Just filling in, `other' Wallaces flash some top-10 skills

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

November 04, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Brothers Kenny and Mike Wallace are making the most of their opportunities to show they can be just as competitive as their admired older brother. Rusty Wallace, of course, has the 1989 Winston Cup title to hang his hat on.

Kenny, now driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. while driver Steve Park recovers from a severe concussion, has four top-20 finishes (including sixth at treacherous Talladega, Ala.), since joining the team in September. He took the pole for today's Pop Secret 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C.

Mike, meanwhile, has replaced Jeremy Mayfield, also on an interim basis, on the same Penske team for which Rusty, 45, first competed in Winston Cup in 1980. Mike hasn't finished out of the top 10. Both also qualified for today's race. This season, Kenny, 38, and Mike, 42, are being seen clearly for the first time.

"I can't stress enough how important it is to get into a good race car right away, when you're starting your career," said Kenny, who has been bouncing around the Winston Cup Series for 11 years. "You get into a good car right away, and people think you're a great driver. You get into a bad car right away, and people question your ability."

A perfect example is Mike Wallace. He was basically dropped from the sport. The word around the garage was he couldn't drive. It makes Kenny mad.

"You should never judge a driver until you know he's in equipment that you know can do the job," Kenny said during a conference call. "Mike is a great driver. You don't win Busch [three] and truck [four] races and 200 races on dirt and asphalt and not know how to drive. Since he's been in the Mayfield car, he's been top seven every week. That's better than Jeremy every single week."

You can almost see the smile on Kenny's face as he speaks.

"Between my brother, Mike, and me, we've kind of upset the cherry cart," he said. "I can't tell you how much this means to Mike. It has completed his life, completed his soul. We have talked. It means the world to him, because what people said hurt his pride."

If Mike Wallace continues to compete well, he should earn the seat for next season. As for Kenny Wallace, he's under contract with DEI until Park comes back, which probably won't be until the Daytona 500 next season.

"I'm set for the Busch Series next year," he said. "As for Winston Cup, I'd rather stay in the No. 1 car until Steve gets back than take a car that's not competitive. ... And right now, with the economy down and the sponsorships down, there isn't any other Cup ride out there."

Listening up

NASCAR's new rules package to improve safety on the speedways was a welcome change to many teams that have felt shut out of the governing process.

Responding to the outcry from scared and frustrated teams following yet another multicar wreck among 16 cars at the EA Sports 500 two weeks ago, the sanctioning body acted Thursday. The new rules package will govern racing at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

It took a two-hour meeting, attended by more than 80 drivers, crew chiefs and owners, to come up with car alterations intended to break up dangerous, big-pack racing. NASCAR agreed to remove the thin metal strip across the roof, reduce the rear spoiler angle, and remove the air-catching upright bend from the spoilers' tops.

Many said the changes were overdue, pointing out they are the same ones recommended by nearly 19 teams after pre-Talladega testing a month ago. But the point is that NASCAR, which, as we've seen, is very deliberate and set in its ways, actually listened and responded on the spot.

Shifting alliances

The economy is slipping, and open-wheel teams are looking for a destination that makes economic sense. Enter the IRL.

The 6-year-old league sold out events in Indianapolis, Nashville, Kansas City and Chicago and exceeded its increased attendance goal of 15 percent at its other nine events. It also crowned the youngest champion, Sam Hornish Jr., 21, in the history of open-wheel racing.

Over in the competing over-wheel series, Roger Penske celebrated his ninth CART championship and 11th national title overall when his driver, Gil de Ferran, joined Rick Mears (1981-1982), Bobby Rahal (1986-1987), and Alex Zanardi (1997-1998) as the only back-to-back champs in CART history.

But finding happiness in CART right now isn't easy. Though the decision to go to a naturally asperated engine like every other competing open-wheel series seems the sensible thing to do, the timing was abrupt. The suddenness has upset engine manufacturers to the point where competitors don't know where their 2003 engines are going to come from.

With that and the sagging economy in mind, Mo Nunn is joining the IRL. Nunn ran the Ensign Formula One team for 10 years before becoming the engineer for Emerson Fittipaldi's Indianapolis 500 victory and CART title in 1989 and then moving on to Target Chip Ganassi Racing, where he oversaw four consecutive championships from 1996 through 1999.

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