Thursday, November 10, 2016

11/3/91: Wallace brothers Rusty, Mike, and last-place finisher Kenny make history at Phoenix

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On November 3, 1991, Kenny Wallace picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Pyroil 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his unsponsored #24 Team III Racing Pontiac fell out with steering problems after he completed 1 of 312 laps.  The finish came in Wallace’s fifth career start.

That day at Phoenix marked a significant moment in NASCAR history.  For the first time since Bob, Tim, and Fonty Flock ran together on the “Strictly Stock” circuit, three brothers - the Wallaces - would race in the same Winston Cup event.  34-year-old Rusty Wallace was in his 12th Cup season and his first full year with Roger Penske’s new team, Penske Racing South.  His #2 Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac picked up a pair of wins at Bristol and Pocono, already wins 19 and 20 of his career.  Mike Wallace, age 32, made his Cup debut that day, driving the #52 Alka-Seltzer Pontiac in place of owner-driver Jimmy Means.  And starting 41st in a provisional spot was the youngest of the trio, 27-year-old Kenny.

The lighthearted driver they call “Herman” broke into NASCAR in 1988, when he made his Busch Series debut at Martinsville.  The #8 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet he raced to a strong 11th-place finish that day was owned by Dale Earnhardt, who had started his own race team four years earlier.  Rusty fielded a full-time car for Kenny the following year, and the new #36 Cox Treated Lumber Pontiac won the pole the first time out at Daytona, came home 6th in 1989 standings and 7th in 1990.  He also made his first Cup start at North Wilkesboro on April 22, 1990 finishing 26th of 32 in the Cox Lumber #36.

Heading into the final month of the 1991 season, Wallace was running even better.  On March 24, he broke through with his first victory at the Volusia County (Florida) Speedway, beating series veteran Tommy Houston by more than five seconds.  He then dominated the July 14 race at Loudon, New Hampshire, leading 202 of 300 laps and was just about to lap 2nd-place Chuck Bown, 27 seconds in arrears at the checkers.  He was also gaining more Cup experience.  When Kyle Petty broke his leg at Talladega in May, Wallace drove in his place during the All-Star Race, the Coca-Cola 600, and at Dover.  The 600 proved his best finish of the three, when he came home 13th.  When the series rolled into Richmond in September for the track’s first night race, he had another Pontiac ride - the #24 fielded by Team III Racing.

Named for team owner Sam McMahon IIII, Team III made its Daytona debut that year with Alabama driver Mickey Gibbs.  The same financial recession that left drivers Alan Kulwicki, Dave Marcis, Buddy Baker, and Greg Sacks without a sponsor had also caught Gibbs, and all five arrived in Florida with blank cars.  A joint effort between R.J. Reynolds, NASCAR, and Daytona International Speedway led to the spontaneous “Operation Desert Support” effort, where each of the five cars would carry logos representing the five branches of the U.S. Military.  Gibbs, representing the U.S. Air Force, squeaked into the 500 field and finished 17th, second-best of the group behind Kulwicki’s 8th-place U.S. Army Ford.

Though teamed with 1989 championship crew chief Barry Dodson, Team III ran a flat grey car without primary sponsorship for the rest of the season, and their performance reflected the struggle.  After finishing no better than 14th on two occasions, Gibbs was released at Pocono in July for Dick Trickle, who had lost his ride with Cale Yarborough Motorsports.  In his first five starts with the team, Trickle finished no better than 20th.  At Watkins Glen, “road ringer” Dorsey Schroeder led 3 laps, but mechanical woes left him 17th.  Kenny Wallace’s debut with the team didn’t go much better.  He finished 31st, out in the final 52 laps with a broken rear end.

The very next week at Dover, Trickle earned what turned out to be the team’s best-ever finish - 6th - the day Harry Gant lapped the field in his third of four consecutive victories.  Next, short track expert Jimmy Hensley picked up four-consecutive Top 10 finishes at Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Charlotte, and Rockingham.  Then at Phoenix, with brother Mike’s debut for Jimmy Means Racing, Kenny Wallace returned to Team III.  Wallace qualified 41st on the grid with Mike in 38th and Rusty in 10th.  As a Winston West companion event, 13 drivers missed the cut for the field.  The only Cup regular sent home was Jim Sauter, driving the Mueller Brothers’ #89 Evinrude Outboards Pontiac.

