Al Unser is the national Indy car driving champion, and Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford have won the last couple of races. They’re all in their 40s, but that doesn’t change the fact that the kids are taking over.
Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Geoff Brabham have already made their marks in their fathers’ sport, and now there’s going to be a new kid on the block, Wally Dallenbach Jr.
Wally Jr., 23, is the defending Trans-Am champion--the youngest in the history of the Sports Car Club of America’s premier series--and is leading again this year.
His father is the director of competition and chief steward of Championship Auto Racing Teams, the Indy car sanctioning body. As a driver, Wally Sr. won the California 500 in 1973 at Ontario Motor Speedway and competed in 13 Indianapolis 500s and 180 Indy car races between 1965 and 1979, winning five times.
The Dallenbachs could make a bid for being America’s No. 1 racing family, along with the Andrettis, Unsers and Pettys.
Young Wally’s wife, the former Robin McCall, is a professional driver in her own right, and Wally’s younger brother, Paul, 19, is racing in the Formula Atlantic series.
“I can’t remember when I ever wanted to do anything else but drive a race car,” Wally said during a lull in practice recently at a Trans-Am weekend. “Of course, no one knows exactly how they’ll feel until they actually sit in a race car.
“I was brought up at race tracks when my dad was racing, but I was 15 before I sat in a race car. It was a ’69 Mustang my dad had built when we moved to Colorado. The minute I drove it, I loved it. I knew right then that racing would be my life, and today I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Dallenbach is sitting on top of the Trans-Am world today. He has three wins in eight races, has earned $53,700, is leading Pete Halsmer by eight points with five races remaining and seems headed for Indy cars next season. But he knows from his own short career, and from watching his dad, that racing can deal snake eyes as easily as 7s.
“I think, having grown up around racing, that I can deal with the stresses better than most young guys. No matter how much you win, in racing you always lose more than you win, and that means you’d better learn to be as good a loser as you are a winner. There are a lot of spoiled little rich kids out there, racing, who think money can buy wins. I learned long ago that teams make wins, not just having a lot of money. When I say teams, I mean all the guys down to the truck drivers who haul the car from race to race.”
Dallenbach learned to appreciate truck drivers when he was still a teen-ager, hauling his own modified stock car from one bullring track to another, racing three nights a week on the East Coast.
“I appreciate the job the truck driver has because I did it,” he said. “I got the gas, I changed the tires, I worked all day at odd jobs and worked on the car nights when I wasn’t driving or racing. That didn’t leave a lot of time for sleep, that’s for sure. It’s good for someone to go through all that, doing everything.”
Dallenbach was so eager to get going on his career that he almost missed graduation in Basalt, Colo., where his family had moved from New Jersey when he was 10.
“I would have left five minutes after my last class, but my mom made me wait a week so I could go to graduation,” he said. “I left the next day. I’d raced for a year and a half around Aspen, but there weren’t many races. My dad thought I could use the experience I could get in the modifieds. He’d raced in them years before.
“He was right. It taught me a lot--especially humility.”
Dallenbach didn’t win a race for nearly two years, but he consistently finished with the leaders at Wall Stadium, a one-third-mile, banked asphalt oval near Belmar, N.J., and at New Egypt Speedway, an almost flat, quarter-mile paved oval.
“Things I learned on those tracks have really helped me on road courses,” he said. “I learned to run in traffic, I mean heavy traffic, and I learned how to go for the holes. There are a lot of road racers who aren’t very good in traffic.
“I also found out back there that you don’t win if you don’t have a killer instinct. You have to be aggressive. When I first went back there, I was Mr. Nice Guy. The turning point for me was when I realized that I had to change my attitude. That, and learning how to go fast .
“I crashed a lot, but that’s what happens when you’re in with a bunch of guys driving 500-horsepower V-8 engines on tracks that tight. I feel like I got all of my crashing out of the way driving modifieds.
