Until Sunday, no Black driver had raced in either a top tier NASCAR event or the Daytona 500 since 1971. That was the final year for pioneering Wendell Scott, the first Black NASCAR regular driver, whose best finish at Daytona was 13th in 1966. But Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. not only changed all that, he made history by finishing second in NASCAR’s biggest event.
This followed a week where Wallace was the talk of Daytona. He finished third in a qualifying race Thursday. Plus NASCAR had named him earlier as one of the new racers they would be touting during the season. Making things even more ironic is Wallace is driving for a team headed by Richard Petty, the sport’s biggest name and holder of seven championships.
Petty said when he hired Wallace last winter it was a decision strictly based on ability. But no one at NASCAR will deny that diversity among both the fan base and the workforce has never been a strong point, even with a diversity program in place that covers all the different divisions, plus the garages and technical end.
Wallace got a good luck call from Henry Aaron and a tweet from four time Formula 500 champion Lewis Hamilton. He not only came within 0.28 of a second of edging out winner Austin Dillion, but outmaneuvered veteran NASCAR driver Denny Hamblin to grab second. He also avoided the four wrecks that claimed a lot of drivers, including the final Daytona 500 for Danica Patrick.
One thing that Wallace is careful not to do is overstate what his elevation to regular NASCAR driver means in the overall scope of things. It is even more expensive to pursue a racing career than a hockey, golf or tennis one. No single person can afford all the costs that range from having at least two cars available at all times to the engineering and technical crews necessary to help drivers through the races.
While there are certainly lots of Blacks who love cars and driving, very few ever go into the ranks of midget racing, dirt tracks and the various other developmental roads to becoming a NASCAR driver.
A few years ago a team jointly headed by Julius Erving and Joe Washington tried to get a team into NASCAR. But they weren’t able to get the necessary sponsorship backing. Also Wallace possesses the kind of talent that can make him a star.
Many years ago Willy T. Ribbs briefly made a little noise in Indy Car. The late Walter Payton also had an Indy Car team, and former NBA Star Brad Daughtery has been both a NASCAR commentator and team owner.
But no one since Scott has been out front as a NASCAR driver till now. Bubba Wallace has the potential to enjoy a long and successful career, and this past Sunday’s finish was just the start of it.