In his last appearance as a driver at Michigan International Speedway, Rusty Wallace first watched his son, Steve, win the ARCA race on the two-mile oval in 2005. Two days later, Wallace made his final run on the superspeedway as he prepared to complete his 25-year NASCAR career.
Wallace, 57, won 55 Sprint Cup races in 706 starts, including five wins at MIS, which will host Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400. Since he last got behind the wheel of a stock car, Wallace has remained in auto racing, though from a different standpoint. The 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee is an analyst for ESPN and shared a few of his thoughts on MIS, Tony Stewart, and NASCAR as a whole.
How have you seen Michigan International Speedway change since you last drove there in 2005?
MIS was a great race track to me. I was always inspired to give it my all because at the time, Roger Penske owned it and I drove for him. There was internal pressure there with that, and there was internal pressure to drive for the Big Three manufacturers — Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge — at the time.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised with MIS because it’s a facility that keeps the race track up to speed. The infield suites have been upgraded to be fan-friendly, and the repave made the track fast and smooth.
At conference calls, we talk about MIS and I say, “It’s the fastest track in NASCAR, with speeds reaching 215 miles an hour going into corners and the new Gen-6 cars.” Not only the track has changed, but the amenities, the roads around the tracks for fans to get in, and the new car has really made Michigan one of faster tracks out there.
As an analyst for ESPN, what is it like for you to continue in auto racing and to utilize your eeeeeeeeeexpertise, though not as a driver?
With my record at that track, with poles and wins and me loving that race track and embracing it, I’m able to tell the fans exactly what’s going on in drivers’ heads, and on the race track, and I can pinpoint if the car is not going right.
I can’t do that as quickly as I probably once did, because I’m doing NASCAR Countdown [ESPN’s prerace show]. If I see something happening that is controversial or needs to be spoken, then I’ll call down to the production truck, and they’ll bring me on air for a discussion. We’ll open the floor up to discussion, and if there’s different opinions of what’s happening, I take a stance.
What’s the difference between the June race at MIS and the August race? My first thought is the “chase for the Chase.”
Very seldom have I been to a track for the second race, and the [car] setup is the same. You might win at MIS in June and bring the same car, the same setup, and think after the race, “Wait, I just got beat.”
The temperatures are different, especially at that track, where the surface is new. Every month, the color, the grip level of track changes and you have to keep track of it. But I don’t know if we’ll see as fast a qualifying speed as Marcos Ambrose [in June of 2012].
One of the hot-button issues facing NASCAR is Tony Stewart and the safety of sprint cars. Do you think what happened with Stewart could make drivers consider safety as a factor when they think, oh, I might want to enter in a sprint car race or a short-track race?
We talked about it on the NASCAR Countdown show last week. It’s a controversial question. If you start [to] question a lot about what Tony did, Tony gets mad. My opinion is this: The people who got hurt are sponsors and fans. Tony’s fans don’t have anyone to pull for. Sponsors see Tony is not going to make the Chase. We all love Tony, and I’ve texted back and forth with him, and he told me he’s got a long road to go. But you’re not going to make Tony Stewart stop that. That’s what he grew up doing, and he loves sprint car racing.
He needs to pick and choose and limit it a lot. I heard he was scheduled to run close to 100 sprint car races. If you get close to the Chase, I’d limit it or not do it at all.
Do you have a championship prediction yet? If so, who and why?
If I didn’t tell you Jimmie Johnson now, I’d look like a fool. He might be an unpopular pick. He’s been hot and cold but he is bullet fast. He’s got such a huge lead that he already locked up a championship berth last week. He’s hitting on all eight cylinders and running good. I’ve got to pick him again, and I’m going by what he’s done so far.
If you could run NASCAR for one day, what would be one thing you would do or a rule you could change or something you could implement?
I’d try to knock about four races out of the schedule to keep more supply and demand. When we had 32, it was the most popular time with NASCAR. There’s more television channels and more things to do. This is only my opinion. I own Iowa Speedway, and it’s looking for a Cup race. But it’s the truth. Teams are worn out, and the amount of money it costs to race is expensive. We need to control costs and give some time for guys to breathe.