Our series of weekly "12 Questions" NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with RAB Racing's Kenny Wallace...although we didn't quite get through all 12 questions with The Hermanator. Wallace, a fan favorite who is also a broadcaster for SPEED in his spare time, spoke with us at Charlotte.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
KW: All of NASCAR? Everything?
KW: Give me a second, because that catches me off-guard. Hold on, I'll tell you. (Thinks for a minute) You want me to be honest? I'll be dead honest. Right away, I was going to say my brother, Mike – because I truly feel that way. But Mike's of age now, so let's pick a more modern driver that I feel is really underrated.
SBN: Take your time.
KW: I'm thinking about who I've been behind and who I always say to myself, 'Man, he can fuckin' drive!' ... Mike Bliss. Absolutely. One hundred percent. Fuckin' guy is a wheelman. Cup, Nationwide, anything. For sure.
Everybody will tell you that, it's just that they've got him suppressed. In competition, they keep him down.
SBN: What is a race you feel like you should have won that you didn't – and still bothers you today?
KW: When I ran second in Loudon, New Hampshire to Jeff Burton (in July 1999). I was gaining on Mike Skinner, and Earnhardt was right in front of me. Jimmy Elledge had already pitted me – I was in the No. 55 Square D car, driving for Andy Petree. I was passing Skinner, and he chopped down on me and we both went all the way to the wall – and I lost about half a friggin' straightaway.
I had about a top-six or top-seven car, but it was a fuel-mileage race, and everybody pitted. At the finish line, I ended up right behind Jeff Burton. And I look back to that day and that long green-flag run, and when I'm riding in my pickup truck by myself (thinking), that race just...ugh.
And another one is when I finished second to Earnhardt – this was at Talladega (in 2000), Earnhardt's last win. If you look at the replay, I was literally pushing him going under the white flag. I looked in my mirror, and I was going to go left – but I didn't know who it was, so I didn't. And it was my fuckin' teammate, Joe Nemechek – he had a special brown paint scheme, and I was used to seeing the blue-and-white Oakwood Homes car.
Back in those days, you'd always go with Earnhardt (at restrictor-plate races) because if you didn't, they'd all go with him. I don't have a lot of regrets, but if I would have known that was my teammate, I would have probably turned left right there.
SBN: If you were on a four-car Sprint Cup team and could choose your other three teammates, who would you pick?
KW: Oh God. I would want to have – for sure – Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart. The reason I say Tony is he's the greatest round racer in the modern era. He can race road courses, he can race anywhere. Yep, so it would be those three.
SBN: So it sounds like you're going with guys who would help with information rather than your friends.
KW: Well, I'm not enemies with anybody. Although there are some people that, for all my years, I'm like, 'Why don't they talk? Why are they so quiet?'
But when I really looked at Tony Stewart and couldn't believe how good he was, they once had an IROC race at Daytona on the road course – and he held off Max Papis and just won it with all these guys behind him. Then I watched him jump in a midget at Macon Speedway and just win the heat race with no practice against all these guys who run that series every week. I've watched him jump in a modified at Paducah. He can be what you would think is out of his element, and he just jumps in and goes fast right away. It's like, 'Jesus!'
And Jimmie, he can drive a car looser than anybody I know. I've studied him for years. When he's too loose, he can't go; if he's tight, he can't go. But he can drive a car neutral better than anybody I've ever seen. And then he won the Prelude to the Dream last year, so I'm like, OK!
SBN: What driver did you want to be like when you were growing up?
KW: That's Dick Trickle. I wanted to be Dick Trickle because he raced for a living, but everywhere he went, it was fun. He's kind of like what I get misunderstood about; people misunderstand me laughing for being goofy. But I'm usually laughing at somebody. Like when I laugh, I laugh at something (Ken) Schrader has done, or something somebody around the garage area has done. I just don't laugh on my own.
Dick Trickle, though, he could win races, but have fun with life. He didn't ruin his life to be a race-car driver. To be able to win as much as he did and to be able to have beers with friends and have camaraderie, I thought that was awesome.
Nowadays, everybody bunkers themselves down inside their motorhomes. They come out, and the media, you all have to rush to 'em. Back in the day, media could just have one-on-one (interviews) with guys, and now you've gotta schedule shit and everybody piles up in there.
It's sad, you know? They say, 'At 11:35, you've gotta be behind the hauler,' and they drop a fuckin' tarp (sponsored backdrop) and there's 800 people and you can't get that personal interview. And everybody gives the same quotes.
That's what I liked about Trickle, though. Trickle was friends with all the media, they all got one-on-ones. And he was really good at that. They could even sit at a bar and say, 'On the record.'
SBN: Everybody likes to make a quick escape from the track and beat the traffic after the race. Any memorable experiences doing that?
KW: Yep, and it was that race you asked me about earlier – at Loudon, New Hampshire. Schrader had fallen out of the race, and I flew with him all the time. So I knew the deal.
They told me under one of the cautions, 'Schrader is out by the ticket office waiting for you. He fell out of the race.' Now at this time, I didn't have a clue we were going to have a shot to win my first Cup race. But I finish second, I drive to the pumps – and ESPN was shocked I ran second, so when I jumped out of the car, there was nobody there. So I just golf-carted out to Schrader, he said, 'Man, you almost got that win!' and off to the airport we went.
Dale Earnhardt started all that, you know. Back in those days, there were so many more airplanes because everybody had an airplane. At least now, some drivers fly with their teams – like Martin Truex, he flies with his team. But if you didn't get to the airport, you'd line up on the runway with 30 planes in line, all going pbrrrrrr (imitates propeller sound).
