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Rusty Wallace takes his last laps

His car wears the number 2...  but Rusty Wallace likes to finish first. So why is one of NASCAR’s fastest and most famous drivers driving off into the sunset?
Aaron's 499 Practice
TALLADEGA, AL - APRIL 23: Rusty Wallace, driver of the #2 Penske Racing Dodge Intrepid, waits in the garage during practice for the Aaron's 499 on April 23, 2004 at Talladega SuperSpeedway in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rusty WallaceJamie Squire / Getty Images

His car wears the number 2, but Rusty Wallace likes to finish first. This fall, Wallace has been in the chase for the championship and a winner’s check of more than $5 million to add to the $50 - $60 million he’s already collected for his teams over the course of his spectacular career.       

But Rusty Wallace is doing what sports heroes rarely do: walking away at the top of his game. Why is one of NASCAR’s fastest and most famous drivers driving off into the sunset?

Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: I’ve read that your father once said, “You can’t make a living driving race cars.”Rusty Wallace: He did say that a long time ago. He said, “Son, we’ve got a vacuum cleaner repair store here and it makes us really good money. You need to be working on this.” And I said, “Well, Dad, I don’t like that type of stuff. I want to be a race car driver.”

At age 49, Wallace has lived his dream. He’s a sure-fire hall of fame driver, among the all-time leaders in wins and career purses. But soon, this former NASCAR champion will pit his Number 2 Dodge for the last time and say goodbye to the sport that has brought him wealth and fame.   

Phillips: “Bump ‘em up the track and get ‘em out of the way and slide on up the win.” That’s how one sports writer describes Rusty Wallace style. Do you think that’s accurate?Wallace: I would disagree a little bit with that. The old rusty Wallace bumped them up a little bit, and roughed ‘em up, back when my great friend Dale Earnhardt was alive. That’s the way him and I drove. I’m more of a calculated driver right now. I’m not a rough driver. I don’t go in there and beat on them. Most of the time my car comes home without a scratch on it.

Like the legendary Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR champion, Wallace’s love of the sport is blood-borne. He and his brothers, Mike and Kenny are all NASCAR drivers. Their father was a weekend racer who burned up short tracks in the Midwest. Even their mom took the checkered flag competing in powder puff races.    

For Rusty, the road to big time NASCAR racing began on obscure tracks near his boyhood home in St. Louis, Mo. His first race at 16 years old was a win. He never looked back, though he learned some hard lessons along the way.

Wallace: A long time ago, when I was a short track racer in Springfield, Missouri, I won the race and I used to pull up to the start/finish line, put your hand out the window, they give you a checkered flag to carry around. I was driving around the racetrack, driving with my knee, looking out the window at the fans and waving at them. And when I turned to look back, I ran head on in the wall, destroyed my car at the start/finish line. That was embarrassing.

It was a temporary setback and Wallace moved steadily up in class. In 1980, he drove in his first NASCAR race, finishing second to Earnhardt. For the 1989 season, he was NASCAR’s top driver, this time, nosing out his friend and rival for the championship.

Wallace: On the race track they always talked about Rusty and Dale. And we roughed each other up quite a bit.

In a sport where fists sometimes settled on-track disputes, Wallace says the closest he ever came to a fight was after Earnhardt had bumped him out of the way for a win.

Wallace: I was so mad I couldn’t see straight. And he won the race. And I came down to confront him after the race and I couldn’t get his attention. So I reached down and grabbed one of these water bottles, because it’s the only thing I had, and I held it like that and slung it right at him and nailed him right in the head. And that woke him up.  Phillips: You threw a plastic water bottle?Wallace: I didn’t have a hunk of lead in my hand. So the next thing I could find was that. And if I had a sledge hammer I would a thrown it at him. I don’t like carrying grudges against people. There’s very few people do I not like, there’s probably three or four of them I hate. The rest of them I have a great time with. And no, I won’t tell you who they are.

Wallace has never been short on personality. He once tried to pay a NASCAR fine of several thousand dollars in pennies. But he also personifies what the sport has become in the modern age: sophisticated marketing, business savvy, and big bucks. He flies his own jet and owns a helicopter.

Still, he has never lost his admiration for the old school drivers who missed the boom but made the sport.   

