Category archive: Mike Wallace
In the early morning hours of Oct. 30, we lost one of the great motorsports patriarchs of the Midwest. Russ Wallace, father of Rusty, Mike and Kenny Wallace, passed away at 77 from stroke complications.
Russ never made a living racing. He worked jobs during the weekdays to fund his obsession at night and on the weekends, piecing together cars to race throughout Missouri and Illinois. Once his boys came along, he worked to underwrite their dreams, eventually helping them all move south to start one of the NASCAR's greatest sibling success stories.
His final days were spent watching one of those boys, Mike, experience a thrilling, emotional return to Victory Lane. On Oct. 22, the 52-year-old grabbed his first NASCAR win since 2004 and first Camping World Truck Series victory in 11 years. As the celebration began to slow, he politely did what he does a lot these days. He shifted the focus away from himself and onto his daughter, Chrissy.
"I hope we have another Wallace winning races in this series very soon," he said.
Chrissy's determination to keep climbing the racing ladder was always a source of pride for Russ.
"She keeps on digging," Russ told me in a conversation just prior to her Daytona debut in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010. "People tell her no, but she won't take no for an answer.
"It reminds you of how we had to do it back home in St. Louis. You keep working and running up front, and they'll notice you. You start winning, and they'll have no choice but to give you a shot."
The 23-year-old Chrissy is constantly making phone calls, putting together sponsorship proposals and stuffing envelopes. The routine is nothing new. It's like this every year. But this autumn's search for next season's ride seems to have a little more momentum behind it.
Funny what winning a championship can do for one's spirits.
Chrissy started this season by becoming the first female to win a late model feature at the legendary Lebanon I-44 Speedway in Missouri. Then she added five more wins, along with 12 top-5s and 16 top-10s, in 19 starts. That earned her I-44's ASA Track Championship, the ASA West Region Championship, and placed her third in ASA's overall national championship hunt.
For those of you who don't know, the American Speed Association has been in business, albeit through two incarnations, since 1968. In its heyday, it was the premier Midwestern stock car series, producing the likes of Mark Martin, Alan Kulwicki and Johnny Benson. The history of the racing Wallace family is deeply intertwined with the history of the ASA. Rusty won the ASA national championship in 1983 and Kenny earned Rookie of the Year honors three years later.
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesChrissy Wallace has only gotten a handful of starts in NASCAR's national touring series, but she's knocking on doors looking for her next shot.
"It has been so great going back to Missouri, where all of my family is from, and kind of getting back to my roots," said Chrissy, who was born in St. Louis. "The fans at I-44 have been watching my family for so long, and a lot of the people I see at the track raced against my father or my uncles.
"They all knew my grandfather. All the time, they've been coming up to me and telling me how much they support me."
It's not like the folks in Lebanon have never watched a Wallace dominate the summer. In 1990 Mike won the track late model title and NASCAR's Mid-America Region championship with a mind-blowing 21 wins in 29 races.
"Dad says it feels a lot like it did when he was racing there," Chrissy said. "It's a family affair. Most of the crew that worked with me each weekend was from my Mom's side of the family.
"My uncle Larry spots for me. That family support is such a huge reason for why we wanted me to go back and race there."
The other reason was to hit the reset button. To get away from all the motorsports noise of North Carolina and find another route back to NASCAR. Wallace started seven NASCAR Truck races in '08-09 and a pair of Nationwide Series races last year, but none this year.
But so far, so good on her climb back. Her success at I-44 caught the eye of Cunningham Motorsports and crew chief Paul Andrews, another alumnus of the ASA ranks. They put her in a ride for the Oct. 16 ARCA series finale in Toledo, where she finished a solid 11th out of 35 cars, barely missing her second top-10 in just three ARCA starts. Russ got to see that, too.
The goal is to land a ride in the Truck Series for 2012. There have been some discussions, but she knows that she needs to bring a better sponsorship portfolio to grease the rails. So, once again, she's back at work in her Concord, N.C., office, knocking on doors and hoping for a chance. It's quite a contrast to the ongoing stock car experience of Danica Patrick, who seems to trot out sponsorship and race schedules with the greatest of ease.
"This does seem like it comes easy for some people," Chrissy said. "Not a lot, but some. The rest of us have to work harder to make things happen. I've never been afraid of hard work, so I'll just keep on pushing. Eventually someone will take notice and give me a shot."
If she keeps on winning, they'll have no choice. Just like Russ said.
Yes, it's an odd lineup. But that's the team that spent the first half of summer riding around the circuits of the NASCAR Nationwide Series together, searching for checkered flags and box-office gold. And if the rest of the teams across NASCAR's lower divisions are paying any attention, the trio could very well show them the way to aiding everyone's well-documented sponsorship woes.
"A team like ours has to be creative," said Wallace, currently 13th in the Nationwide standings. "And this was as creative an idea as I've ever seen."
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesThe "Cowboys & Aliens" theme proved to be popular this summer, on and off the track.