“I also learned that you don’t cut off the local favorite in New Jersey. I took out the favorite one night on the start and I thought the fans were going to come through the fence and lynch me.”
After the modifieds, Dallenbach switched to Bilstein Rabbits in 1982 and was named rookie of the year in the SCCA’s secondary series. The following year he shared a ride with Whitney Ganz and Dennis Aase in Dan Gurney’s Toyota Celica, winning the GTU class in the Times/Datsun six-hour race at Riverside. Despite that victory, plus several good finishes in Trans-Am and Can-Am races, Dallenbach couldn’t get a competitive ride for the 1984 season.
“If you didn’t have $300,000 to buy yourself a ride, it was nothing doing,” he said. “Dad said I ought to take a chance in the Trans-Am with a shoestring operation and hope I’d get noticed. As usual, he was right. He bought a DeAtley Camaro and ran the team out of the ranch in Basalt. We called it the Colorado Connection.
“Dad was too busy with his own work to go with us, so I headed out with my sister Colleen and my sister’s fiance as my crew. None of us were over 22 and there we were, in with the big boys. We went to Atlanta for the first race without a sponsor and finished fourth.
“Jim Trueman (owner of the Mid-Ohio track and sponsor of Bobby Rahal’s Indianapolis 500 winner before he died last June) gave us a hand financially, and pretty soon we were getting product help like tires and oil and shocks from the manufacturers.”
Dallenbach and his Colorado Connection finished the season fourth in the standings--the first Chevy behind Ford factory drivers Tom Gloy, Greg Pickett and Willy T. Ribbs. The Colorado Connection also raised a few eyebrows by beating the factory-backed Camaro driven by David Hobbs and Darin Brassfield. Dallenbach was named rookie of the year and, as his father had said, was noticed.
Ford tabbed him to drive a Protofab Capri in 1985 and as co-driver of a GTO Mustang in International Motor Sports Assn. events.
“The last couple of years, Dad has been so busy he couldn’t make many of my races, but we always talked over my career moves,” Dallenbach said. “He always gives me a different perspective. When all I can see are the red roses, he brings me back down to earth.
“One guy who really helped us in ’84 was Dennis Aase. I met him when I drove for Gurney in the Celica and he traveled with us part of the season. It was like having a coach right along with me.”
Aase is a veteran sports car driver from Orange who has won 13 IMSA races in Porsches and Toyotas.
The 1984 season was also the one in which Wally met Robin McCall.
“We started talking one day at Elkhart Lake, where the Indy cars and the Trans-Am ran on the same program at Road America. She was a pace car driver for CART. We met again at Green Valley (Tex.), and then in Las Vegas I asked her out to dinner. She was as ornery as I was at dinner, so we figured we were a good match. We’ve been together ever since.”
Robin drives an ’87 Oldsmobile Calais in the Kelly American Challenge series. In her first race this season she finished fifth, beating, among others, veteran stock car driver Hershel McGriff.
“We’ve never raced together, but I’d like to drive a GTO car with her at Daytona in the 24 Hour race, or maybe Sebring,” Dallenbach said. “That would be great fun if we can work it out with our other schedules.”
Dallenbach won both at Daytona and Sebring in 1985, driving a Ford with John Jones of Canada in the GTO class. He and Jones won three other IMSA events, which helped Jones to the championship and a berth on the racing writers’ All-American team.
Dallenbach, however, had his big moment in 1985 at Portland International Raceway June 15, driving a Mercury Capri to his first solo victory as a professional.
“It was like climbing the highest mountain,” he said. “It took so much pressure off me, wondering if I would ever win, and knowing a lot of other people were wondering the same thing. The way I won it, too, was great. I had Willy T. (Ribbs) on my back bumper the last 20 laps. He was right on my tail, waiting for me to make a mistake, but I didn’t.”
