Every Saturday morning Matt Wallace flies commercial from Charlotte to St. Louis, where an uncle picks him up for the two-hour drive to I-44 Speedway in Lebanon, Mo. On his own, the 16-year-old has raised the money to pay for his travel expenses and the tires on his late-model car. He works on the vehicle, he hustles for sponsorship funds, he oversees his own social-media accounts. All the while, he's managed to win two races, move up to second in track points, and finish every event with his vehicle intact.
His dad watches it all in amazement.
"It started out with him just going racing this year to get some experience," veteran NASCAR racer Mike Wallace said. "We've been honestly, as a family, quite awed at his ability to win races and run up front week in and week out. ... He's definitely raised his level of ability and professionalism this year in terms of being able to get in a nice late model and run up front and be a contender."
The elder Wallace is still very much active in NASCAR's national divisions, slated to drive Johnny Davis' No. 01 car in Sunday's Nationwide Series event at Chicagoland Speedway. He's won nine times at the sport's national level, most recently this past fall at Talladega in a Camping World Truck Series entry owned by Kevin Harvick. He's coming off a 15th-place finish in last week's Nationwide race at New Hampshire that tied his best of the season. At 53, Wallace is still competitive and still driven to win.
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But these days, it's about the kids. Two of Wallace's three children have decided to go into racing, following their grandfather, uncles, cousin and father into what's become the family business for a St. Louis clan that's long been active in NASCAR. After starting out in Bandolero and Legends cars at the annual Summer Shootout series at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Matt has progressed into late models. Big sister Chrissy, 24, won the 2011 track title at I-44 Speedway and has nine NASCAR national-division starts to her credit, though she's been sidetracked this year with funding issues. Through it all, their dad lives the high of every success and the low of every frustration right along with them -- because he's been there himself.
"It's gratifying to see that they're putting the effort forth on their own to try to make something happen," Mike said. "From the parent standpoint, you like to see if you can make it easier on them somehow."
That much is only natural, of course. The Wallaces didn't pressure their kids to go into racing, but two of them pursued it anyway. Matt started at 9, Chrissy at 10. Like a lot of children in racing families, they competed in scaled-down cars on the quarter-mile oval at the Charlotte infield, at first just for fun and to hang out with friends. "I called it an expensive playground," Mike said. But they got better, and they started to win, and they began to progress on into bigger things.
"It's kind of like a fix," said Mike, whose other daughter, Lindsey, works in event planning for an energy company in Charlotte. "Once you get it, it's hard to beat it, especially when you're winning."
The first female to win a race at Hickory Motor Speedway, Chrissy attracted a fair amount of attention because of her combination of ability, gender and last name. She made some Truck Series starts in 2008 and '09, and competed in two Nationwide events the next year. But as is the case with so many hopeful young drivers, the reality of sponsorship eventually intervened. Early on, Mike dug into his own pockets and enlisted the help of friends and business associates to help further his daughter's career. But he could only do so much. "My job's changed where I don't make a lot of money driving anymore," he said. Last year, Chrissy took on the task of finding sponsorship on her own.
It's been a slow process. Without a regular ride, she spotted for her dad in the recent Nationwide Series event at Road America. "I am more ready to go racing now than ever," she said. No one understands the plight of an eager but underfunded driver more than her dad, who's been there himself, and is clearly pained by the thought of his daughter's career languishing in uncertainty.
"Chrissy's trying," Mike said. "She's working her butt off to try and do things within reason. It's just very hard to get connected here with corporate America to get those opportunities."
Matt has seen everything his older sister has been through, yet remains undeterred. Although his family is now based in Charlotte, he races out of St. Louis because the owner of his late model didn't require the driver to front any money to get the ride. He's driving the same No. 6 car his sister drove last year, at the same speedway where Mike and Chrissy won track championships. "I'd like to hit the trifecta," Matt said. Mike never made the big money some other drivers did in racing, and can't write a check to fund his son's endeavors, as much as he would like. But if anything, Matt seems almost conditioned for the hustle it takes to sustain a career in racing, given everything he's seen his dad and sister go through.
"He understands it," Mike said. "He works very hard, and he's very smart at knowing what it takes to run properly. He's not afraid to take on a whole gamut of things -- finding the sponsor dollars, working on the cars, driving them. ... He just likes the sport. He likes the business, the racing side of it. He does really well on the race track. I think it's like anything -- you do good, and you get attention, and you like that. I know my kids do."
And dad surely likes to see them get it. Mike isn't slowing down, not by a long shot. Two weeks later, he was still ruing what might have been a strong effort in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona, where he led three laps before getting caught up in a crash. But these days, the priorities are clear. Tuesday, he spoke to a gentleman about sponsorship who offered him two scenarios -- he could find a sponsor for Mike, or he could find a sponsor for Chrissy. The answer was an easy one.
"I said, 'I want you to find a sponsor for Chrissy,' " Mike said. "I want her to at least have the opportunity to try and prosper and follow her dream to see if she can make it or not. I've done this for 21 years now. By race car standards, I've had a tremendous career." Now, it's his kids' turn.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.