Bubba Wallace Helps Change The Face Of NASCAR, But Racist Images Of The Past Still Linger
As NASCAR’s 2019 season gets rolling, the traditional “Good Ol’ Boy” motorsport’s diversity efforts are hampered by its past.
It’s the day before the biggest race of NASCAR’s season. Darrell Wallace Jr. – better known as Bubba, a nickname given to him by his older sister, Brittany – is holding court inside of his hauler, the trailer that more resembles a NASA command center on the inside. He’s battling the onset of a cold and has just stepped out his car after doing a trial run around the Daytona International Speedway, which was the site of his greatest racing accomplishment just a year earlier. “I never thought I’d be here talking to you today, driving the No. 43,” Wallace says in his deep southern drawl. “We just race and have fun. It took a lot of work and a lot of determination.”
Wallace finished second at the 2018 Daytona 500, the best finish by an African-American driver ever in the 60 years of the “Great American Race.” That No. 43 is the iconic car driven by racing legend Richard Petty, a.k.a. “The King.” Wallace has been a member of Petty’s racing team since 2017 and has become one of the sport’s breakout stars. Even as he drives an iconic car, Wallace didn’t have any NASCAR role models as a kid growing up in Concord, N.C.
“I didn’t want to be like Mike,” he says, joking about Michael Jordan. “I didn’t watch NASCAR until I was 17. It was on the TV because my family were big fans of it. But in terms of role models, I didn’t have them.”
He has quickly become the most prominent black face in a sport that has a long, checkered history with race. NASCAR has both the whitest viewership – an estimated 94 percent, to the 92 percent of the National Hockey League – and the whitest group of participants of any American sport by percentage. Of the 48 drivers on NASCAR’s top series, the Monster Energy Cup Series, Wallace is the only black driver. By contrast, there are currently 25 black players in the NHL.
Wallace is also just the fourth black driver to compete in a top circuit NASCAR event. His 2nd place finish at Daytona is the closest a black driver has come to winning a race on NASCAR’s top circuit since Wendell Scott won at Jacksonville’s Speedway Park on Dec. 1, 1963. That win also stands as the only victory for a black driver on NASCAR’s top division.
“He feels like he’s carrying the flag of the [black] community,” Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s President since September 2018, said of Bubba. “He’s a great ambassador, both broadly and for African-Americans. He uses this as an opportunity to overcome. He would be a great champion.”
Diversity was one of the big buzzwords of Speed Week and, around the massive Speedway, it was clear that the sport has made a concerted effort to diversify on and off the track. Wallace first signed on with NASCAR in 2009 at just 16 with Rev Racing, which is the competitive wing of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. “We signed on with [Joe Gibbs Racing], and we contacted them wondering what’s the next step,” Wallace says. “In 2010, they brought all the drivers under one banner.
“We jumped on, won the first race right out of the box and won our second race later on that year,” he adds. “I won rookie of the year, we went back and won three times the next year.”
Wallace’s run through NASCAR’s lower circuits – the Xfinity Cup Series, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, and K&N Pro Series – saw him rack up 12 victories and nearly 100 top 10 finishes.
Diversity in the Trenches
Taking a walk around the track, you will see dozens of black pit crew members, many of whom look like they belong on an NFL offensive or defensive line, which is by design. The Drive for Diversity program that helped produce Wallace is also being used to change the face of the pits.
“We go all across the country recruiting athletes and teach them how to be pit crew members,” said Phil Horton, NASCAR’s Director of Athletic Performance. Horton, a former head athletic trainer at Florida A&M University as well as a former strength coach for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, runs the strength and conditioning program for pit crew members.
Horton heads up a program that has recruited a number of former NCAA Division I athletes to switch over and become crew members. The pit crew is the most integral part of a race team, similar to an O-line, and each position requires a different skill.
“The main reason that we have athletes do this is because they’re used to performing on the big stage,” Horton said on Saturday prior to that day’s Xfinity Daytona 300. Two of Horton’s top recruits are young women, former Norfolk State basketball player Brehanna Daniels and Briana O’Leary, a former softball player at Alcorn State University. Neither one knew a thing about auto racing coming in.
“I did not watch NASCAR,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t even on my TV for five seconds unless I was looking for a basketball game or football game. I didn’t watch it.” Last year, Daniels, 24, became the first black woman to work on a NASCAR pit crew, which is a far cry from two years earlier when she had never seen a race. She had reservations about getting into the sport because of the lack of representation. “I was kinda iffy about joining [NASCAR] because there really aren’t people that look like me,” Daniels said. “I was thinking that I could open doors for people.”
Derrell Edwards, a former shooting guard at High Point University in North Carolina, had a path to NASCAR that mirrored Daniels. The Baltimore native was first introduced to NASCAR through an internship with Richard Childress Racing by way of a preacher at High Point.
He currently works in the pit crew of Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon, the winner of last year’s Daytona 500. While Wallace made history coming in 2nd last year at the 500, Edwards made history as the first black pit crew member on the Daytona 500’s winning team.
He compared being on a pit crew to being on the free throw line. “When that crowd is yelling at you, you have a job to do,” Edwards said. “It’s the same thing [when] jumping out and doing a pit stop. You’re doing thousands of pit stops every year and basketball prepared me for that.”
Brandon Thompson, Managing Director of NASCAR’s Touring Series, has been with the company since 2003. Thompson, who graduated from Clark Atlanta University, had never watched a NASCAR race prior to joining the company as an intern.