Last weekend, Wallace's No. 01 Chevy ran the NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Lucas Oil Raceway with the now-familiar poster image from the film "Cowboys & Aliens" riding on the hood. On Saturday night, as Wallace crossed the finish line in 17th place, silver-screen superstars Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were powering their western/sci-fi epic to the top of the box-office charts, drawing an estimated $36.4 million during its opening weekend.
It was the final go-round for the longest film-sponsorship deal in NASCAR history, a most unlikely marriage between Gaffney, JD Motorsports, an admittedly small full-time Nationwide team and Hollywood powerhouses Universal Pictures and Dreamworks. It's certainly not unusual to see a blockbuster film on a race car, but even the most high-profile movies typically show up at the track for two weeks at most and then disappear. This deal lasted a full 10 weeks.
"The studios are always looking for creative and unique ways to promote films," explained "Cowboys & Aliens" director Jon Favreau during a pre-premiere press blitz. "You want to reach people as many different ways as you can. It can't just be TV commercials all the time. Making a film stand out, particularly in a summer packed with big movies, it's always a challenge."
These days it's also a challenge for race teams to track down sponsorship money, particularly those in NASCAR's two lower national divisions. During these tough economic times, Sprint Cup teams are gobbling up every dollar they can get. That leaves a very small sponsorship pond for the Nationwide and Truck Series organizations to go fishing in.
"It's a hard sell," says Wallace. "On Fridays and Saturdays you can spot the sales people from the Cup teams walking around the Nationwide garage, writing down the companies they see on our cars. That wasn't happening when times were good."
But instead of sitting around and whining about it all, Wallace's team got creative. The man charged with recruiting sponsorship at JD Motorsports is Tony Piscaro, VP of sales and marketing. He had already developed the idea of a "Face Car," along with friend Jim Varga, founder of Social Fan Wrap. The idea was to let fans submit photos online, then use them to create a larger mosaic. It's an idea that we've all seen before on posters and t-shirts, but never wrapped around a race car going 180 mph. Other teams have taken a swipe at the photo-collage concept before, but not the much more complicated photo mosaic.
"From a distance, from the grandstands, the car looks like the original paint scheme," Varga explained. "But the closer you get, you notice the larger image is made up of thousands of pictures. Pictures of people, families, friends. It lets people feel involved. It's now their car. It's a social media payoff."
Piscaro started shopping the idea, but was admittedly choosy as to where he knocked on doors.
"We could have done it with any company as soon as we had the technology, Joe's Oil Change Place, whatever," he said. "But we really wanted to partner with someone who would do the concept justice. Something that would make a huge splash and give the idea long term legs."
So the little South Carolina race team started cold-calling Hollywood, pitching the idea of Face Car as a way to promote their summer blockbusters, promising exposure through social media and in-person at the racetrack. Universal called back.
"They said they get pitched ideas all the time," Piscaro says, still with a little amazement in his voice. "But they said there were calling us back because it was one of the most creative ideas they had heard."
To make it happen there were, of course, legal hurdles. At one point during the lengthy process the Universal brass got cold feet. That's when NASCAR stepped in, visiting with the studio execs to assure them that the sanctioning body was behind the idea and they were at the movie's beck and call if needed. Said Piscaro: "Some race teams like to complain that NASCAR doesn't help enough. But we don't get this finished without their help. That pushed it over the top. The deal was done, our idea was ready to roll and we were off and running."
They got the word out to race fans to send in their pictures, unveiling the concept at Charlotte in May. When the "Cowboys & Aliens" Chevy made its on-track debut at Daytona six weeks later, the poster was on the hood, and so were the fans.
More accurately, tens of thousands. And their Facebook page picked up more than 225,000 "Likes." For NASCAR, they hope that translates into a few thousand more race fans, particularly in the social media arena that they've increasingly started to focus on. For the folks at Universal, they hope it translates into a few more thousand tickets sold.
"That's pretty cool," said Favreau. "You have to think that if someone got their face on the car, then they'd have to pull for it in the race, right? And then after the race they would immediately leave the track and go straight to the theater and see our movie." Then he added with his trademark deadpan delivery, "I like that. That's like perfect-case scenario. Give me a second to let that soak in."
Favreau's bosses have certainly let it soak in. On Tuesday, JD Motorsports received a pile of "Cowboys & Aliens" merchandise and a thank you note from Universal and Dreamworks praising the success of their 10 weeks together. And NASCAR has asked to look at the business model of the deal, hoping to inspire other Nationwide and Truck teams to stop complaining about lack of funds and start becoming more creative.
Meanwhile, at the JD Motorsports shop, there's no time to let anything sink in. They are back to square one, headed to this Saturday's race at Iowa Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) without primary sponsorship. Piscaro is back on the phones and back at the drawing board, hoping to create the dollars that will keep the shop doors open.
"We're just a small race team that's working as hard as we can," says Wallace. "There's no time to pat ourselves on the back. We've got to figure out the next big idea to keep this going."