PLEASE NOTE: Add your own commentary here above the horizontal line, but do not make any changes below the line. (Of course, you should also delete this text before you publish this post.)
The enduring image from last Sunday’s Daytona 500 isn’t of race winner Austin Dillon easing into Victory Lane behind the wheel of the black No3 Chevrolet made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr. It isn’t Danica Patrick bowing out of Nascar for good in a seven-car pileup. Instead, it is Desiree Wallace crashing a post-race news conference to congratulate her son, a genial 24-year-old driver named Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. “Man, you did that thing, baby!” she said, sobbing as she held her boy in a near minute-long embrace. “I am so proud of you. You waited so long, baby.”
“You act like we just won the race,” he said through tears.
In truth Wallace had finished second, which wasn’t just a great showing for his maiden voyage in the Great American Race. It was also a return to prominence for Richard Petty, the Nascar legend and owner of Wallace’s No43 car. It was the highest finish ever in the Daytona 500 by a black driver, and the highest finish in a Monster Energy Cup race in 47 years – a pair of mile markers left by the great Wendell Scott, who was infamously denied an opportunity to celebrate his seminal Grand National victory in 1963 because race organizers didn’t want him hugging up on their white women. Wallace’s story was the highlight of a race that got lost in the shuffle behind the Winter Olympics, the NBA All-Star Game and Black Panther’s record-breaking opening weekend. The stacked Sunday slate elsewhere left Nascar, already suffering from chronic inattention, with a 23% ratings drop from last year’s race.
Wallace, though, seems like the kind of guy who could turn interest in the sport back to its early aught highs. His epic Sunday drive was no fluke. Wallace looked like a man who, well, belonged. Never mind if Desiree’s tears betray the real story. “I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do and my family pushes me each and every day,” Wallace said in between hugging his sister, Brittany, and dissolving into a gasping, shoulder-heaving mess. “They might not know it but I just want to make them proud.”
Wallace isn’t usually so emotional after a race – or ever, really. His default mode is to cut up and have fun. It’s pretty much all he did in the eight-part Facebook docu-series that followed him from the run-up to the race through the checkered flag and beyond. But beneath his basement drum sessions (which he says help his hand-eye-foot coordination in the cockpit) and the fart stories he tells at the expense of his girlfriend, Amanda (which he finds hilarious), lies an unerring sense of obligation – to his team, to his family and to his race most of all. And though he is just one of many non-white male scions to break into the major leagues of stock car racing since the sport started pushing for diversity 14 years ago, he is the only one who serves as the Rorschach test for how those efforts will ultimately play with Nascar’s MAGA hat wearing, Confederate-flag waving loyalists.
On the one hand Wallace has everything Nascar looks for in a modern Cup star: good looks, Southern charm, an extensive dirt track racing background, and the driving skills to match. Another thing he has going for him: work experience with two towering team owners – first the Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs, then the dapper don Jack Roush.
On the other hand, the “keyboard warriors,” as Wallace calls them, are always out there on Twitter. Chief among them was a 42-year-old Wisconsin man who coded his messages in white supremacist dog whistles and insulted Wallace’s dead grandmother – a woman Bubba credits with teaching him “how to love and take care of family” and “not to let people cross you and put up with bullshit.” (His affection for her was so established around Nascar that Dale Earnhardt Jr offered up his private jet to Bubba so he could see her one last time before she passed a little over year ago.) Wallace of course didn’t take the bait, and his troll was soon outed as a boys’ high school golf coach and shamed into resigning his post. “My parents are always telling me to be the bigger person,” Wallace tells the Guardian, “to never give the media anything negative to talk about. Obviously we’re all human and we slap up every once in a while, but I have to set an example.”
Cutting even deeper, perhaps, are sponsors who still hesitate to throw their full support behind a black driver. Ultimately, it was this lack of consistent cash flow that forced Wallace off the Gibbs team and stunted his progress with Roush. He went from challenging for the Xfinity title in 2015 and 2016 to a “race-by-race” schedule last year. Just as the money was about to run out, after 13 Xfinity starts, Petty’s operation reached out to see if he was interested in moving up a level to substitute for Aric Almirola, who would be sidelined for two months with a broken back following a violent crash last May.
After Wallace acquitted himself well in four relief appearances, including a pair of top-15 results down the stretch, Petty approached Bubba about joining his operation full time in 2018 as a second driver with his team. But those discussions shifted as word began to leak out that Almirola would be departing the team at season’s end to replace Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing. “It’s just crazy how things shake out,” Wallace says.
For most any Cup driver Petty makes for an ideal boss. He’s seen it all (his 35-year racing career began way back when the Daytona 500 was still run on the beach), won it all (200 Cup races and seven championships) and built up enough brand recognition over his decades as a ubiquitous pitchman to relieve the fundraising pressure on his charges (or theoretically, at least).
But for Wallace the relationship with Petty became a bit more complicated when the 80-year-old waded into the raging national anthem debate, telling USA Today in September: “Anybody that don’t stand up for [the anthem] ought to be out of the country. Period.” That this movement was being led by black athletes in the NFL in protest at racial injustice seemed to put Wallace on notice. But to hear him tell it there were no hard feelings.
“Richard is probably the most American icon in our sport and in a lot of people’s lives,” Wallace says. “He’s coming from the patriotic side of it. That’s the way I took it. We hadn’t really discussed it, and there’s no need. I’ve always stood for the national anthem, and I will continue to do that. That was just a hiccup or whatever you wanna call it.”
Besides, he knows Petty’s heart. When Scott was sputtering across the color line in the 1960s and 70s in ramshackle equipment that he ran and repaired himself, Petty was the one who slipped him excess parts and tires, who opened his home to Scott and his family. That Petty is now abetting the rise of a driver who has the potential do for US auto racing what Tiger Woods did for golf feels like arc coming full circle.
What’s more, Petty is pushing Wallace at a time when black drivers like Jann Mardenborough and Lewis Hamilton are leading a racing revolution. “A little bit of a splash in the motorsports world goes a long way since there aren’t a lot of familiar faces in it,” says Wallace, who hopes to maintain his form in the coming races, starting this Saturday in Atlanta.
“For me, the key will be just to get in a consistent rhythm, get comfortable with everything so going to these race tracks in a Cup car is totally different,” he adds. “The speeds are different, the racing’s a lot tougher. We’ve gotta be ready for that.”
That and weepy hugs with mom, too.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010