CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rusty Wallace touched on his early days trying to make it as a professional race car driver, the lessons he learned from NASCAR’s pioneers and his relentless push to drive for Roger Penske in an energetic acceptance into the Hall of Fame.
Then Wallace, winner of 55 races and the 1989 championship, called Friday night’s induction “the biggest day of my driving career.”
Wallace was the headliner of the fourth Hall of Fame class, which included innovative mechanic and crew chief Leonard Wood, former series champions Buck Baker and Herb Thomas and former car owner Cotton Owens. Wallace and Wood are the only two living members of this year’s class.
“The thing I learned, and I said it at the driver meeting in 2005 the day I retired and walked out, I said ‘This is a privilege. This is a privilege to race in NASCAR. You don’t have to do it, we’re not making you do it. It’s a privilege to race in NASCAR, and it’s a blessing for me to be in this sport and do what I’ve done,’ ” Wallace said.
Wallace has been a tireless ambassador for NASCAR, taking a hands-on role in promotion after winning his championship that continued into retirement. He’s currently an analyst for ESPN.
“I feel so different, I feel so happy. I feel like my career has finally got a period on the end,” Wallace said after the ceremony. “People are already acting different, they are acting kinder. They are calling me Mr. Wallace and treating me different.”
Wood, who was inducted a year after his older brother, Glenn, made a point to thank Ford Motor Company. The famed No. 21 Wood Brothers entry has a long association with the blue oval.
“If it wasn’t for Ford Motor Company and my brother, Glenn, I wouldn’t be up here,” said Wood, who also listed every racer who has driven the No. 21.
Wallace found a twist in being inducted with Leonard Wood, who was the first person to congratulate him following his first career Cup win at Bristol.
“He stuck his hand in the window and said ‘Kid, congratulations,’ and I could hear his voice over the engine,” Wallace said. “Leonard was the first guy to congratulate me for winning at Bristol and I’m going into the Hall of Fame with you.”
Baker was introduced by Jeff Gordon, one of five active drivers chosen to introduce the nominees. Gordon talked about being a proud graduate of Baker’s driving school.
Baker was the first driver to win consecutive NASCAR premier series championships. His 1956 and 1957 titles came during a four-year span when he finished in the top two in points in all four seasons.
It was only fitting that Owens was inducted into the Hall by David Pearson, the driver who won him a championship and was a devoted friend long after their racing careers ended.
Owens died at 88 in June, weeks after learning he had been voted into the Hall’s fourth class.
Thomas was remembered during his induction as a hard worker who never forgot his farming roots.
Thomas, the first driver to win two NASCAR championships, died in 2000.