Catching Up with Rusty Wallace, NASCAR Hall of Famer and Car Dealer

NASCAR Hall of Famer and businessman Rusty Wallace is riding out the COVID-19 pandemic like the rest of us. He’s self-quarantining as best he can, while at the same time keeping tabs on his eight car dealerships in east Tennessee.

And Wallace, 63, is looking forward to watching some real racing once again. He’s checked in on the current iRacing craze. He’s also looking forward to another fun day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame near his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, when the 2013 inductee and other members of the Hall of Fame Committee will debate on and ultimately select the Class of 2021.

Autoweek caught up with Wallace, the 1989 NASCAR Cup Champion, this past week and got his takes on NASCAR, iRacing, Roger Penske and the car business:

AUTOWEEK: So, how is Rusty Wallace holding up during the COVID-19 shutdown that’s affecting not only the racing world, but also your automobile business? You doing OK?

RUSTY WALLACE: Yeah, I am. My wife and I are really enjoying time together. During this coronavirus outbreak, we’ve spent a lot of time cooking and playing with our dogs. I can’t tell you how much we’ve reorganized our home and everything.

Our car dealerships up in Tennessee are essential businesses, so I’ve traveled up there a couple times checking on the stores and seeing what’s going on there. But other than that, there’s not much else you can do, you know? Obviously, I’m wondering as much as anybody about when we’re going to get back to racing. But it’s pretty obvious that until the government says the coast is clear, nothing is going to happen.

Q: The Hall of Fame a few days ago unveiled the ballot for its 2021 class. You raced against a lot of those guys. What does being introduced as a Hall of Famer mean to you?

RW: It’s a special ring to me when people say, “And this is NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace.” It feels real good. But if they want to go ahead and say, “NASCAR Hall of Famer and NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace,” that’s OK, too.

It’s a wonderful club to be in. I love the NASCAR Hall of Fame. I remember Ned Jarret once told me, “Life’s going change when you get in the Hall of Fame.” I said, “What’s going to change?” He goes, “People are going to be nicer to you.”

And he was right.

Q: When you see the list of drivers and other NASCAR greats on the Hall of Fame ballot, do you look at them a little differently now that you’re in the Hall? You say, “He should be in, he shouldn’t be in.” Or, do you want to open the door for everybody?

RW: That’s a tough question because I’m on the committee right now. There’s a bunch of us on this committee to choose these guys. There’s so many of them that are deserving. When you look at Harry Gant, Ricky Rudd. You look at Banjo Matthews. You look at Holman & Moody, all of these guys.

You’ve got big, big car builders from back in the day; race car drivers. You look at Herschel McGriff out in California. That guy has been around for a long, long time. He’s such a nice person and he loves the sport. These guys are all deserving. They really are.

For me to get in as early as I did was really gratifying. Thank gosh, I had the numbers. I had the 55 wins, all the poles (36) and the championship. And there were other things, too. I was told that what you do for the sport and give back is important. The work I did at Iowa Speedway (he helped in the design)—they were appreciative that the track turned out that well. That was something brought up by the committee. That’s what I was told.

Man, to be in that thing. It puts a real period on your career. It makes you feel like mission complete.

Q: What’s your take on iRacing and the racing video game craze?

RW: I’ve watched it on television twice so far, and it’s about as real as you can make a graphic look. I think there’s a lot of people watching it that are not NASCAR fans, like my next door neighbor where I live. He called me up and said, “Man, what do you think of this? It looks pretty cool, looks pretty real.” I said, “It’s as real as it’s going to get.” You have to remember it’s a video game. It would be more real if I could see some hot-headed dude jump out of the car and punch somebody in the nose after the race, too! That would be kind of cool if they could do that.

“It would be more real if I could see some hot-headed dude jump out of the car and punch somebody.”

It’s drawing a lot of attention, whether I personally think it’s realistic enough or not. Look, I’ve been on these video games before, and I’ve talked to a bunch of these drivers who say they can’t drive a video game—it just doesn’t feel like the real car. But now the drivers are probably as close as they’ve ever been to feeling like the real car when they’re playing the games. They’re even adjusting the setups on their cars now. Look, it’s the closest we’ve got, but nothing is going to replace the real deal. Nothing.

We say it’s a video game, but monetarily speaking, these drivers that are driving these video games are getting paid by sponsors to carry their logo on the side of this video car. We saw Bubba Wallace get fired by sponsor Blue-Emu when he quit a race. Now, myself and Johnny Bench are doing TV commercials for them. I know all the Blue-Emu guys. They’re a cool bunch of dudes, but they got mad.

Q: Who knew Rusty Wallace would be watching other drivers play video games in 2020?

