the souvenir haulers. If you were a Ricky Rudd fan, your wife had to be using Tide for the laundry. Drivers were allowed to have their differences, and seldom did NASCAR step in to mediate. The boys were allowed to be boys, and the racing went on.
Rusty Wallace was probably the greatest short track driver the sport ever saw. I don’t think he was comfortable on the big tracks, and I don’t think he liked the speed on those tracks. Some drivers, like Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon shine at the fast tracks, but not Rusty. He was the first “good” road course driver, and excelled at tracks like Bristol, Wilkes Barre, and Martinsville. In fact, his last win came at Martinsville.
Dale Jr onced asked his dad about strategy on the short tracks, and Dale Sr told him to get behind Rusty Wallace, and stay there. At least you can finish second. That was the Golden Age of NASCAR, and Rusty was a big part of it.
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