WINCHESTER — Kenny Wallace was not a good NASCAR analyst for FOX Sports because of his good looks and smooth delivery.
No, Wallace earned his points with fans for bluntly calling things the way he saw it.
And when Wallace, who served as fire marshal at this year’s Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, now looks at the sport he loves, he sees a future not quite as bright as when he raced against Dale Earnhardt and his brother Rusty on Sunday afternoon.
“First of all, [we need] all hands on deck because our sport has been in trouble for some time,” Wallace said ahead of Friday’s parade. “I don’t want the NASCAR job right now because we’re in a major societal shift. The whole world is changing and not just the sport.”
Wallace says there are certainly more questions than answers for a sport whose attendance has fallen and television ratings have plummeted in recent years.
“What are they going to do?” Wallace said of NASCAR. “Will they be able to weather the storm? Is someone going to buy them out and get some new ideas? Is the sport becoming unrecognizable?”
These are all good questions for a sport celebrating its 75th anniversary this season. The answer to all these questions may be the bottom line.
And Wallace, who won nine times on what is now the Xfinity Series, doesn’t gloss over the challenges.
“I think we’re at a pivotal point in NASCAR history right now — whether our sport is going to survive or not,” he said. “How much money are they currently getting with the TV negotiations? Are FOX and NBC going to step up and give them the same money?
“NASCAR needs everyone to make money. I think a lot of NASCAR’s survival will depend on how much money they get. I think it will be a lot less because there are a lot less viewers than last time.”
And attracting viewers is a big deal. Denny Hamlin, one of the sport’s top drivers, pointed out this week that all the big names have left the sport. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart are among the greats who have retired in recent years, leaving a vacuum at the top.
Wallace points to a perfect example.
“After Kyle Larson won the NASCAR championship a few years ago, they asked him, ‘What was the biggest surprise? Was it everything you thought it would be?’ He said, “No, I can still walk down the street and no one knows who I am.” That was a big blow to everyone.”
Wallace believes there is another factor in the lack of a superstar, and that, again, can be traced back to money. Wallace said the expense of putting together a race team led to the demise of the iconic cars fans loved.
“The Blue Deuce is gone. The Man in Black, these cars and these paint jobs were so famous,” he said. “They were as big as the drivers. They helped make superstars.
“So all those legendary paint jobs are gone and the reason they’re gone is because the sport is so expensive that one sponsor can’t afford the sport. So what we end up getting is a different paint job every week. Even Anheuser-Busch can only sponsor a handful of races on Kevin Harvick’s car.”
It’s hard to watch for a man who raced in over 900 races in NASCAR’s top three series.
“Listen, I love NASCAR,” he said. “It made me who I am and made me a lot of money. … I told them I will do anything to help. But I worry about them like everyone else.”
Wallace, who will turn 60 in August, is still racing a lot. Instead of running 200 mph in Talladega, it’s choking dust on some of the best dirt roads in the country. Last season, Wallace, who lives outside of St. Louis, Mo. lives, a whopping 76 times, won 11 and a pair of Midwest championships.
After running so many races on asphalt, why dirt?
“I grew up watching AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, these great drivers,” Wallace explained. “One thing I admired about them later in my career was that they weren’t one-dimensional. They walked on asphalt. They would run the Indianapolis 500 and be in Terra Haute [on dirt] the next day. I wanted to be like that.”
With that desire, he turned to friend Ken Schrader, a four-time NASCAR Cup Series winner. According to an internet database, the 67-year-old Schrader has competed in more than 1,300 dirt races.
“I reached out to Schrader and said, ‘Teach me how to get dirty,'” Wallace said. “The thing was my dad Russ, my brother Mike and even Rusty had some dirt on USAC. Then I got hooked on it because it was so much fun. I’ve run 905 NASCAR races and I’ve probably raced those or more dirt races.
Wallace, who owns a dirt track with Schrader and Stewart, said age cuts his schedule down to about 30 races this season. At the invitation of owner Greg Gunter, Wallace went for a look at Winchester Speedway on Friday. He was offered a car to drive in Saturday’s action but had to turn it down because he was going to be riding a motorcycle on Kyle Petty’s Charity Ride Across America for several days before coming to Winchester and having to build his own No. 36 dirt to fetch. car ready wednesday,
With less racing, Wallace may have more free time to devote to his growing YouTube channel. The Kenny Wallace Show has nearly 65,000 subscribers in just over a year. Some of his posts have gone viral, such as one on Carl Edwards that has been viewed 575,000 times.
“It was kind of like when FOX Sports called me and wanted me to do TV,” Wallace said. “I tell everyone and it’s the truth: ‘TV found me. I didn’t find a TV.’ The same goes for YouTube.”
Wallace credits Charlie Marlow, a former sportscaster in St. Louis, with the idea.
“He called me up and said, ‘Let me start you a YouTube channel,'” Wallace said. “I told him I didn’t have time because I was busy driving my dirt truck. A few months later I said, ‘Okay, let’s try.’”
The channel is a mix of short videos, NASCAR recaps and anything Wallace can think of. Fans still love his opinions and sense of humor.
In recent weeks, Wallace said he upgraded his computer and microphone to conduct interviews. So far he’s spoken to Stewart and Mark Martin, who seem so comfortable with one of their fellow competitors. Those hour-long videos have about 60,000 views, with more to come for condensed segments of the interviews being reposted.
Wallace admits he is “shocked” by the success.
“Kenny Wallace’s YouTube show has really taken on a life of its own,” he said. “I really believe it wasn’t successful 10 years ago. It’s just that network TV fails so badly because everyone is on their phones. I was just lucky because the timing was right.”