Dallenbach also finished first at Detroit in a race through the streets but was disqualified for having too light a car. He came back to win officially at Road America, Watkins Glen, N.Y.; Mosport, Canada, and St. Louis, earning $123,583 and beating out Ribbs, his teammate, for the series championship.
“I wanted to move on this year,” he said. “I didn’t think I had much more to prove in Trans-Am. I wanted to get in a strong GTP program, but when I heard Protofab was switching from Ford to Chevy, I decided it would be worthwhile staying in Trans-Am because it’s important to be with a Protofab-type team. It’s been a good switch.”
Charley Selix, the car owner, likes Dallenbach’s attitude, and if Protofab gets into Indy cars, Dallenbach will be the unknown factor.
His father, who would be the man to pass on Wally Jr.'s qualifications before his first Indy car race, foresees no problem.
“He’ll do all right,” said CART’s No. 1 man at the track. “It’s quite a jump from Trans-Am to Indy cars, but I stepped up from sprint cars and midgets straight to Indy, and it worked out.
“The years he spent driving modifieds trained him for traffic. He has a well-grounded background. I feel if you show an aptitude for driving a race car, all that matters is getting hooked up with the right team and the right equipment.”
Wally Sr. is more concerned at the moment with the career of yet another Dallenbach, Paul.
“I got Wally started with Trans-Am three years ago with the Colorado Connection,” he said. “Now I’m getting Paul started. It’s my team, my car, my truck, my operation.
“It’s great working with your own kids on something you enjoy, but I’m kind of glad I’m running out of kids. Thank goodness our daughter didn’t show any inclination to race, but now I have a daughter-in-law who’s a doggone good driver. She’s got the right stuff and she’ll be moving up.”
Paul was named rookie of the year in VW Cup competition last season in his first year before stepping up to Formula Atlantic.
“If Paul finishes the year the way he’s been running, it will be remarkable for a kid only 19,” his father said.
One thing father and sons agree on is that the boys have no glittering illusions about the glamour of auto racing.
“The boys traveled with us when they were kids and they learned early the positives and negatives of racing,” the elder Dallenbach said. “They’ve seen some of the good times and some of the bad times.
“They were there to see their dad win his first race at Milwaukee in 1973. What a great day that was. And then I won the 500 at Ontario a couple of weeks later. They were also there when I was in that 12-car crash on the first lap at Indy. That was a traumatic time for them, not knowing if I was hurt, even if I was alive.”
That was the day in 1973 when Salt Walther’s car was knocked spinning into the wall and caught fire before it reached the starting line. Dallenbach, after deliberately spinning to avoid Walther’s car, leaped from his own car and attempted to get Walther out of the burning wreck.
“The kids were there at Indy, too, on the most devastating day of my career, the day I had it won. I was in total command of the race. I had a 24-second lead when I burned a piston. The race ended five minutes later.”
That was 1975. Dallenbach, after battling A.J. Foyt for the lead during the first half of the race, took over at the halfway mark and built up a 24-second advantage over Bobby Unser. Then Tom Sneva crashed in Turn 3, and his car burst into flames, bringing on a long caution period.
When the green flag finally was shown and Dallenbach tried to resume speed in his George Bignotti-prepared Wildcat, the piston exploded.
Rain, which had been predicted for two days, began falling a few minutes later, and Unser aqua-planed home for the rain-shortened win.
“There were so many ifs,” Dallenbach recalled. “If we could have lasted a few more laps, if the rain had come a few minutes earlier, if Tom (Sneva) hadn’t tangled with (Eldon) Rasmussen. If . . .
“It was the most hollow, empty feeling of my life,” Dallenbach said.
Eleven years later, the emptiness remains. As Dallenbach recalled the incident, he looked down at the ground and slowly shook his head. It was still hard to take.
But the future belongs to the kids--Wally Jr., Robin and Paul.
“The Dallenbach clan is pretty strong,” the patriarch said, brightening at the thought of having a second generation of racers in his life.