When Bubba Wallace became the second Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race last week, he did much more than make personal history. He achieved career validation because there are many NASCAR drivers who never win any races throughout their tenure. It’s the main reason for the points system that awards drivers who finish in the Top 10 because few things in a team or individual sport are tougher than winning an auto race, whether it’s Formula 1, Indy Car or NASCAR. Though he’d previously gotten a second place in the Daytona 500, there remained those who viewed him as more symbol than legitimate driver, an unfair tag to be sure.
First, no matter how good a driver you may be, or how well you’re running on a particular day, circumstances beyond your control may doom your efforts. Anything from engine trouble, a blown tire or a wreck by someone else which affects your pace can cause a driver to lose. You could also be negatively impacted by someone in your crew not doing their job effectively or fast enough during a pit stop.
Assuming none of that happens, then you still have to beat a host of other talented drivers. Wallace, in winning at Talladega Superspeedway, was in first place when rain forced race officials to call things and declare him the winner. Wallace, driving the number 23 car in honor of team owner Michael Jordan (both an alltime NBA great and huge NASCAR fan), had already maneuvered his way through a crash and held the lead for five laps. There had previously been two delays due to rain, but the track couldn’t be dried off, and the race was called.
“This is for all the kids out there that want to have an opportunity and whatever they want to achieve, and be the best at what they want to do. You’re going to go through a lot of bulls***,” Wallace said afterwards. “But you always got to stick true to your path and not let the nonsense get to you. Stay strong. Stay humble. Stay hungry. Been plenty of times when I wanted to give up.”
At 27, Wallace is in his first season on Jordan’s 23X1 Racing team. NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Wendell Scott became the first Black driver to win at this level in 1963. He did not get to celebrate his win at the race, because another driver was initially flagged as the winner, according to a post on NASCAR’s website. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015, and his family was presented with a trophy commemorating his 1963 victory earlier this year.
Wallace has made his share of enemies in the NASCAR fan base, one of the most right-wing in any sport. He’s been outspoken on racial justice issues throughout his career. In June 2020, he wore a pre-race t-shirt with the words “I can’t breathe.” He was also a vocal advocate of getting the Confederate Flag banned at NASCAR races.
Then there was the controversy over an incident at a June race last year. The door pull of Wallace’s garage was found to be tied into a noose, sparking an FBI probe. The probe found the noose had been in the garage since October 2019, and could not have been directed at Wallace, who was only assigned the garage the week before the rope was found.
But a lot of loudmouths, among them former President Trump, accused Wallace of manufacturing the issue, and many in that camp have never forgiven him. Some of these jerks even went online after the race and accused NASCAR of deliberately throwing in the towel to give Wallace a victory he didn’t deserve, as though he’s the first person to ever win a rain-shortened race.
Fortunately, Wallace has said on multiple occasions he hasn’t faced that type of ignorance from NASCAR drivers, and last year after the noose incident there was a show of support that included legendary driver Richard Petty, whose team Wallace was driving for at the time.
While there certainly remain those in the NASCAR fan base who’ll never accept Bubba Wallace, now that he’s won a race and gotten that behind him, hopefully he’ll go on to win more, and eventually become one of the top drivers in the sport.