Winston Cup points leader Rusty Wallace is a race car driver, not a daredevil.
He may not fear racing accidents -- in fact, he says he absolutely doesn't fear getting in an accident -- but when the back end of his car lifts into the air and begins to tilt over his head for what turns into a spectacular barrel roll down the front stretch or the back stretch -- take your pick, he's done both, twice -- well, Rusty Wallace gets scared.
"Scared to death," he said yesterday. "The car is flipping and rolling, and I'm afraid. The thing is going crazy. Pieces of metal are flying everywhere, and you don't know what you're going to hit or when or how hard. You don't know if one of those pieces of metal is going to go in your eye or fly by and slash your throat apart."
Last Sunday, Wallace took the fourth such ride of his career. This one in Talladega, Ala., in the Winston 500, on the last lap. It was the second time in nine races this season that he has gone on a death-defying tumble. At Daytona, at the start of the season, he flipped down the backstretch, and emerged uninjured. Sunday, he suffered a concussion and a broken wrist.
"I got my wrist cracked," he said. "I should have been killed. Next time, I'll have some kind of restraints in the car to hold my arms in, and I won't get a cracked wrist."
Earlier this week, Wallace went to Indianapolis and had a "six-inch" pin put in his wrist. Monday, he'll go back to Indianapolis, have a brace fitted and then go to Sonoma, Calif., for the Save Mart 300, May 16.
He is doing hand exercises so he will be able to grip the steering wheel on the Sonoma course. He is right-handed. The wrist he broke is his left.
"I'll take some practice laps and see how it feels," he said. "Right now, I know I can make it to the first caution [flag]. In another week, I bet I'll be able to go the distance."
Wallace must start the race to earn Winston Cup points. If at any point he can't continue, driver Scott Sharp will relieve him. Wallace, the 1989 series champion, said he will not risk losing points at Sonoma or later at The Winston, the May 22 All-Star race in Charlotte, N.C.
"If I can't get everything out of my car that's in it, I'll let Scott drive," he said. "And if my wrist is aching at all after Sonoma, I probably won't drive in The Winston. The Winston is important, but that's just money. It doesn't pay points, and I don't want to do anything to jeopardize my chances in the Coca Cola 600. It's the championship I'm after."
It was thinking about the championship that got him in trouble Sunday. He looked in his rear view mirror and saw Dale Earnhardt, his nearest challenger for the title, dive to the bottom of the track for a pass. In a split second, Wallace decided to jerk his car into Earnhardt's path.
Earnhardt tapped Wallace's rear bumper, and that's all it took to start the slide that turned Wallace's car into a disintegrating flying machine.
"I pulled down to make the block to keep him from getting extra points on me," said Wallace, who has an 86-point advantage. "I just misjudged how fast he was going. Dale was very upset. He thought he should have been able to stop. But I looked at the films, and I know down deep that I was the one that caused it. There was no way he could have stopped.
"Dale and I respect each other. To tell the truth, I respect him more than any other driver out there. This isn't going to affect the way we race against each other at all."
It won't change the way Wallace races, period. But it has made him more aware of safety. And, next time, the 36-year-old will try to judge the speed of the car behind him better before making any moves.
"People think I'm nuts normally," he said, laughing. "But this is what I love to do, and you can't let something like the possibility of an accident have an effect. The only thing these wrecks have affected is my intelligence. Every one of them has made me smarter."