At 26 and in his second year as the only fulltime Black driver on NASCAR’s top circuit, Bubba Wallace has emerged over the last three weeks as both the embodiment of change and a very controversial figure. Wallace called for the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events, something the organization did in a move that surprised many veteran observers of the sport. Since its beginnings, stock car racing’s primary audience has been working class Southern whites, many with right-wing leanings and either family connections to or sympathies with the Confederacy. For over its 72-year tenure, only one Black man has ever even won a race, Wendell Scott. Scott was NASCAR’s first Black driver and competed in 495 races over his 13-year career.
Though he won a Grand National Series race before the title was changed to the present day Cup series, that 1963 race at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla. became infamous because of the treatment Scott received after winning. He was essentially shunned and ignored. Scott battled overt racism throughout his career, though he had more problems with officials than with fellow drivers. NASCAR tried to make amends for their treatment by posthumously inducting Scott into their Hall of Fame in 2015. His life story was dramatized in the film “Greased Lightning” that starred Richard Pryor, and a street in his hometown of Danville, Virginia is named after him.
But historically only eight Blacks have ever started at least one NASCAR race. Wallace drives the number 43 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE for Richard Petty Motorsports. The fact he’s driving on a team headed by the most famous personality in NASCAR history, coupled with him being its only Black driver, already ensured Wallace would be under a lot of scrutiny. But things have really accelerated in that department over the last three weeks, particularly after an incident at Talladega when one of his crew members spotted a noose hanging in the garage. That led to all 40 other NASCAR drivers rallying behind Wallace in a show of support, and NASCAR pledging to permanently ban whoever had done it.
Then an FBI investigation declared there was no hate crime or intent behind it, even though it just happened to have been left in the one garage occupied by the circuit’s lone Black driver. Supposedly it had been there over a year, and was just a pull rope twisted into a noose. Wallace later spoke out saying he was glad the FBI had investigated, and that he’d had serious concerns about his safety. Right-wing press types accused him of deliberately staging the scene to get publicity.
Wallace’s track record hasn’t been great, but he finished second at last year’s Daytona 500 and 3rd at the Brickyard 500 held at the hallowed Indy race track. He says he has no intentions of backing down or not speaking out because of the incident. He finished 14th at Talladega, and a small group of Black fans rushed the fence afterwards and cheered for him. He also got strong public support from team owner Petty, who made his first visit to a NASCAR race since the pandemic temporarily shut down the sport in March.
“Ever since I’ve been speaking out, I haven’t been thinking about my sponsors,” Wallace told the Associated Press recently. “I’ve been thinking about me being a human being and standing up for what’s right. I would hope that sponsors would see that and back me up on that. It’s not like I wanted to be in this position or asked to be in this position,” he added. “It just kind of happened.” Wallace knows he’s attracted the ire of some old guard NASCAR types, angry they can’t wave or display their rebel flags any longer. It will be quite instructive to follow him the remainder of the season and see if any other incidents occur, and whether he will be able to gain his first win. A couple of victories are all he needs to become not only a symbol NASCAR has moved into the 21st century, but an indication they may also have a new star on their hands.