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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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On the final lap
Rusty Wallace, whose full-time career ends Sunday, has changed a lot since coming out of the Midwest, broke and wild.
By BRANT JAMES
Published November 19, 2005
HOMESTEAD - Rusty Wallace can cuss with the sailors, drink beer with distributors and cavort with the boys all night.
But it was easier before his body started to rebel against such activities.
At 49, Wallace is not quite the hell-raiser who so endeared himself to a generation of friends and fans. But he's as cocksure as ever, still very willing to speak his mind and battle for every inch to which he feels entitled. And that's most of them.
But the rough-cut short-tracker from St. Louis, who subsisted in the 1970s on Dr. Pepper and sandwiches from the gas station cooler, no longer needs favors from the local convenience store to keep his checks from bouncing.
He's a CEO in a firesuit.
There's the jet, the helicopter, the house on the lake, five car dealerships and a Busch Series team. He has milked every ounce out of 55 Cup series wins and the 1989 championship. His high-profile "Rusty's Last Call" farewell tour, which made a stop at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino this July, was a glitzy exit to a loud and proud career.
He is mellowed but still a strong personality. And normally never one to be satisfied, Wallace seems content that he made the most of NASCAR as he awaits his final race as a full-time driver on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I'll be in the car until the race is over and then it'll be time for tears in your beers or enjoyment," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be saying this is awesome, isn't this the greatest time in the world to win my last race? Then if I don't, one thing I can say is it's been a great year. I went out on the top of my game. I made the Chase for the Championship. I made a lot of money. I made a lot of fans and everybody treated me really, really good."
It certainly was not always that way, at least financially. While many younger drivers today have careers funded by their parents, Wallace lived hand to mouth until he drove his first full-time Cup season for Cliff Stewart in 1984. He was named rookie of the year. Sponsor money was thin in the 1970s and early '80s as he was winning USAC and ASA features and championships. His wife set up a tip jar at the restaurant where she worked and they left for Charlotte and a hopeful new life with $1,000 in their pockets.
"This is a guy who now is ultra-successful and set for the rest of his life," long-time friend Mike Mittler said. "But he really knew what it was to have nothing. He really, truly did."
And that never kept him from sharing what he eventually stockpiled. Earl Barban had only known Wallace for six months as a mechanic in 1991 when he told Wallace that he was $2,500 in debt and about to lose his boat. Wallace told Barban to go into the open safe in his house and grab the money. But his generosity doesn't equal wastefulness. Barban said the only change in Wallace's personality the past 15 years has been sensibility in business.
"He used to be wide-open, a drive-the-wheels off kind of guy," he said. "Now he's a shrewd businessman. He's got all his ducks in a row in life."
Wallace has allowed a few sentimental beams to crack through his veneer in his final weeks in the big leagues - including a tribute at Bristol in which fans held up placards so that a section of the stands spelled out "Rusty" - but the smart aleck Mittler met three decades ago remains.
"He's still a no-BS guy, no doubt about it," Mittler said, "but he has significantly softened in the last year here. That is absolutely accurate. You heard (brother) Kenny (Wallace) describe the thing they had at Bristol for him at the second race and he said it was one of the very few times he'd ever seen his brother with tears in his eyes. He definitely has mellowed. A couple of years ago he never wanted to hear about the old days or the old times, but I think now he's come to the realization of it and I think part of it is just overall chronological maturity."
Mittler was a jackman on some of Wallace's ASA teams in the '80s, when they barnstormed the Midwest, over the Ozarks from Springfield, Mo., to Fort Smith, Ark., to race as many features as a weekend would allow. Now the owner of a machine shop and a part-time NASCAR truck series team - and one who helped launch the Nextel Cup careers of Missourians Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards - Mittler is amused when he reflects on Wallace then and now.
"The thing that makes me laugh is the pictures that keep coming up with the big bushy Afro hairdo and how much he disdains that now," he said. "It just drives him crazy when he sees that. He is Mr. Perfect as far as his clothes, his appearance, everything. He is just meticulous about his grooming, everything. There was one of him in one of the magazines that came out this month and it just made him crazy."
Wallace has always had a certain vanity, but he came about his expensive habits over a very long period. When he and Mittler ran their ASA team out of their first race shop in the sparse west St. Louis neighborhood of Valley Park, Wallace relied on the kindness of a convenience store owner to gas up the truck and trailer.
"He'd go in there and cash a check for a couple hundred dollars to get some money," Mittler recalled. "They knew he didn't have any money and they'd give him the cash and put the check in the back. Some how, some way we'd win enough or somebody would sponsor us enough to cover that check. Then we'd load up and go racing again the next week."
Most weekends, Wallace faced Midwestern legend and five-time NASCAR Winston Racing Series national champion Larry Phillips, who died of lung cancer in 2004. Phillips was a maverick, a hard-bitten winner that influenced virtually every Midwesterner in NASCAR. He eschewed NASCAR's top series except for one start in 1976, but his grass-roots legend makes him the equivalent of Dale Earnhardt to Missourians.
Wallace and Cup veteran Mark Martin raced with Phillips in their formative years, and Wallace cherished the time in Phillips' garage enough to follow the rule of "shut up and watch."
"My Dad wouldn't have had him around if he didn't think a lot of him," said Phillips' Terry, 39, who also races short tracks in the Midwest.
Even as he approached his end, Phillips deflected the credit Wallace and Martin gave him for defining the work ethic that underpinned their careers. To this day, both Cup drivers embody the commitment to detail that Phillips drilled into them by teaching them in the garage and beating them on the track.
"When it came down to racing and getting serious, it was serious," Phillips said of his father's mentality. "And I think Rusty learned that a lot. He's been known as being kind of a hard-a--. When he's working, he ain't jacking with people, and he had to learn that himself, it looks like to me. Some of that might have come from my dad."
Phillips used to preface a hard-won compliment with the disclaimer "don't take this as a compliment, but . . .," Terry Phillips said, "I think he probably would have been pretty proud of Rusty."