NASCAR Production Photo Days
Chris Graythen

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.

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P Diddy promotes his new Diddy Dirty Money single 'Coming Home' and his headphones DiddyBeats at HMV, Oxford Street on January 20, 2011 in London, England.
Photo by Matt Kent/WireImage

'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Courtesy of Level.com

Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.

 

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