“I grew up in Nashville and my grandmother lived less than two miles away from the Nashville Fairgrounds,” he said. “My uncle would tell these stories of how they would sneak under the fence and I never heard any of these stories until I started my job. When I started my internship in 2003, I was standing on the grid when one of the Xfinity races started and I got chills. I was hooked.”
He says that the biggest difference between now and 16 years ago is in the raw numbers of black and brown faces, but adds that diversity has been there for a while. “There were more diverse people working in [NASCAR] than people may have thought, but now it’s getting to the point where it’s not uncommon to see people in the pits, in the office, or in the ancillary parts of the business,” Thompson said. “This is not a stated HR goal, but a lot of people would agree that the first wave started on pit road, but now we’re starting to see people in and around the office.”
“We have to show African-Americans they are welcome here.”
On the morning of the race on Feb. 17, Phelps was all smiles. He was ready for the signature event of NASCAR’s season, and his first Daytona 500 as president. Phelps beamed as he talked about the organization’s efforts to diversify. He noted that over the last three years NASCAR’s "kick ass" fanbase has become increasingly more diverse, including an influx of women and Latino fans.
He credited some of that to Daniel Suárez, the only Mexican driver in NASCAR, who also is one of a handful of drivers from Latin America. Prior to joining NASCAR in 2005, Phelps worked as one of the NFL’s top marketers.
The 500’s comparisons to the Super Bowl are a familiar song to him even as he could not be further away from football. “I worked at the NFL for almost 14 years,” Phelps said, noting that unlike the NFL, the teams that race in NASCAR, as well as the race tracks, are all independent contractors. “They’re structured differently. If they have an issue with one of their owners, Roger [Goodell] can pick up the phone and say, ‘Get in line,’ and we don’t have that luxury.”
However, even as there is a distinctly different feel to Daytona on the track and in the pits and garages, in the Speedway’s massive infield, a familiar sight from NASCAR’s past was on full display: RVs, motor homes, buses, and vans proudly flying the Confederate Flag.
“The Confederate Flag thing bothers me personally,” Phelps said. “I think the difficult part for us is trying to figure out how do you tell someone that symbol is offensive to people and to take it down. It’s not an easy situation for us. It’s not where we want to be.”
NASCAR’s connection to the deep South, has made it one of the last refuges for the racist imagery. While not as prevalent as days gone by, it was not hard to spot the Stars and Bars – along with numerous flags emblazoned with the name “Trump” – flying side-by-side as soon as you pulled into the track.
Once inside, there were men and women sporting Confederate Flag, Blue Lives Matter, and MAGA paraphernalia, often combined. While other leagues and organizations – the NCAA being the most prominent – have effectively banned the Confederate flag from its grounds, it endures in NASCAR.
For black people in the sport, the flag and its racist history are nearly inescapable. It’s also makes it difficult for any potential new black fans to take NASCAR’s various diversity initiatives seriously when they are greeted by racism at the entrances.
“I grew up a racing fan because my family owned a service station. NASCAR is natural to me and my family,” Horton, a North Carolina native said. “But it is not natural to minorities. I grew up watching Wendell Scott, so I had somebody like me in the sport.
“After he retired (in 1971), then that changed,” he added. “I think NASCAR gets a bad rep because of our history. I don’t think that holds true today.”
NASCAR Chairman Bill France, a Trump supporter, asked for — but did not require — the flag’s removal from speedways in 2015. The flag, as well as the open support of Trump, continues to be a looming shadow that tamps down NASCAR’s diversity initiatives. For Phelps, it was an uncomfortable subject to talk about as he tried to walk the line of welcoming new, diverse fans while not upsetting their traditional Southern fanbase.
“Telling someone they can’t come to this facility and not display a Confederate flag has been difficult because it’s something that we’ve tried,” he said. “When we tried to do that, there were even more that came. We are seeing fewer, but we have to show African-Americans they are welcome here. The commonality around this is about racing.”
Wallace has dealt with his fair share of racist trolls. While he has yet to experience racism on the track, he has dealt with racism as a kid and on social media. “We’d go to a track and show up and win you’d get some hate thrown toward you,” he says of his childhood experience. “But I didn’t care.”
For Bubba, he finds solace in his car even while others need ear plugs to drown out the noise. “It’s the most comfortable spot in the world,” he says of the No. 43 car. “It’s my seat and my seat only. It’s formed to every overhang on my body; every piece of fat on my body.
“No one else can fit in my seat,” he adds. “I’ll go in there and fall asleep in a matter of seconds. It’s hot and if you’re claustrophobic, it’s not for you.”
Wallace was unable to repeat last year’s finish as his car wrecked during the race’s 20th lap. Bubba was bumped from behind by Tyler Reddick and hit former 500 winner Kurt Busch, who was in the process of spinning out. He was in the top 10 at the time of the wreck and, in true Bubba fashion, he was furious and made it known.
“[Reddick] wins a f**king Xfinity Championship and thinks he’s f**king ready for the big boy sh*t,” he said over the radio to his crew.
Denny Hamlin eventually ended up winning the 2019 Daytona 500, his second Daytona victory the last five years. For all of the battles on the track between drivers in the heat of a race, it’s the slow, quiet fight in the trenches and boardrooms of NASCAR that is maybe its biggest.
As it attempts to re-establish itself as one of the country’s premiere sports, NASCAR will have to continue to work harder at diversifying not just from the inside out. It will also have to make changes from the outside in.