Born into a racing family, perhaps it was inevitable that NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace, the youngest of the three racing Wallace brothers, would turn his need for speed into a successful motorsports career. But, as Wallace told me in a one-on-one interview for CareerThoughts.com, it takes more than family connections to succeed in NASCAR, especially for today’s aspiring young drivers.
I met up with Wallace at Canyon Speedway Park in Peoria, Arizona, where he was racing his dirt car on a Saturday night – something he still has a passion for, despite a heavy load of responsibilities as a NASCAR driver and TV analyst for SPEED channel.
The 49-year-old Missouri native, who now lives in Concord, North Carolina, shared some of the career advice he has given to hundreds of young people, including his own three daughters.
Q. CareerThoughts.com is a website for young people trying to figure out how to turn their passion into a career. I thought you would be a great person to talk to about that.
A. I am. I’ve spoken at a lot of places. I’ve been to Career Day at my high school and UNOH, the University of Northwestern Ohio. The biggest epidemic is grown men and women, they are in their thirties, and they still don’t know what they want out of life.
I always told my three girls, Brooke, Brandy, and Brittany – they’re 25, 23, and 21 – “go and do.” The words “go and do” mean this: everybody wants that perfect job right out of college. My daughter Brooke wanted to be a dental hygienist right away and she was already a dental assistant, and I said, “Brooke, go be a dental assistant and you’ll meet people and you’ll become a hygienist.” And that’s exactly what happened.
My advice to kids coming out of college that have worked hard in school is to “go and do,” because what happens is you meet people. Networking is something that I think I need to explain to kids. I got where I am because I networked. Do not keep yourself holed up in your house. Learn to be talkative, shake hands, hand out business cards. The more people you know, the better chance you have of getting a job.
Q. You not only have a racing career, but now you have a media career as well. Was that something you planned or did it just happen?
A. I still don’t feel like I’m “media.” Some people tell me I’m media, but next week will be my 14th (NASCAR) Nationwide (Series) race of the year. I qualified 10th and ran 15th last week; the week before that, I qualified fourth, and I ran fourth at Chicago earlier this year. I feel like I’m still in the game. I am at the end of my career; I understand that. But, I look at myself as a color analyst. You’re not going to catch me inside the media room.
I’m not a journalist; I don’t write stories. What I do is, because I race, SPEED made it very clear to me they have hired me because of my experience and my 900 NASCAR starts. So, my job is to explain what’s going on, because I know.
Q. You’ve had so much longevity in racing. How old were you when you started racing?
A. I was born into racing. My dad raced for a hobby and then my brother Rusty and my brother Mike and my dad – we all did it for a hobby. Rusty was our entrepreneur. He was the risk-taker. He was the one that I followed everywhere. I owe it to my dad for being a local racer and winning a lot of races, and I owe it to my brothers; I owe everything to my whole family. But, nobody is going to do it for you. You still have to do it yourself.
Q. I know there have been times when you’ve had ups and downs and felt discouraged. What advice would you give to young people who are just starting out in a career – racing or another field – and may be struggling?
A. What I would say is to remember this: You’re in the ring. Don’t let people who are not in the ring with you depress you. There are a lot of things I’ve learned about sports therapy. I’ve taken sports therapy. And you’re either in the ring or you’re out of the ring. Those who talk – that’s all they do is talk; they can’t race. When you’re in the ring, you’re doing it, so don’t let those people out of the ring talk about what you’re doing, because they don’t know. If they’re in the ring with you, then it’s okay and you can respect that. But, unless they’re in the ring, there’s no advice they can give you.
Q. If you were a team owner today looking to hire a young driver, would you look more at their racing stats, or would you look for a well-rounded person with a lot of different qualities?
A. What I look at today is that there is a load of talent out there. The biggest juggernaut – and the reason I say juggernaut – is there are probably at least 15 drivers that deserve to be in Nationwide right now. You’ve got Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Corey LaJoie, Brett Moffitt, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace, Johanna Long – the hits just keep on coming.
What I’m going to do is, I’m going to look at my team and I’m going to ask, “Do I have money?” I might have to hire a driver that doesn’t have a lot of talent, but he has the money. So, if you’re going to hire a driver that has all the talent, then you have to have the money. It depends where you’re at as a car owner. If you’re a car owner and you don’t have any money, you’re going to have to hire that fifth-best driver. If you’re a car owner that has a lot of money, then you get to hire that driver with proven talent. It just depends on where you’re at and how much money you’ve got.
Q. But, today more than ever, it probably helps to have young drivers who are also well-spoken and can present themselves well to sponsors.
A. I tweeted that my sincere advice and heartfelt advice to the next drivers is that you have a load of talent, but that’s not good enough any more. You have to learn to get sponsors on your own. Your talent alone cannot carry you any more. Look how hard Tony Stewart had to work to get a sponsor – that should be a lesson to everybody. You have the skills; now, maybe take a Dale Carnegie course and learn to speak to your sponsors.
Q. Considering your long career in NASCAR and your work on SPEED channel, why do you still come out to small local tracks like this one and race?
A. This is a total vacation for me. You know, I always tease everybody – I got so popular the last eight years doing TV – that I always tell everyone, “I’m a racecar driver.” So everybody goes, “Hey, racecar driver!” But, I’m really a racecar driver. The TV found me, but this is what I do. This will be my 58th dirt race of the year; I keep my count. We’ve won 12 and won the Summer Nationals championship with the UMP sanctioning body in the Midwest. I just love it. I love dirt racing.