One West driver did start last that day: Hershel McGriff, then 63 years young, in his familiar #04 U.S. Bank Pontiac.  At the start of the race, Mike Wallace cut to the outside in the Means #52, but was black-flagged for jumping the start.  Apparently, when he pulled onto pit road for his stop-and-go penalty, Kenny Wallace, who ran the middle line coming to the green, pulled his own car off the track.  Mike Wallace finished 31st with Rusty in 5th.  Curiously, when the Utsman brothers became the most recent triple-brother race in 1961, the youngest of the three - 28-year-old Layman Utsman - also finished last, out with handling problems after 35 laps in his #25 1960 Dodge.

Finishing 42nd that day was West competitor Gary Collins, whose family-owner #29 Justin Boot / Custom Printing Oldsmobile suffered crash damage in one of the race’s first incidents.  Richard Petty, who just announced his “Fan Appreciation Tour” retirement season the previous month, lost a #43 STP Pontiac in a five-car wreck on Lap 90 that also collected last-place starter McGriff.  Dave Marcis, also involved in the Petty crash, pulled out with a busted a frame and finished 40th.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Hut Stricklin, his #12 Raybestos Buick tangling with Cale Yarborough’s new driver Randy LaJoie on Lap 107.

Wallace finished the season with Team III in the Atlanta finale, where he finished 23rd.  Sam McMahon celebrated the team’s first full season by spending more than $15,000 in hotel accommodations for the weekend.  On December 5, during the lead-up to the NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York, it was announced that Wallace would drive full-time for Team III in 1992 with sponsorship from Dirt Devil Vacuum Cleaners.  Dirt Devil’s president John Balch pledged $1 million to the effort, and a red-white-and-blue paint scheme for the #24 was unveiled.  “Sam and I have told Kenny that the only thing hes gotta bring back is the steering wheel,” said Balch.  “We’re just going to have a lot of fun.”  Balch paid a $500,000 advance, and all seemed set for the next season.

Then the wheels quite literally came off.

In January, just days before the 1992 Daytona 500, Team III Racing declared bankruptcy.  The report indicated that McMahon had paid the bills at Team III with $2.2 million from his family’s hotel partnership in Florida, which then became insolvent.  In the process, McMahon made a series of large purchases during the ‘91 season, including a helicopter and a mobile home.  Most perplexing was that McMahon was approached by at least one sponsor who offered to pay $15,000 for one race, but the owner declined.  The unsustainable business model ultimately shuttered Team III’s doors.

“I’ve been racing all my life,” said Wallace in February 1992, “and I’ve heard of things happening like this, but I never thought it would happen to me - this deal crashing.”

Fortunately, Dirt Devil stayed with Wallace, backing his Busch Series ride in 1992, and kept their Winston Cup efforts alive with an attempt at Darlington.  Felix Sabates, looking to expand his one-car team, sought to acquire Team III’s assets for 1993.  In this, he was apparently successful: by the 1993 Daytona 500, SABCO Racing fielded a new Dirt Devil Pontiac for Wallace to run full-time with Jeff Hammond as crew chief.  The car #24 was no longer available, picked up by Hendrick Motorsprots in late 1992 for fellow rookie Jeff Gordon (who was originally going to run the #46).  Instead, the SABCO entry ran #40.  Wallace finished a season-best 9th at Watkins Glen and Bristol, but with a 23rd-place rank in points, lost Rookie of the Year to Gordon.

Wallace made 344 Cup Series starts through 2008.  While he never took a checkered flag in the series and finished last nine times, claiming the 1998 LASTCAR Cup title, he earned a career-best 2nd on three occasions from 1999 to 2001, most famously when he followed to Dale Earnhardt on the day of his 76th and final win at Talladega.  His best season came in 1999, when he ranked 22nd in the standings.  His greatest successes remained in the XFINITY Series, where he made 547 starts through the midpoint of 2015, and earned nine career victories.  Today, Wallace is a prolific broadcaster and can still be seen racing for victory on dirt tracks across the country.

*The only other time Team III Racing finished last was on April 21, 1991 at North Wilkesboro, where Mickey Gibbs fell out with a busted header after 110 laps of the First Union.  The number returned to the bottom of the field at the same track in 1993, when Jeff Gordon swept both last-place runs that season.

43) #24-Kenny Wallace / 1 lap / steering
42) #29-Gary Collins / 61 laps / crash
41) #43-Richard Petty / 89 laps / crash
40) #71-Dave Marcis / 91 laps / a frame
39) #12-Hut Stricklin / 105 laps / crash

*1991 Pyroil 500, TNN
*Fielden, Greg, Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: Forty Plus Four (1990-1993), Galfield Press, 1994
*Grubba, Fr. Dale, Alan Kulwicki NASCAR Champion: Against All Odds, Badger Books LLC, 2009
*Zeller, Bob. “Race Scandal / Team Crashes Amid Financial Shenanigans,”

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