Wally Dallenbach 1936 – 2024

The great IndyCar driver and race steward Wallace “Wally” Dallenbach Sr. died on Monday at the age of 87. His friends and family say he was able to watch Sunday’s IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park and passed the next morning in his sleep. Dallenbach was preceded in death by his wife Anette “Peppy” Dallenbach in June of 2023.

Together, they formed one of the most influential couples in IndyCar history and built one of the sport’s great racing families with decades of championships and wins earned by their sons, from Pikes Peak to the high banks of Daytona.

The New Jersey native was entrenched in the automotive and racing worlds from an early age, made his name in local short track racing circles, and graduated to IndyCar in 1965 driving for small teams using cars that were either old or unproven.

Despite having equipment that was no match for the cars driven by the A.J. Foyts and Mario Andrettis, it was readily apparent that Dallenbach had talent as he would shine at the fastest and scariest ovals of the era, with Pennsylvania’s Langhorne Speedway serving as a regular home for his heroics.

In the years that followed, and on the occasions his cars would reach the finish line, Dallenbach was a frequent top-five finisher and podium visitor. His skills were finally rewarded in 1973 when he was signed by U. E. “Pat” Patrick to drive alongside Gordon Johncock at Patrick Racing.

Dallenbach’s big break arrived at the age of 37 and he ran with it, scoring his most famous win — the California 500 — at Ontario Motor Speedway, but that victory was only part of the story.

He’d also win at Milwaukee in his first season with Patrick and add podiums at Phoenix and Trenton to claim second in the 1973 championship. More wins would follow as he placed between third and sixth in the final standings for Patrick from 1975-77.

Although he was never as famous or heralded as some of his contemporaries, there was one undisputable truth about Wally Dallenbach the IndyCar driver, and that was the respect they held for him.

“Reflecting on our time spent together on the track, off track, we raced together a lot and I remember the Ontario 500 because he finished first and I finished second. And there were plenty of times like that,” Mario Andretti told RACER.

“Even on the local Jersey tracks like Wall Stadium, he was there in every race and was a local hero. And then when he went to the IndyCar to the top level, he was extremely competitive and respectful and won big races. And he’s a Hall of Famer. He deserved all that. He did every aspect of it admirably, with distinction, and in the best possible way you could expect someone to do it.”

Across 13 Indy 500s, Dallenbach earned a front-row start in 1974 and had three top-fives, making his final run with Patrick in 1979. Like so many others at the legendary Speedway, fate intervened before he could add his likeness to the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Dallenbach leaning hard on Patrick Racing’s Eagle at Michigan in 1974. William Murenbeeld/Motorsport Images

“Wally was as good a teammate as you could ever ask for,” Johncock said. “There are a handful of very, very talented drivers that never won Indianapolis; winning Indy takes lots of luck too and Wally should have won — he led almost 100 laps in 1975 and broke just before the rains came. He was on the front row at Indy and won at California – he was very talented and smart. I’ll miss him. He did a lot for the sport over the years. A very good man.”

But he was so much more than a driver.

In retirement, Dallenbach became the chief steward of the emerging Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series in 1980, and in his role as the commissioner of IndyCar, every major facet of how today’s NTT IndyCar Series was built and runs can be traced back to the ideas, innovations, and decisions made by Dallenbach, with support from CART teammates Kirk Russell, Billy Kamphausen, and others.

Whenever an IndyCar driver has the AMR Safety Team arrive at their crash site within moments of coming to rest, they should thank Dallenbach and Carl Horton, conceivers and creators of the first rapid-response crew and vehicles that has been adopted by so many other racing series. Whenever an IndyCar driver finds themselves being whisked into the mobile medical trailer at the various stops on the racing schedule, thank Dallenbach again along with Doctors Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell for ensuring proper facilities with a consistent staff of medical experts are always ready to act.

Dallenbach’s fastidious dedication to circuit safety is another legacy that lives on; it was common to see him driving out onto the track before the day’s action began, between sessions, and once the day was over to inspect guardrails, tire bales, and any potential areas he or the drivers thought could be improved.