SBN: So you think there are actually fewer planes now than there used to be?
KW: Before, it was a fad; it was a status symbol. You had to have a plane, you had to have a gold Rolex watch back in the late '90s.
I admire Martin Truex. He makes $6 million, $8 million bucks a year, but his father, Mr. Truex, has got him grounded. He built a nice shop, but he doesn't have his own airplane. And a lot of other guys could probably afford bigger airplanes.
You've got a handful of characters like my friend Denny Hamlin. Love him to death, but he overboards it. He's crazy. We laugh at him all the time. I love him, but he should have a sign that says, 'Look at my fuckin' airplane!'
Then I get on Jimmie Johnson all the time. I've seen him get off his airplane before by himself! He deserves it, of course, but it's an airplane that 10 people could probably get up and walk around in. He landed in Richmond and I laughed at him. I said, 'You mean to tell me that you didn't ask me to fly with you?' It was hilarious.
I think there are less private airplanes now, partly because the teams have stepped up. See, back then, the teams didn't have airplanes. Now all the teams have them, so a lot of these drivers would just be wasting $2 million or $3 million bucks a year by not using the team planes. Just wasting it.
SBN: Who is somebody famous you'd like to meet that you haven't yet?
KW: Do they have to be alive?
SBN: You can take this any direction you want.
KW: John F. Kennedy, the president who was assassinated. I was born in 1963, and my entire childhood, my mom always used to say, 'You were born the year Kennedy got killed.' So I really, really get engrossed and fascinated with who assassinated him.
When we would go to Texas, me and my wife would take the rental car and drive to the book depository (from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy). Oh my God, it gave me goosebumps.
SBN: So who killed Kennedy?
KW: I don't know. Part of me still feels like somebody had Oswald do it, and then they killed him to cover it up. That's what my belief is.
SBN: I thought you were going to pick Lady Gaga as your answer, based on some of your tweets.
KW: Well, I almost said that. I truly did. Lady Gaga, and then Steven Tyler would be second. And I'll tell you why: I'm truly fascinated by brains that are eccentric. I know those two are real serious; I know they are. But they're eccentric.
Musicians fascinate me. Anybody can sing a song. We watch American Idol, and there are millions of great singers. But what separates them? How does Taylor Swift get three million followers on Twitter? It's because they touch these people's lives.
I'm fascinated by what makes people tick; why people are they way they are. I'm off-centered in that area. Why is Ryan Newman so quiet and yet so funny, so dry-humored? Why can Jimmie Johnson focus so hard, but when he parties, he parties so hard and falls off a golf cart and breaks his wrist? What happened in their childhood to make them act the way they act?
Earnhardt fascinated me, you know? He would drive up to my home in his motorhome, before there were cell phones, and go, 'HERMAN! Come on, let's go to Darlington.' I'd go, 'Oh my God, I'm Dale Earnhardt's best friend. He loves me.' It made me feel special. Then you'd get to the track and he'd walk right by you like he didn't know you.
He was so interesting. He'd go to the Bahamas with Michael Waltrip and clean up messes after people. He'd take you to his house and make you spaghetti. And he never cut his fingernails. Long fingernails. That drove me nuts.
My brother, Rusty, he's so busy being famous. And I wonder why, you know? 'Why are you so busy being famous? You're so good, you don't have to be.'
That's what I'm interested in.
SBN: You have two options – you can either win five Nationwide races but not win the title or win the championship but not win any races. Which would you rather have?
KW: That's my life, what you just said. I contended for the Nationwide championship for a strong two years. I won two races in 1991 – Volusia and Loudon – and I was leading the points the whole year. And in Loudon, New Hampshire, a weld broke in my rear end and it sent me into the Turn 3 wall and knocked me out. I got a positional vertigo and hit my head on the B-post getting out of the car, and I literally had to seek therapy for it. My wife and I went to a bed-and-breakfast in Topeka, Kansas after that. Bobby Labonte ended up beating me for that championship, and it crushed me.
I blew a motor at Darlington, fuckin' Ward Burton came off the Turn 1 wall at O'Reilly Raceway Park and took me out, and then I got killed at New Hampshire. I was saying, 'Why me?' And then Adam (Petty) lost his life there, Kenny Irwin lost his life there, and I saw it could have been much worse.
Anyway, I'd rather have won the championship. I've got some good friends that have championship rings and I've outlasted their career. I've got nine Nationwide wins, so I'd rather have the championship.
SBN: Why do you want to win? Where does your motivation to win come from?
KW: A man judges his life through his work. I judge my life through my work. Winning a championship means you were the baddest son of a bitch that year. You were the best. The great thing about racing every week is it's a do-over; 'OK, I sucked this week, can't wait for next week.'
Winning is for self-satisfaction. It tells you that you were just the fuckin' best. You know, it's like TV – there's been a debate that I don't belong on SPEED because I haven't won a Cup race. That bothers me.
SBN: Wait, what?
KW: Well, a small debate. Not an open debate. But the reason I'm on SPEED is I've got three second-place finishes in Cup, I ran it for 10 full years, 344 races. I competed, I won three poles. My stats are commendable.
Everything can be debated. Does Mark Martin deserve anything because he hasn't won a championship? Does Dan Marino deserve anything because he hasn't won a championship? There are great athletes in this sport who know this sport inside and out that are better than a lot of guys that have had championships. My brother, Rusty, only won one. Should have won two or three.
Are we done?
SBN: We could wrap it up. Do you need to go?
KW: I think I do, yeah.
SBN: OK, no problem.
KW: I'm sorry. My crew chief is up there calling me.
SBN: Thanks for your time.