While growing up in Rolla, Mo., during the late 1960s, future stock car racing superstar Russell William “Rusty” Wallace Jr. had one mission in mind: to study as much about NASCAR as possible through the only source of information he could find — Scott’s Drug store.
“Being a part of NASCAR was definitely the plan all along,” Wallace said. “I went through magazines and went through all the pictures. I would go to Scott’s and read about guys like LeeRoy Yarborough and David Pearson and I would say to myself, ‘I wish I could be out there with them.’ Racing was in my blood. I wanted so badly to be a part of it. They’d make me put the magazines away and run me off.”
Wallace worked long hours on his father’s short-track cars while dreaming of his own driving career. He began his career in the mid-1970s and almost immediately, the wins started coming. By the early 1980s, he had amassed several track championships and more than 200 victories throughout the Midwest.
Wallace’s American Speed Ass’n championship in 1983 earned him a ride with NASCAR Cup Series team owner Cliff Stewart. Stewart remembered Wallace had entered a lone Cup Series event for Roger Penske in 1980 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and logged a surprise second-place finish to winner Dale Earnhardt.
The offer was for Wallace to return to Atlanta on Nov. 6, 1983, but a previous commitment to drive in the Snowball Derby in Pensacola, Fla. halted the plan. Donnie Allison drove the car that day in Atlanta but it didn’t perform well. Wallace was a bit relieved he didn’t take the ride for that race.
“Donnie told me he just couldn’t get the car to handle and also the engine blew up,” Wallace said. “I thought to myself, ‘If I had driven that car that could have been a career ender for me.’
“I did join Stewart’s team for 1984, but we couldn’t get the car to handle and I constantly doubted myself,” Wallace added. “Veteran drivers such as Neil Bonnett came up to me and told me they had seen me win on the short tracks and not to give up. No matter what you drive, you can’t get the cars to go unless you get them handling right.”
Wallace enjoyed an occasional strong performance in 1984, but the following season the team suffered 23 engine failures during the 29-race campaign.
By season’s end, Wallace was looking to turn his career around when Tim Richmond announced he was leaving Blue Max Racing, which was owned by drag racer Raymond Beadle, to join Hendrick Motorsports. Blue Max crew chief Barry Dodson needed a replacement driver and recommended Wallace.
The chemistry was quickly evident in the performance of Beadle’s Pontiacs. Wallace collected his first Cup Series victory at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in April. He won again at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in September.
“I got together with a group of guys that were aggressive with the cars and could make great horsepower,” Wallace said. “It was really fantastic.
“Raymond was a great guy with a great personality that had a lot of fun. Maybe there was too much fun sometimes. We had a massively fun atmosphere back then and that’s why we started winning.”
Wallace won two additional Cup Series races for Beadle in 1987, six in ’88 and six more in ’89 as well as the series championship.
“Winning that championship was such a relief after being so close to the title against Bill Elliott in 1988,” Wallace said. “We had lug nuts come loose twice in that final race, made up lost laps and came back and got just enough points to win the championship. Everyone knew we had a super-fast car. I was racing Earnhardt that day and he had the race of his life going on but we had enough points to get it done.
“Everyone was celebrating Earnhardt’s win but I said, ‘Heck with that, I’m going to celebrate myself.’ So I jumped up and down on the hood of the car and jumped down on the ground. That was really special.”