He knew everything about the cars from his time as a front-running driver, and had deep relationships with the drivers and team owners who helped CART to become the biggest and most popular iteration of IndyCar we’ve known, all of which helped Dallenbach to receive the utmost respect as the person who presided over the competition side of CART.

“The series misses someone like Wally,” said Chip Ganassi, who was a CART rookie under Dallenbach’s stewardship before becoming a CART team owner. “He was the chief steward that I think was the model of what a chief steward should be. In my eyes, he played with a fair hand, but he was firm. Having been a driver himself, he spoke to the drivers and kept them in mind while being safety-minded.

“I remember his famous line he’d say in the drivers’ meetings that sticks out today, where he’d say he would not stand for using the car as a weapon. And I think today, more drivers need to hear that message. You can’t use the car as a weapon.”

Ganassi received terrible injuries in a crash on the big Michigan oval in 1984 and benefited from Dallenbach’s foresight.

“Working with guys like Olvey and Trammell and really making safety a pillar of IndyCar racing, whether it was with the medical team and having the same doctors week in and week out at the racetrack was huge,” he said. “These guys knew the drivers. They were the first team of doctors to know the drivers personally as well as professionally. You weren’t being met by strangers if you had an accident. Wally Dallenbach was the architect of that.”

Bobby Rahal was another rookie driver who was lucky to have Dallenbach as his guide through an arc that started with driving and moved to team ownership in CART.

After he stepped away from driving, Dallenbach (pictured with Pat Patrick in 2001) created the template for the modern chief steward, and established many protocols that remain in place to this day. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

“I came into IndyCar and he was the guy,” Rahal said. “I think he was under appreciated by many as a driver. Came within sight of the checkered flag in Indianapolis. But I knew him as the chief steward of CART. He was just he was so fair. So honest. CART could not have picked a better chief steward because he’d been there, he’d done it, and knew what was important. What wasn’t. And there were times when I think he took unfair criticism from some of the drivers.

“But he never held a grudge, he would take opinions. He wasn’t egotistical. All he cared about was having a good race, a good, safe, fair race. I feel so fortunate that much of my career, if not all of my IndyCar career was under his tutelage.”

The esteem held for Dallenbach was almost father-like, as Rahal recalls from his first year in the series.

“When I got into CART, he wanted all the young guys to make sure that they know what to look for, to give you answers,” he said. “He didn’t want you to get caught up in something that you weren’t aware of. He tried to paint the picture for you, especially in your rookie year. And I remember only once did he criticize my driving to me privately. I had done something I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. And he just said, ‘You know, you really disappointed me there.’ And oh man, that really stung.”

In his unwavering commitment to driver safety, Dallenbach refused to be swayed at CART’s Texas Motor Speedway debacle in 2001 when the fiercely high speeds being achieved caused some drivers to black out and crash due to prolonged periods of excessive G forces. Under intense pressure from some of the power brokers involved with CART to hold the race, Dallenbach held firm — thinking first of his drivers — and made the controversial decision to cancel the contest while fans were sitting in the grandstands.

He’d retire after the 2004 season, and experience a rarity in sports.

As long as powerful stewards, commissioners, or referees remain in their positions, few critical words are spoken about them by the athletes and teams they govern, but once they step aside, the gloves tend to come off and true feelings of the players — drivers, in this case — and entrants are unleashed. What happened upon Dallenbach’s farewell to IndyCar?

“The total opposite, because we all knew how fortunate we were to have him,” Rahal said. “He was a class act and was treated as such for all he gave us. A heavy appreciation for Wally is what we had. This was a true racing family. What he and Peppy gave to us was just amazing; she’d be helping at the registration and he’d be helping as our chief steward. It was a family affair for them. And together, they were so welcoming and raised some great kids together.

“The only game he cared about was IndyCar and he would do everything to ensure that it was a fair contest and a safe contest. Just a super guy.”

For those who are interested in learning more about the man, there’s an excellent book penned by Gordon Kirby on the life of Dallenbach which is well worth adding to your library.

Dallenbach is survived by his daughter Colleen and sons Wally Jr and Paul.

Story originally appeared on Racer