By Nathan Tucker
Bubba Wallace, in his fairly short racing career, has already established himself as the most successful black driver in NASCAR history. His life on the racetrack began before he was even ten years old.
In 2005, at the age of eleven, Wallace won 35 of 48 Bandolero series races. Bandolero races, for the uninitiated, are contested by preteens in cars that top out around 70-80 miles per hour.
In 2012, he won his first pole position (qualifying first for a race) in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, the second highest level of NASCAR. In 2013, he became the first black man to win a NASCAR national series race since Wendell Scott in 1963, winning a Camping World Truck Series (third highest level of NASCAR) Kroger 200 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
2017 was an eventful year for Wallace. He voiced “Bubba Wheelhouse” in Cars 3, and Richard Petty Racing announced that he would be driving the No. 43 car in the Cup Series (the highest level of NASCAR) in place of the injured Aric Almirola. When Almirola left the team the next year, Bubba Wallace became the first black man to have a full-time car in NASCAR since Wendell Scott in 1971.
That year, Wallace finished second in the Daytona 500, the best-ever finish by a full-time rookie in the history of the race. Wallace finished ahead of three-time Daytona 500 champ Denny Hamlin by two thousandths of a second.
In 2019, Bubba finished 3rd at the Brickyard 400 at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his best finish of the season. He had established himself in NASCAR’s highest tier, despite not reaching the top places in the grid again that season.
In May of 2020, with NASCAR running live races again, the sport saw its highest ratings in years, cornering the live sports market as many other sports remained shut down. In the same month, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin.
As NASCAR’s only black driver, Wallace used his platform to speak out about police brutality towards black people in America. On June 8, he called upon NASCAR to ban displays of the Confederate flag, which NASCAR tried and failed to do in 2015 after the first “wave” of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia on June 10, Wallace and Richard Petty Racing ran a special car in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement. The team gave him the idea of running an all-black car.
The hood of the car showed black and white hands locking together, the tail end of the car donned a peace sign with hands of all colors inside of it. The Black Lives Matter hashtag adorned each side and the phrase “Compassion, Love, Understanding” was emblazoned across the front and back of the No. 43 Chevy.
Wallace went on to post a career-best performance at Martinsville Speedway. With more eyes on him than ever before, he excelled and raced the Petty car near the top of the grid the whole day, finishing 11th.
That same day, NASCAR officially announced that the Confederate flag was banned from its events from here forward. The flag has long been a staple around NASCAR and American stock car racing as a whole, with infields of tracks typically packed with RVs and trailers hoisting the “stars and bars” high and proud.
Bubba Wallace is the only reason this change truly happened. When NASCAR tried and failed to ban the Confederate flag in 2015, fan backlash was cited as the reason. This was before Bubba Wallace ever stepped foot into the highest level of NASCAR, and before he suddenly became thrust into the spotlight beyond being an exciting young driver.
NASCAR’s more hard-headed fans rejected the ban, while past black drivers in the sport spoke up about the Confederate flag being synonymous with the sport they love and compete in.
“There was no way that I could affect change during the time that I was racing,” former driver Bill Lester said in an interview with NPR. “This is a different day.”
Lester, a black man who came to NASCAR after working in tech in California, came from a different world, and had to do his best to understand his colleagues who loved the Confederate flag.
“I looked at it as that was just their culture. That’s how they grew up,” Lester said in the interview. “I was in no way, shape or form in a position to effect any sort of change with regards to that. Because I’m a very small fish in a very big pond when it comes to Black drivers in NASCAR. So I had to basically just swallow it, accept it. But I felt that as long as they weren’t waving that flag in front of my face or using any derogatory terms towards me, we were gonna be OK.”
On June 21, a member of Wallace’s race team reported to NASCAR that a noose had been placed in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. NASCAR reacted quickly, stating how appalled they were by the act, and contacted law enforcement.
