RICHMOND, Va. -- Wally Dallenbach Jr. is driving a Ford Thunderbird, the hottest model stock car on the Winston Cup circuit. But Dallenbach's Ford isn't a front-runner, 14l a fact that doesn't bother Dallenbach, who still is learning the ropes.
It is an unusual position for Dallenbach, the son of the successful former IndyCar driver, Wally Dallenbach, who is now the director of competition and chief steward of the IndyCar circuit.
Dallenbach grew up snowmobiling with Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. He grew up at his father's side in the world of Indianapolis-style racing, the world of open cockpits and open-wheel racing. He grew up idolizing drivers like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Al Unser Sr.
But here he is starting today's Pontiac Excitement 400 for Winston Cup stock cars at Richmond International Raceway. He will start near the back of the field, but he is happy to be here, nonetheless.
"I knew going into Richmond, qualifying would be tough," said the former SCCA Trans Am two-time champion. "I'm still learning my way around the Winston Cup racetracks. Competing in the race is actually easier for me than qualifying, because in a race I can follow the car in front of me. If it's a veteran driver, he knows the lines to take, and you naturally go faster, just because you're being shown the [right] way."
In qualifying Friday, Dallenbach was on his own. And he was able to clock 116.868 mph. That was 2 mph slower than necessary to make the Top 20 starters, and about 4.5 mph slower than pole qualifier Bill Elliott, who turned a track record 121.337 on the three-quarter mile track.
"What got me interested in stock car racing in the first place was that the opportunities are so slim in IndyCar racing," he said. "It takes three times as much money and you need to bring a sponsor with you to even get a crack at a ride over there. Having a name [everyone in the business knows] doesn't help much.
"But once I got in a stock car and raced, I was hooked -- and I didn't think I would be," continued Dallenbach, who drives the Keystone/Planters car owned by Jack Roush. "I simply enjoyed the racing. It's so competitive. It's funny, I had tried for two or three years to get rides in Indy cars and couldn't. Then I came down here last year and while I was here, I got two offers for IndyCar rides. One was a good, very decent ride. But I said, 'No.' Winston Cup is where I want to be."
He said his father is supportive and not at all taken-aback by his son's defection to Winston Cup.
"My mom kind of wonders if the babies got switched at the hospital," Dallenbach said, laughing, explaining nearly everyone else in his family is involved in IndyCar racing: his mother handles registration at the IndyCar races; his sister Colleen works for IndyCar owner Chip Ganassi's team; his father is chief steward. Only he and his brother Paul, who races in the Trans Am series, have chosen other forms of racing.
Dallenbach, 28, is married to Robin McCall, who also raced on the Trans Am circuit until family matters took center stage. The Dallenbachs have a 2-year-old son, Jacob, and are expecting a new addition in three weeks.
"I think if 30 years ago stock car racing was where it is today, Dad would have been in stock cars," said Dallenbach. "But in those days, it was a southern sport, and being a Yankee, he didn't think he'd fit in."
The younger Dallenbach is beginning to fit in now. The Winston Cup drivers refused to run side-by-side with him when he showed up for 11 races last season, but this year things are different.
"They're getting used to the fact I'm going to be around," Dallenbach said. "The more I race with them, the more respect I earn. And it has been a learning experience. I've learned you can ask these guys anything and they'll help you. You race so close, so tight, so fast here, they want to help you.
"It's a whole lot different from Indy cars," he said. "In Indy cars and other types of racing, no one helps."