Current full-time dirt track competitor and former NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace grew up in St. Louis, MO in a race car family, the youngest of Russ Wallace’s three sons and brother of Rusty and Mike Wallace. He had a successful driving career of his own, winning nine races in the Xfinity series, but he is also a man of the people and won the NASCAR Busch Series “Most Popular Driver” three times.
He has a history of mingling with fans, taking them up on invitations to join their tailgates including one in Atlanta where fans had hoisted a sign beckoning “Kenny Wallace to stop here and party with us.” He has also joined fans for motorized barstool racing, where participants put a go-cart motor and four wheels on bar stools and race them, giving Cornhole a run as the most inventive tailgate activity.
Wallace, who tears up dirt tracks full-time nowadays, spoke with Inside Tailgating about what he thinks makes NASCAR tailgating so unique and why he believes racing is still the “biggest spectator sport in all the world.”
So what do you think gives NASCAR the edge over other popular tailgating sports like the NFL, college football and Major League Baseball?
Wallace: These fans will purchase a motor home or a travel trailer or a tent and make NASCAR part of their life—whether they’re retired or they’ve got a couple weeks off for vacation. They’re not going to Europe. They’re not going to Nassau, Bahamas. They have bought this motorhome because two to four times a year they’re going to NASCAR races.
And it’s not just all about watching the race cars. It’s about the experience of the people. I hear it all the time and I see it and I’m a part of it. It’s definitely a happening.
So what makes it a happening?
Wallace: NASCAR is just a completely different animal, unlike anything in professional sports. All the other stuff is days. The Super Bowl is one day. Our Super Bowl is the Daytona 500, and it’s over a week long.
People make relationships because they’re not tailgating for three, four hours, they’re tailgating for days. When you tailgate at an NFL game, you’re tailgating for that day, and 99 percent of the people you’re tailgating with are from around your hometown. When you tailgate at a NASCAR event, you’re going to be there from Thursday night to Sunday and you’re meeting people from all over the United States.
I have some very good friends (who say) one of the reasons they go to Bristol is that they meet new people. They were born and raised in Charlotte, N.C. and they’re spending time with people from New York and different parts of the country.
Which race has the best tailgating in your mind?
Wallace: Nothing beats the August race in Bristol. The Bristol, Va./Bristol, Tenn. line is right down the middle of the town, and they have so many epic events for the fans.
They start on a Thursday night with Fan Fest, where the drivers can sign autographs, and they’ve got video games, and the sponsors really get involved. Then Thursday night, there’s the race hauler parade: 44 semi-tractors, beautifully painted up for their favorite driver. Fans will line 10 miles on both sides of Highway 11 going from Bristol, Tenn. all the way to the racetrack.
The fans are cheering, horns are honking and people are eating and drinking, tailgating alongside the highway. It’s nothing for them to set up three, four hours ahead of time. The haulers will ride into the race track and park, up until 10 o’clock on Thursday night. Then (fans) all go back to their campgrounds and wake up that next morning and sit in the grandstands and watch practice and qualifying. Then they do it all over again. Bristol has the big ol’ green hillside, and it’s packed with hundreds of motor homes and tents.
Where else is there a one-of-a-kind tailgating scene?
Wallace: The one that rivals Bristol is Talladega. Talladega Boulevard at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway—the road that runs right in the middle of the infield—is epic. I know people that go to Talladega for Talladega Boulevard. It gets wild. They’ve got naked girls, mudwrestling competitions, and firewood burning so thick you can’t breathe.
On Sunday morning, the day of the race, there have been plenty of times where I’ve been up at 7 o’clock and I have to go to work, and there are people passed out right out in the open. You name it, it’s happening there. It’s Studio 54 all over again, except the people of Alabama put their own twist on it, and they are a load of fun. They are avid.
The difference between Bristol and Talladega is 99 percent of the fans at Talladega are Earnhardt fans. So you can’t go wrong going to Talladega and putting on your Dale Earnhardt Jr. gear. Bristol is a little bit of everything. It’s far enough up that you’re going to get all types of fans. But once you get to Talladega. It’s just easier for you to wear your Earnhardt stuff.
*This interview was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Inside Tailgating magazine*