Wallace’s team owner, Richard Petty, widely considered the King of NASCAR for his prolific racing career, and a man who is worshipped among many of NASCAR’s Confederate flag-waving fanbase, flatly condemned the act and threw all of his support behind Bubba Wallace.
“I’m enraged by the act of someone placing a noose in the garage stall of my race team. There is absolutely no place in our sport or our society for racism. This filthy act serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go to eradicate racial prejudice and it galvanizes my resolve to use the resources of Richard Petty Motorsports to create change. The sick person who perpetrated this act must be found, exposed and swiftly and immediately expelled from NASCAR. I believe in my heart this despicable act is not representative of the competitors I see each day in the NASCAR garage area. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bubba, yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day forward.”
An FBI investigation that wrapped up rather quickly determined the noose had been in the garage stall for a long time and therefore Bubba Wallace was not the target of a hate crime.
What that investigation doesn’t answer is why a NASCAR employee is fashioning nooses in the first place. Of thousands of stalls at NASCAR track garages across the nation, only one rope was fashioned into a noose, and it just so happened to appear in Wallace’s garage.
The race scheduled for Sunday, June 21 was postponed due to rain at the track. Despite this, dozens of NASCAR fans protested the organization’s banning of the Confederate flag outside Talladega. Fans drove up and down the road outside the track waving their Confederate flags from their pickup trucks as the rain poured down.
A plane flew over Talladega carrying a large Confederate flag and a banner that read “DEFUND NASCAR”. The saying is a not so tongue in cheek reference to many calls to defund police departments across the US in the wake of mass protests against police brutality after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
When the Talladega race actually took place on Monday, June 22, all of NASCAR participated in an act of solidarity with Bubba Wallace, with his fellow drivers physically pushing his No. 43 Chevy to the front of the pack for the national anthem as they stood on pit road. A teary-eyed Wallace was clearly overwhelmed by the moment.
Bubba put forth a great race that day, and led the infamous Talladega race with 27 laps to go. Unfortunately, he ran out of gas and lost steam toward the end, but still put forth a great performance, finishing just three-tenths of a second behind the winner, Ryan Blaney, Wallace’s best friend in NASCAR.
Wallace was in high spirits after the race. Notably, Talladega allowed 5,000 fans to attend the event, and many were wearing pro-Black Lives Matter shirts in support of him. He was celebrating his best ever finish at the famous track, and the overwhelming support he was receiving from around the world.
“This is probably the most badass moment, right here,” Bubba said following the race, as fans wearing “I STILL CAN’T BREATHE” shirts stood behind him chanting his name. “It’s been tough, it’s been hectic, carrying this weight, carrying this burden. I wouldn’t say burden either, I’m proud to stand where I’m at.”
“First time here? From Atlanta?” Wallace continued. The crowd behind him, many of whom were Black, roared. “That’s so cool. The sport is changing. The deal that happened yesterday, (the noose being found in his garage stall) sorry I’m not wearing my mask, but I wanted to show whoever it was that you can’t take away my smile. I’m gonna keep on going. I’ve been a part of this sport for a really long time.”
“Man, I know I should’ve won that damn race. We ran out of gas. Just the stars didn’t align for us completely but all in all we won today. The pre-race deal was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to witness in my life. From all the supporters, from drivers, from crew members, from everybody here, the badass fan base, thank you guys for coming out here. This is truly incredible and I’m proud to be a part of this sport.”
What the future holds for Bubba and NASCAR is uncertain at this point, but the past two weeks have been monumental in the history of the sport and organization long associated with the South and one that historically hasn’t embraced change.
Bubba Wallace is now forcing that change through his actions and words, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s climbing up the Cup Series standings and bringing in swaths of new fans to the sport in the process.
Bubba has put the key in the ignition and fired up this vehicle for change in a largely white-dominated sport. It’s up to NASCAR to make sure this vehicle runs smoothly for a lifetime.