The First Ride for Rusty

March 15, 2021

"Penske Material" provides an inside look at some of the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske so unique.

Russell William Wallace Jr., better known as Rusty Wallace, is a racing legend and NASCAR Hall of Famer. The accomplishments achieved by Wallace during his 26-year career competing at the highest level of stock car racing are numerous and impressive. He won NASCAR Cup Series Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 1984, captured the 1989 Cup Series Championship and he produced an incredible 55 Cup Series victories in his storied career. Before he became a champion, one of racing’s most popular personalities and a true legend of the sport, however, Wallace got his first taste of big-time NASCAR racing. This week, we celebrate the first Cup Series race for Wallace, exactly 41 years after he made his series debut and his first start for the team that would become his home for more than 15 years.

Wallace got his first big break when in the NASCAR Cup Series when he competed for Team Penske at what was then called Atlanta International Raceway – now Atlanta Motor Speedway – on Sunday, March 16, 1980. The 23-year-old rookie started seventh in his first Grand National race and he earned a surprising second-place result, finishing behind NASCAR icon and then reigning Cup Series Rookie of the Year Dale Earnhardt.

The Penske Racing team was based in Reading, Penn., in 1980 and the crew prepared the No. 16 Chevrolet Caprice for Wallace to compete in the 500-mile race at Atlanta for the fifth event on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar. The race represented Team Penske’s first entry in NASCAR's premier series since 1977. Prior to its three-year hiatus from NASCAR competition, Team Penske saw two racing legends earn five NASCAR wins for the team. Mark Donohue collected the team’s first Cup Series victory in 1973 and Bobby Allison recorded four wins in Cup Series competition from 1974-75. Team Penske made its NASCAR debut at Riverside in 1972, the same year the team earned its first Indianapolis 500 victory with Donohue at the wheel.

The team’s return to NASCAR at Atlanta in 1980 coincided with the final event of the International Race of Champions (IROC) season on March 15, as Roger Penske helped form and manage the series and its commercial operations.


Wallace had high hopes entering the Atlanta 500 as the U.S. Auto Club (USAC) Stock Car Series 1979 Rookie of the Year. He finished third in the championship standings of the 12-race series, behind legendary racer A.J. Foyt and Bay Darnell.

In order to get an opportunity to show what he could at the top level of NASCAR racing, Wallace relied on a man who he knew from a young age growing up in Missouri – Team Penske Hall of Famer Don Miller.

“Rusty was actually my paper boy and I helped with his racing development – his short track program and drag racing,” said Miller, a former racer himself who joined Team Penske in 1972 and held many roles and responsibilities within the team for more than 35 years. “I worked closely with Roger (Penske) and I approached him about running Rusty several times. Roger would call Rusty “Dusty” Wallace, but I finally talked Roger into running a team with Rusty at the 1979 Penske Christmas Party. We wanted to take the car to Daytona, but it wasn’t made for the Superspeedway, so we decided on Atlanta.”

As Wallace recalls, he got a chance to test with the team at the Atlanta track a couple of weeks before the 500-mile race – but not with a Cup Series car. “We drove the IROC car at Atlanta and that really helped me get to know the track,” said Wallace.

During the Atlanta 500 race weekend, Wallace and his new team became comfortable with each other and the car, but the engine powering the No. 16 Caprice became a concern.

“The engine kept running hot and we wondered if this thing was going to be able to make it 500 miles,” said Wallace. “The night before the race, we were able to get a motor from none other than A.J. Foyt. The guys went to work putting in the new engine and we lined up and raced with it the next day and finished second. It was really kind of like something out of a movie.”

With the strong runner-up result, Wallace felt the Atlanta race was just the beginning of something big in NASCAR and the first of many races with Team Penske.

“The car ran great, the handling was great and the team did such a good job,” said Wallace. “After the race I thought, ‘well, this is pretty easy, we’ve got this figured out.’ I soon realized there was a lot more to learn about NASCAR racing.”

Miller recalled that The Captain was pretty energized over the performance by Wallace and the team. “Roger was very surprised with the run and asked if we wanted to do this again, so we built a Monte Carlo and raced at Charlotte. We didn’t do that well,” said Miller.

Wallace and the team competed in the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October of 1980. After starting 25th, Wallace brought home a 14th-place finish and that would wind up being his last Team Penske start for more than a decade.

“One of the toughest things about that year was talking with Roger after the race in Charlotte when he told me I should go get some more experience and that he hoped we would get a chance to work together again down the road,” said Wallace. “I was so disappointed.”

Wallace continued his development, entering the Cup Series full time in 1984 and he began to establish himself as one of the top drivers in NASCAR, winning the Cup Series title in 1989.

After 10 years away from NASCAR competition, Penske Racing South was established in 1991 as the veteran Wallace returned to the team alongside Miller, who became Team President.

“I remember I asked Roger if I had enough experience now and he said ‘you sure do – let’s go racing!’ That’s all I needed to hear,” said Wallace.

Behind the wheel of the No. 2 car with sponsorship from the Miller Brewing Company, Wallace produced 39 wins for Team Penske between 1991 and 2005, when he retired from NASCAR competition.

Wallace was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2013 and he joined the Team Penske Hall of Fame in 2018. He continues to be one of the most beloved personalities in motorsports and he is still deeply involved in NASCAR as a broadcast personality for MRN Radio.

“It’s been one heck of a ride,” said Wallace, “and it all began with that race at Atlanta.”

More Penske Material

Read more about the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske unique.