Wallace: Don’t take this wrong. I don’t want any competitors around me to take this wrong... those guys were just a lot tougher back then. Phillips: Just by virtue of the people that they were or how they came up—Wallace: How they came up. They were just bad boys, man— mean, tough, ornery. They didn’t mind wrecking you, didn’t mind sending you right over the back straightaway, Daytona, 200 miles an hour, on your roof, on fire. If that’s what it took to win, that’s what they did.

Wallace says his worst crash was that one at Talladega Superspeedway, after yet another close encounter with Dale Earnhardt’s bumper.

Wallace: I saw him trying to make a move underneath me. And I went down to block him off and he couldn’t get slowed down quick enough. He hit me in the tail.  And I went end over end about 25 times, and went across the start/finish line inverted upside down. I still finished fourth or fifth or something. Earnhardt thought he killed me. You know, he called me at the hospital apologizing. He had tears in his eyes, he stopped at the scene of the accident, grabbed my gloves and stuff and he was really torn up.

Astonishingly, Rusty’s worst injury was a broken wrist. But, nine years later, at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt wasn’t so lucky. A crash took his life.

Phillips: Do you miss him?Wallace: Oh man, I miss him so bad it’s unreal, yeah. The day he died, you saw the whole culture of NASCAR change. It’s like somebody hit a switch just that quick. It went to marketing  younger people—the rock-and-roll grunge music started—the country went by the wayside. I didn’t get into sports ‘til I was 26 years old. Now the kids are coming at 18, including my own. 

Now 18-year-old Stephen Wallace is part of that youth movement, driving and winning on some of racing’s junior circuits. His biggest victory to date was in Michigan last August, under his father’s watchful eye.

Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: With his retiring, it looks like you aren’t going to get a chance to race each other. Stephen Wallace: No. Yeah, we’re not.Phillips: So let the trash talking begin. Who’d win if you ever raced the old man?Stephen Wallace: Yeah, I wish I could, you know. I’m sure we’ll going to duke it out some day going down the highway or something.

They did duke it out, recently, against the clock: one lap at that Michigan track, using the same car. Rusty’s time was just under 30 seconds.

Stephen Wallace: Then I go out there and like run a 29:14. So I beat him by like four tenths. In my mind that was awesome.  Rusty Wallace: He’s just got incredible natural talent.Phillips: How far do you think he can go?Rusty Wallace: He can definitely be a champion in NASCAR. He doesn’t mind getting behind you, putting the bumper to you, roughing you up a little bit. They roughed him back up a lot, too. I’m trying to calm him down. That’s not the way I want him to drive.

As Stephen Wallace learns patience, Rusty’s other son, Greg, is learning the business. After he gets his MBA, he’ll help run the Wallace race team. He know his dad’s decision to retire has been a tough one, but says going back on it now, could be hazardous to his health.

Greg Wallace: As well as he’s running, I think he’s thinking, “Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t retire.” But I think my mom probably will kick his butt if he didn’t.

Rusty will tell you his skill, and nerves, are as good as ever. He’s retiring because he’s long overdue for a realignment of his priorities in life. He’s just no longer happy with how he divides his time.

Rusty Wallace: Probably 30 percent actually driving the car, in the car behind the wheel. And 60 percent with the sponsors, 10 percent for myself and my family.Phillips: Is that balance in your mind?Wallace: No, that’s not balance, that’s way screwed up. And that’s the reason I’m trying to realign some of my time and get back to my family like I need to.

But his decision was also driven by a member of his NASCAR family, the best driver he says he ever raced against.

Wallace: I know Dale had another couple of years that he wanted to race, had a great life, great family, got everything in his life right where he wanted and didn’t get to enjoy it. And I want to enjoy what I worked my whole life for. Phillips: So somewhere inside there is a voice saying, "Maybe it’s time, maybe I don’t want to push my luck”?Wallace: That’s probably a really good way to put it. Am I going to miss it? Yeah, I’m gonna miss it. But there is something inside saying, “Hey be careful now. You got a good career. Don’t screw it up.”

The next time you see Rusty Wallace behind the wheel, it just might be on some interstate highway, in your rear view mirror. And, if you’re in the fast lane, you’d do well to move over... and let a legend pass by.