Wallace aims for NASCAR HOF
CHARLOTTE — Rusty Wallace will headline the fourth class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and his famed car “Midnight” will be part of his induction.
Wallace, winner of 55 races and the 1989 Cup championship will be inducted Friday night along with champions Buck Baker and Herb Thomas; championship car owner Cotton Owens; and innovative crew chief, mechanic and engine builder Leonard Wood.
Part of Wallace’s display in the Hall of Fame will be the car he dubbed Midnight and drove to 13 victories from 1992-94. Wallace led for more than 5,000 laps in the car, which was raced as both a Pontiac Grand Prix and a Ford Thunderbird out of Penske Racing South.
“Back then, it was Dale Earnhardt and I racing for the win all the time,” Wallace said. “I remember every week when we got to the track, he’d come up and ask me, “What car you got? It’s not that darn Midnight is it?” If it was, he knew he had his work cut out for him.”
Wallace drove Midnight in 38 races, notching 30 top-fives with the car. He led nearly one-third of all possible laps in the events he raced with the car, and Midnight’s 13 wins comprise nearly 20 percent of Penske Racing total.
Midnight was restored last year by former Penske Racing fabricator Chuck Gafrarar and other team members, and the car will go into the Hall in race-ready condition as a 1994 Ford Thunderbird featuring the noted black and gold Miller Genuine Draft paint scheme.
“I’m really excited to have Midnight in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, that car was such a huge part of my career,” Wallace said. “Every time I sat in it, it just felt right; it fit like a glove. I’ll tell you what, if we had Midnight at the race track, everyone else there knew that they had a long day ahead of them — Midnight was just that good. The black and gold MGD paint scheme was the coolest one we ever had too. It just looked mean and the fans really loved it.”
Wallace is a fan favorite heading into the Hall as part of a class with only one other living inductee, Wood, who enters a year after older brother Glenn’s induction. Owens died just weeks after he was voted into the hall last June at the age of 88.
Known as the “King of the Modifieds” for more than 100 victories, Owens was part of the post-World War II racing scene around Spartanburg, S.C., and was close friends with NASCAR Hall of Famers Bud Moore and David Pearson, and 1960 NASCAR champion Rex White.
He won nine of 160 races at NASCAR’s top level, and finished second in the 1959 championship to Hall of Famer Lee Petty. After transitioning to a car owner and engine builder, his cars won 38 races.
Pearson was one of his drivers, hooking up with Owens after stopping by his garage in 1962.
“Back then I’d have driven for nothing,” said Pearson. “I didn’t have a regular car. He asked if I’d like to run more races. It was the first factory ride I’d ever had. I knew I’d be in the best equipment.”
Winless in their first season together, Pearson and Owens teamed to win eight races in 1964 and finish third in the standings. There were two more wins in 1965, and using a Dodge Dart station wagon dubbed the “Cotton Picker,” the duo won 15 races and the championship in 1966.
“He was not like a boss, it was like working for a friend,” said Pearson. “We just had a great time working together.”
Wood, part of the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford team, is considered with his older brother to be a NASCAR pioneer.
“He’s the most dedicated, talented all-around mechanic NASCAR has ever seen,” said nephew, Len, co-owner of the current Wood Brothers team. “He fit the term ‘chief mechanic.’ He could do anything with the car.”
As crew chief of the No. 21 for 990 races, Wood’s drivers won 96 races. His cars won 117 poles and revolutionized the pit stop.
Hired by the Ford Motor Co. to pit Jim Clark’s Lotus at the 1965 Indianapolis 500, the Woods spent 41.9 seconds on pit road servicing the car Clark drove to Victory Lane. They used a modified gas can that made the fuel flow faster.
“We turned that thing on and it put in 58 gallons in 15 seconds,” said Wood. “It just sucked the fuel out of there. We knew we were going to be under 20 seconds on the pit stops. We got the most publicity in the least amount of time we ever got in our lives,” he added. “We hit a home run for sure.”
Baker won 46 Cup races and was the series’ first back-to-back champion. His career spanned portions of four decades and began in part because he honed his skills running alcohol after he couldn’t find a job following his discharge from the Navy.
His final victory came at age 44 in the 1964 Southern 500, and Baker was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
Thomas won premier series titles in 1951 and 1953, and finished second in two other seasons including 1954, the first of Hall of Famer Lee Petty’s three championship seasons.
“He was as good as they come,” said Richard Petty, who headlined the first Hall of Fame class. “There have been very few guys who had more confidence in what he could do than Herb. He was so strong-minded that he ‘willed’ his wins and what he was doing on the track.” He was going to beat the guys on the track no matter what was going on. That was his mindset.”