When Kenny Wallace got behind the podium to speak to the media this past weekend at Iowa Speedway, it was not surprising to hear the notoriously verbose Wallace speak for a long time and from the heart. The surprise instead was the tone.
"I'm done. It's like taking an orange and squeezing it, and there's no more to come out. I love this sport, but honestly I'm exhausted. It's just the right time to walk away."
The 51-year-old Missouri veteran was preparing to make his 904th and final NASCAR national series start in Saturday's XFINITY Series race. The nine-time XFINITY Series winner had been stuck in mediocre equipment for the final years of his NASCAR career, scraping by and working hard to pick up sponsors helping him foot the tab for equipment that was second-rate at best. And while he was excited about the weekend ahead of him, he in a sense sounded glad that this was all coming to a close.
That was, at least, until he began to talk about short track racing. That's when the signature sly smile and humor returned to his voice. Even as the NASCAR chapter was closing on Wallace's career, he was happy to spend a few minutes cracking open the chapters on his old ASA days and his Dirt Modified races to come.
"There was a sweet spot in my [NASCAR] career. From '91-'00 there were a lot of good years. Some tough spots too. Then in 2001, Steve Park got hurt. I got in the [Winston Cup #1] car, sat on the pole and run second in the Cup race. Same thing had happened earlier when Ernie Irvan got hurt and I finished 4th for him at Atlanta. I kept getting second chances. The rest of it after that has been like being in the middle of a tornado.
"I had been running some dirt racing, but it all changed in 2012. When Robby Benton [NASCAR XFINITY Series owner] told me some other driver had come bought my NASCAR ride, it crushed me. It was devastating. I said to hell with it all [in racing]. But after I got done crying, I said 'Let's go back dirt racing.' And that dirt racing has saved my life. If anyone gets fired from a job and can't find a job, I wish everyone can find what I've found by mistake."
And so the tail bookend of Wallace's career began to look like the front bookend. Wallace spent most of his weeknights tinkering on his dirt cars and going to grassroots tracks throughout the Midwest before going back to Charlotte for the weekends for his NASCAR TV obligations.
"That year , we won a huge championship – the UMP Modified Summer Nationals and I've been doing [Modifieds] ever since. But I've really wanted then to get into the IMCA Modifieds. And those are a little bit different of a car and I don't have one of those kind of cars.
"So just the other week, I met a really good man down in Longdale, Oklahoma. And I started driving a really special car the other night. I've driven a lot of IMCA Modified cars now, but none was as fast as that car. We won one and then we ran second. There's still a lot of stuff on the bucket list. I really want to run the Boone Nationals. The Duel in the Desert. [Ken] Schrader just texted me and there's a really big race that pays $20,000 up in Minnesota."
"I've dreamed of taking a year off of NASCAR and everything and just go do what I want to do. I know Tony Stewart has wanted to do it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to pull it off but I really just want to quit and do it before I get too old. So I'm hoping to do it when I'm 56 or 57 [2020 or 2021]. If I can do it. That's a big if."
Wallace hopes having drivers with wide backgrounds and grassroots passion like himself and Schrader will help mentor and craft young drivers who are coming up today. He remarked at Iowa that he found it funny to be greeting Brandon McReynolds in Victory Lane when he remembered McReynolds hanging out with his daughter Brooke and nephew Steve back in the early 1990s at the Cup track.
Part of the reward for Wallace is to be able to do for this next generation what some of the legends of short track racing did for him when he was moving through the ranks.
"We had three drivers back then – best of the best. There was Larry Phillips from Springfield, Missouri, Dick Trickle from Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, and Richie Evans from Rome, New York. I know for a fact that those three drivers did what no one else could do back then and that was race for a living. They were no doubt my heroes."
"Phillips taught me about perseverance and digging. We all learned so much from just Richie's fire. But by far, the great Dick Trickle meant a lot to me.
"Rusty had already made it to NASCAR [when Kenny made it to ASA]. Trickle was the one that taught me how to race and how to think. Dick taught me more about life than anyone else other my father and brothers. He was the one that really taught me to race the racetrack. He said 'You can get to battling with someone and forget where you are on the track.'"
"Trickle was cool. I remember Rusty would get mad at me because I would laugh too loud. I'm obnoxious, I know that. And Rusty'd say 'Herman, quit that damn laughing.' And Trickle would look at him and tell him to leave me alone. Trickle made me feel good about myself because there was times I'd get embarrassed about myself because of how happy I was. There have been times in my career where I've been beat up for being happy. I really have. Trickle though made me happy to be myself and I loved that about him. I really miss him."
Wallace finished his final NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Iowa in the 15th position, running in the top-10 for a number of laps before getting spun from behind under 50 laps to go. In addition to the UMP Modified Nationals title, Wallace's other notable short track accomplishments include 50 starts in the old ASA National Tour, one victory in the old NASCAR All Pro Series, a victory in the Eldora Prelude to the Dream, and a victory this season in the Renegades of Dirt Tour.
If he can get the year off he wants, it would be no surprise for Wallace to join Schrader as the "old" guys tearing up the dirt tracks for years to come.
-By Tim Quievryn, Speed51.com Southeast Editor - Twitter: @thethirdturn
-Photo credit: Speed51.com