For Kenny Wallace, To Give To Special People Is More Special For
CONCORD, N.C. - It’s a sure bet that, within the space of a week, Kenny Wallace has done a couple of things no other NASCAR driver has.
He served as coach and navigator for a blind man who took a spin around Charlotte Motor Speedway in his restored Camaro.
Then, six days later, he returned to drive a special visitor around the 1.5-mile track. She is the oldest living breast cancer survivor in North Carolina – and she is 102 years old.
Thus, the 48-year-old Wallace got the opportunity to play a special part in the lives of two unique people, a fact that has certainly not been lost on him.
“It made me feel like a million dollars,” said Wallace, youngest of the racing Wallace clan that includes brothers Rusty and Mike.
The effusive, outgoing Wallace, who is also a television personality and who can ingratiate himself to anyone quickly and easily, is a natural when dealing with people. He’s engaging and friendly and it doesn’t take long for folks to feel comfortable around him.
So it seemed obvious that CMS would recruit him for a couple of hospitality events.
“It surprised me, really,” Wallace said. “Megan (Englehart) from SPEED called me up and said the track had asked her if I would be interested in taking a blind man around the race track.
“At first I thought, ‘that sounds a little scary.’ But I knew all the Cup guys were out at Phoenix testing the new track there so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. No problem.’”
The sightless man is Ronnie Presnell, a 62-year-old former Mecklenburg County (N.C.) sheriff’s deputy. In 1998 he was involved in a car accident that put him in a coma for six weeks.
He endured reconstructive surgery on his face and lost his eyesight permanently.
Presnell, a racing buff who built his own cars and has competed on dirt tracks, decided he needed a project after he came home from the hospital. So he began to restore his 1968 Camaro.
He hoped that one day he could drive it around CMS.
When that happened it was Wallace’s task to guide Presnell around the track at 20-25 mph.
“I thought I was just going to the track to be with a blind man who wanted to take a few laps,” said Wallace. “It was pretty different and, I’ll admit, a bit nerve wracking to direct him as he drove.
“But we did it and it was a blast.”
No doubt Presnell benefitted from what was surely a rewarding experience for him. But Wallace reaped some unanticipated rewards.
“The next day I go to the airport to go to Kansas City,” he said. “I look up at the TV in the airport and I see that I’m on Headline News. Then everyone was lighting up my phone. What happened with me at the track ended up news all over the world.”
Wallace could hardly anticipate there would be more to come. But there was.
“Nationwide wanted me to do Dash For Cash press conferences with Elliott Sadler, Ricky Stenhouse and Ryan Truex. I said OK.
“While we’re doing the press conferences Nationwide tells me that the speedway’s Marcus Smith (track president) wanted to know if I would drive a 102-year-old lady around the track.
“Sounded a lot easier that what I had already done so I said, ‘No problem,’”
The lady is Nannie Sue Neal of Waxhaw, N.C., who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1954. She underwent a radical mastectomy and has now been free of cancer for 57 years.
She was named an honorary race official for the Oct. 14 Dollar General 300 Miles of Courage Nationwide race, which seems appropriate, given that the event’s theme is awareness of the fight against breast cancer through the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure.
Wallace drove Neal, who has watched three generations of the Earnhardt family race, in a pink Toyota Camry.
“Then I ended up on the front page of the newspaper again,” Wallace said. “The next time I saw Marcus Smith I said, ‘Hey, I can’t drive a race car forever. If you want to hire me and put me on a retainer I’d love to do all your hospitality for you.’
“But I’ll be honest with you. I was lucky. Marcus was so pleased with how it all turned out that he called my boss at SPEED and told him how good a job I did.”
Wallace, however, never considered personal gain of any kind when he agreed to work with CMS.
If he hadn’t gotten a single piece of notoriety, or any mention whatsoever via the media, Wallace would have done it anyway.
And he wouldn’t have had to be asked. If he knew, without being told, why Presnell and Neal were to be at CMS he would have been there also.
“I think what might have caught some people off guard about all of this is that sometimes they think I’m always putting on a show,” Wallace said. “That’s wrong. I’m genuine.
“I would have done it all anyway. Forget any kind of show.
“Here’s a guy, Ronnie Presnell, who gets T-boned in his car and loses his sight. When I think of him my mind races back to the days of Dale Earnhardt and my brother Rusty. I don’t dwell in the past but I learn from it.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for those fans that grew up in that era – when NASCAR was at its ultimate rising point and there were 50,000 fans in the grandstands for qualifying.
“I know that Ronnie Presnell was one of those fans. I also know that Nannie Sue Neal loved Dale Earnhardt and that his son is her favorite driver. I can’t help but have place in my heart for her, Ronnie and people like them.”
Wallace also admits that the effect his racing career has had on him made him much more aware of others – all of whom, of course, have had their share of trials and tribulations.
“I look at myself and I’ve got three beautiful daughters, I’ve been happily married and I’ve had a great racing career,” Wallace said. “But I’ve been roughed up a bit in my career. I wanted to be Jeff Gordon. I wanted it bad. Didn’t happen.
“But then I realize I have so much more than many and I also realize that many times people don’t care enough about, or for, each other.
Which he did, most willingly, for two special people.