RW: These drivers who play the video games in their basement, they never dreamed they’d be live on FOX television for an hour, hour and a half or whatever. They can’t believe that a hopped-up toy is being covered live. But, you know, the gaming industry had taken on a whole different deal.

Take NASCAR out of it for a second, take iRacing out of it for a second, all these other video games all over the world. It’s the real deal when it comes to popularity. When it comes to, is it as real as driving a real car, no, it’s not, but the popularity is there. I got a phone call from Team Penske last weekend wanting to know if I would drive in a video game. I told them, “Every time I get in a video game, the car wrecks itself.”

“Every time I get in a video game, the car wrecks itself.”

I go to appearances with a lot of young kids and fans and they say want me to have a video game race with fans. I get in, and I can’t get my car to go straight. It just won’t do what I tell it to do. I’ve never driven on iRacing yet, with their new technology. I might drive it and say, “I can do this.”

Q: I take it you had a better simulator experience when you got your pilot’s license?

RW: When I got my aviation license, I sat in a simulator out in Tucson, Arizona, for 14 days and learned how to fly a jet. Then I walked out and got in a real airplane and took off after not having any training in a real airplane, at all. I just came out of the high-level simulator and into the real jet and took off. That’s how close those simulators are.

Q: You drove for The Captain, Roger Penske, for nearly two decades. Are you eager to see what he does with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar?

RW: Everything he touches, I’m not going to say turns into gold, but generally it does. He spent so much money on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, freshening it up, rebuilding it, and working like hell with everybody on the series itself on how to make the racing better and safer and so on, how to make the Indianapolis Speedway prettier and nicer and even better for the fans.

He’s a real private person. I don’t go up to him and say, “Tell me about this, tell me about that.” I just don’t do that. But I know he’s got to be pulling his hair out right now. Pretty soon, you’re going to have to get him a tranquilizer because I know that he feels so tethered right now. He just wants to go and get it done. And he can’t do what he wants to do.

Q: How did Mr. Penske influence your life beyond racing?

RW: We had a long run, from ’91 through 2005. He’s taught be a ton about the car business. My business partner and I have eight dealerships right now in East Tennessee, and Roger is the one that said, “You need to take a look at this because there’s got to be something after racing.”

The fellow who really is like my second dad when it comes to that is Ray Huffaker, my car dealership partner in Tennessee for the last 25 years now. He’s been just a prince of a person, a great guy, kind of like Roger, to me. Roger has been my mentor, but Ray Huffaker has been my partner for almost 30 years. People say, “I can’t believe you two have been in the car business that long.” Yeah. He’s a wonderful friend and a wonderful partner. Without him, it would be whole different world right now for me.

Q: How did you and Mr. Huffaker first connect?

RW: Ray was a big NASCAR fan. He went to Bristol, Tennessee, a lot. He used to watch me race. He mentioned to a great friend of mine, Jim Phillips, that he was thinking about getting one of the race car drivers to get involved in his car dealerships. Jim Phillips suggested me. Ray started following me, and him and I got together.

We put the first program to change the Pontiac dealership in Morristown, Tennessee, to Rusty Wallace Pontiac. After that, a deal occurred for Honda. I invested in that and it became Rusty Wallace Honda. Then another deal came available and I invested in that. Basically, I invested in every one of the stores, the real estate and everything, and we became great friends. The rest is history and the business just took off.

We went from one store to eight, and I’m real blessed. It all started by Ray being a race fan and watching me drive a Pontiac when I was winning all those races in the ’80s with the Blue Max Racing team (and car owner Raymond Beadle).

I don’t think any of the drivers were really doing that back when we started. Not to pat myself on the back, but I want to pat Roger Penske on the back. He was the one who said I need to start thinking about life after racing. He wanted me to be prepared for when racing was done one of these days.

Roger was one of the first guys I consulted with when I thought about getting in the car business back in the early ’90s. He helped me a ton. Then, I just met the right person and we have built a hell of a management team together and our people, and we’ve got good brands. We trust each other. Ray’s probably got more integrity and honesty and respect than most people, and I compare him right up there with Roger.

Q: As a car dealer, are you hopeful for the economy, in particular the car business, after we get through this pandemic?

RW: I totally think we’re going to be fine on the other end. People who didn’t save for a rainy day, that live day by day, those are the ones who get themselves in trouble in something like this. That’s another thing I was taught—you save for a rainy day.

I’m not going to tell you it’s a wonderful time, it’s not. But I feel we’ve got a control on it, and we’ve got the right partners. We’ve been able to do some really cool things with our dealerships.

And we’ve got some big things ahead.

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