Rusty Wallace has witnessed a great deal at Watkins Glen International in a NASCAR career that has spanned the generations, and he could add another chapter this weekend.
Wallace will serve as lead analyst for the Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage of the annual Go Bowling at The Glen Cup Series race. Before retiring as a driver in 2005, Wallace won two NASCAR Cup Series events at The Glen, in 1987 and 1989.
He is tied with three others for fourth-most Watkins Glen career Cup victories. The others are Kyle Busch, Ricky Rudd and Marcos Ambrose. Tony Stewart leads with five, followed by Jeff Gordon (four) and Mark Martin (three).
“I worked real hard at the road course racing stuff,” Wallace said during a recent media tour in Buffalo to promote The Glen weekend. “I went to the Bob Bondurant Racing School, we built new cars and tested them. … At that time, most drivers treated it like it was a pain in the butt because there was only one other road course back then, that was at Riverside, Calif.
“But now we’ve got multiple road courses, so drivers are now paying more attention to it,” Wallace said. “But when I was doing it, it worked out great for me because I really thought of it as an opportunity. I actually love road course racing. I really like coming to The Glen. To me coming to Watkins Glen is like going on vacation.”
Wallace began his Cup Series career on a part-time schedule, first appearing in the Atlanta 500 on March 6, 1980. Eventually, he went full time, earning the Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 1984, and he won his lone Cup Series championship in 1989.
The first of his 55 career Cup Series wins came at Bristol in 1986, and his last victory was at Martinsville in April 2004. He is ninth on the all-time Cup win list and is a 2013 inductee of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
During Wallace’s early years of Cup Series racing at Watkins Glen, the backstretch was long and ultra fast. Following the death of J.D. McDuffie at the end of the backstretch in the NASCAR Cup race there in 1991, The Glen built the inner loop about three-quarters of the way down the backstretch as part of the overall circuit. The inner loop is a tight right- and left-turn combination configuration that opened in 1992 and is designed to slow the cars.
The inner loop has added another twist to the circuit.
“The back straightaway was awful fast and it was a lot of fun to drive, and then we lost J.D. McDuffie,” Wallace said. “NASCAR said we’re concerned, so they put that inner loop in there to basically slow everything down. Ever since it’s still been great racing.
“It was really exciting to run with no inner loop. You were flat flying down the back straightaway. I think when I won my IROC championship we did not have the inner loop yet and it was all-out speed. But the track changed with the inner loop. I’ve seen that change at The Glen and repaving and stuff like that. The inner loop is good both as a challenge and a safety feature compared to back in the day.”
Wallace is enjoying his post-driving retirement radio work for MRN.
“I’m the analyst and there’s two play-by-play up guys there, Alex Hayden and Jeff Striegle,” Wallace said. “They’re fantastic at what they do. As the analyst, I’m the guy looking at what I think is going to happen during the race and give them my opinion of who I think the hot guy is or might not be. I talk about how track conditions are changing and what the rules are looking like.”
When Wallace drove in the Cup Series, there was no stage racing or playoffs. Drivers accumulated points at each race based on finishing position, and at the end of the season the driver with the most points was crowned champion.
Now NASCAR has a playoff system that awards drivers stage points at prescheduled intervals during each race, as well as race points and bonus points at the races’ conclusion. After the 26th race of the season, a field of 16 drivers begins a 10-race playoff.
“The stage racing is something that half the people like and half the people hate,” Wallace said. “If anyone tells you that it’s overwhelmingly the most popular thing â in my opinion, it’s not. I’m around a lot of people, and I would say it’s pretty split among the fans. I’m a big fan of NASCAR, but I’m also an old-school guy. So I’m not a fan of this style of racing. I like it the way it was.
“As far as the NASCAR playoff system goes, I look at those playoffs they have now and they tell me that if they had the current playoff system in NASCAR back when I was driving I would have won three more championships. It’s all designed on winning, and back then I won a ton of races. In 1993, I won 10 races. In 1994, I won eight.”
When Wallace was still driving in the American Speed Association circuit in the early years of his career, he raced with the ASA at Cayuga Speedway in Nelles Corners, Ont., about two hours north of Buffalo. The track, which is known today as Jukasa Speedway, was promoted then by the late Bob Slack, who was very popular with Buffalo-area racing fans.
“Bob Slack was a fantastic guy,” Wallace said. “He was a heck of a promoter. I loved that man. The other guy that was really good to me was a fellow who had the nickname ‘Dizzy Dean’ from the Molson brewery. They really promoted Cayuga in the Buffalo market and helped put guys like me and Mark Martin on the map.”
Wallace summed it all up.
“Watkins Glen management has made so many upgrades and has repaved the place (Watkins Glen) and put in better seats for the fans. They upgraded the safety aspects with the soft walls and safer barriers all around. They made everything better when it comes to the track.
“When it comes to the cars, NASCAR made them much safer now, and they are more technically advanced with running on fuel injection now. There’s a lot of engineers around handling the technical stuff. That’s how it’s different today.
“As far as The Glen goes, I’ve always loved the track layout. That’s never changed. You’re just able to get in there and hustle the car and drive that sucker hard and put some good shows on.
“My wife Patti and I like coming to The Glen even when I’m not racing just because it’s a beautiful area. I can’t believe it’s been this long since I drove there. Time goes quick. I feel that I could still jump into a car and still be competitive today, but I’ll stick with my radio job.”
The Go Bowling at The Glen begins at 3:20 p.m. Sunday. The NASCAR Xfinity Series runs in the Zippo 200 at 3 p.m. Saturday. Friday the K&N Pro Series East Great Outdoors RV Superstore 100 goes green at 4:45 p.m.