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Rusty Wallace, NASCAR Hall of Fame

 St. Louis, Missouri native Rusty Wallace will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on February 8, 2013. His inclusion in just the fourth class of inductees is indicative of his significant accomplishments. Wallace won 55 races in NASCAR's top division and was the 1989 series champion. Before his national success, Wallace was a regular competitor at the Fairgrounds in Springfield.

Wallace first came to Springfield in the spring of 1976. The Fairgrounds Speedway was an important part of the Midwest racing scene in the 1970s. It attracted the best short track drivers in America and even NASCAR stars Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby and Donnie Allison competed on the half-mile oval. Despite stiff competition, the track was dominated by local driver Larry Phillips.

Wallace steadily improved that season and likely raced for the first time against Mark Martin, a teenager from Batesville, Arkansas. Like Wallace, Martin later enjoyed tremendous success in NASCAR. Although always rivals throughout their careers, the two remained good friends. Wallace won his first feature race at the Fairgrounds on August 27, 1976 and was also named the track's Rookie of the Year.

Wallace struggled during the 1977 season while racing a car better suited for dirt tracks rather than the Fairgrounds, which was asphalt. Soon he began spending more time with Larry Phillips who later admitted, "I've always had a place in my heart for Rusty. He started with nothin' and he raced with nothin'. But he had enthusiasm. His eyes just glittered." A well- known chassis expert, Phillips built a car just like his for Wallace and the two began the 1978 season as teammates. On Friday nights they raced at the Fairgrounds and at Tri-State Speedway in Fort Smith, Arkansas on Saturday.

Phillips insisted that he never taught Wallace anything; he just needed a good car. Wallace's dad Russ was an accomplished racer in the St. Louis area and he believed that season with Phillips made Rusty a great driver. Whatever the reason, Wallace was a consistent winner in 1978. Disaster struck however, on May 27 when Phillips was seriously injured in a crash at Fort Smith. Phillips was badly burned when he could not avoid hitting a car that had spun out in front of him. The Springfield driver did not compete again until August. Wallace won the track championships at both Springfield and Fort Smith that year and then competed on the United States Auto Club (USAC) stock car series where he was the Rookie of the Year in 1979.

Driving for Roger Penske, Wallace made his first NASCAR start at Atlanta in 1980. He stunned the racing world by finishing second that day. Despite the great finish, Wallace made only two more starts for Penske. Believing the stock car team interfered with his efforts at the Indianapolis 500, Penske left NASCAR and went on to dominate open wheel racing. Wallace ultimately joined the Blue Max Racing Team owned by Raymond Beadle and won his first NASCAR race at Bristol, Tennessee in 1986. It was his first of nine career wins at the fast, high banked half-mile speedway. Perhaps best known for his success on the short tracks like Bristol, Wallace was also an accomplished road racer. In 1988, he won the last race held on the famous road course at Riverside, California.

Roger Penske returned to NASCAR with a full time team in 1991. He hired Wallace and the two enjoyed tremendous success throughout their fourteen year association. Although he won ten races in 1993, Wallace narrowly lost the championship to his friend and fierce rival Dale Earnhardt.

Wallace returned to Springfield on January 27, 2001 for the induction of Larry Phillips into the Ozarks Area Racers Hall of Fame. Honored that Wallace would make the trip for him, Phillips said "I'm thrilled to death that Rusty can be here. How many people can have that in a lifetime?"

Wallace finished his career driving for Penske. He retired after the 2005 season and is ninth on the all-time win list. Wallace now works as an analyst on ESPN broadcasts.

To catch a dream
Springfield (Mo.) Leader & Press, October 5, 1981, 1 C.

"When the racing is over, the motor that drives Rusty Wallace keeps running. Wallace, a 25 year old St. Louisan who makes his living as a stock car driver, left the Springfield Fairgrounds Speedway Sunday on one of the most important journeys of his career. With a first place trophy safely tucked away after easily winning the Fairgrounds KTTS Championship Showdown, Wallace faced an all-night drive to North Carolina. He piled into the rear seat of his racer's two truck and planned to sleep much of the trip. His dreams, no doubt, would be of the big time.

"'When we get back to St. Louis, we'll hop in another truck and take right off for North Carolina,' said Wallace, tired but enthusiastic after his 81 lap victory on the Fairgrounds' half mile asphalt track. 'I've got a couple of guys going with me who are going to do the driving. I'll just jump in the back and snooze. The car is on the trailer ready to go.' The car is a 1981 Buick Regal. Its destination is Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and a 500 mile NASCAR Grand National race next Sunday.

"'We've spent almost all of our time lately with the Grand National car,' said Wallace, who plans to run two NASCAR races the rest of this season and follow the entire schedule next year. 'We've worked ourselves to death on that thing . . . until 2 and 3 in the morning a lot of the time.'

"Despite his commitment to the NASCAR effort, Wallace continues to keep a busy schedule running his 1981 Chevrolet Camaro short track car. Sunday was just another race -- 200 miles from home. He could have used the eight hours of highway driving to and from Springfield to either work on the Grand National car or rest for the long trip to Charlotte. But instead, he returned to the Fairgrounds Speedway -- a track which helped Wallace launch a career into the height of national attention. He won the Fairgrounds season points championship in 1978, then became USAC's Rookie of the Year in 1979 and finished second in the USAC national standings last season. In his only USAC start this year, Wallace won the Miller 200 in Milwaukee.

"Wallace has shown his potential on the NASCAR sportsman circuit, but perhaps his most impressive achievement was in the 1980 Atlanta 500, his first Grand National race. Wallace shocked the Pettys, Yarboroughs, and Allisons by finishing second in a Roger Penske Chevrolet.

"'Why do I race at a place like Springfield when there's so much else to do? It's because I like Springfield. I like this race track. This is just another race to run in and I'm not doing anything else today,' explained Wallace. 'It's also a good way to make $1,200.'

"When racing is your business, every dollar counts and working hours aren't limited to weekends or 9 to 5 shifts Monday through Friday. To be a success, the work never ends. And Rusty Wallace isn't finished proving it.

"The trip to North Carolina paid off for Wallace. He qualified 19th for the National 500 and finished 6th, winning $6,750 in prize money."

The Library has a biography of Wallace, Rusty Wallace: The Decision to Win by Bob Zeller.


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