It’s been 30 years since Rusty Wallace won his first NASCAR race at Watkins Glen International, and it was like no other among his 55 Cup triumphs.
Leading Terry Labonte by 20 seconds but almost out of fuel when the dashboard light flickered inside his No. 27 Kodiak Pontiac, Wallace needed a splash of gas before the final lap.
“The car started running out of fuel and spit and sputtered and you didn’t know how long it was going to run,” Wallace recalled Thursday at New York’s state capital as part of a promotional tour for NASCAR’s annual visit to the famed road course in New York’s Finger Lakes. “I came around and they’re waving the white flag. I go into the last left-hander and the light lights up.”
Crew chief Barry Dodson told him to pit.
“I had a half-lap lead. My car was so fast that day,” Wallace said. “I came flying down pit road with the motor spitting and sputtering, barely running. They got about a gallon and a half in it and as soon as the motor relit, I just dropped the clutch and took off, got down to the exit of pit road and I looked in my rearview mirror and Terry Labonte was 10 car-lengths behind me still.
“I pitted on the last lap and still won” by 11 seconds.
Dramatic finishes like that in the recent past have helped Watkins Glen buck the trend at NASCAR’s top level, producing two straight sellouts while many tracks have watched the big crowds of the 1990s dwindle. WGI president Michael Printup said Thursday that the Aug. 6 Monster Energy Cup race at The Glen was close to being sold out again, which means a crowd estimated at around 100,000.
That’s a far cry from last Sunday’s race at Indianapolis, which attracted an estimated 35,000 fans.
“When I saw that on television, I was like, aw, it’s a bad deal,” Wallace, who will be at WGI as an analyst for Motor Racing Network, said of Indy. “There’s a lot of tracks that have reduced the seats just because they don’t want that perception.
“Are we going to get back to the days of seeing 150,000 people in the grandstands like we saw at Bristol, Tennessee, or Daytona? That’s going to be a hard sell,” Wallace said. “But our loss of some fans, in my opinion, has stopped. Now, we’re back on the climb. They really react to what the fan wants.”
Wallace pointed to new rules changes, stage racing, and the drivers’ council, as examples of positive reaction by the governing body.
“They realize that NASCAR’s popularity from the days of the past isn’t as great as it was, but it’s still a super-strong sport,” he said. “The plug is back in the drain. Things are getting better.”
The NASCAR weekend at Watkins Glen begins a week from Friday with a K&N Pro Series East race and includes a concert headlined by Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real. WGI announced Thursday that seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, and Ty Dillon will be in attendance to interact with fans.
“We’ve had a hard time keeping this driver lineup for Friday night a secret,” Printup said. “We’re thrilled to add this element to Friday night’s entertainment and can’t wait to get those guys on stage.”
Wallace retired in 2005, mostly because he got tired of the grind of a full season at the Cup level, and the Hall of Famer is not surprised by the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and the impending departure at season’s end of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Cup series’ most popular driver.
That's created a big void, but Wallace is confident the young drivers on the rise _ Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Erik Jones among them _ will provide the drama that fans crave.
“We’ve got good-quality drivers. Now, we’re working to get those personalities out,” Wallace said. “A lot of the personalities are not there like you used to have. The fans like to see a lot of controversy stuff.”