Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. has yet to run a lap in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but he’s already being hailed as someone who could change the future of the sport.
Wallace will become just the fourth African-American driver in NASCAR Cup history when he makes his debut Sunday at Pocono Raceway in the iconic No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. That is a very big deal in a sport where the vast majority of fans are white and Confederate flags can still be seen waving in campgrounds and track infields. It’s big news in a series where all the drivers are white … except for one.
Some say that if Wallace is successful, it could be a defining moment in the sport’s history.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on any driver. But the 23-year-old Wallace says he’s had strong support from other competitors, including seven-time NASCAR Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson.
“Jimmie Johnson reached out pretty much as soon as we announced it,” Wallace told NASCAR.com. “He said, ‘See you on Sundays now, bro.’ I was like, ‘All right, that’s cool. That’s really cool.’
“I was talking about this the other day and it’s pretty cool to see how many people are in my corner. You don’t think about that on a normal basis. This is a big opportunity to prove myself and make them all very happy.”
It’s way too early to annoint Wallace as the equivalent of Tiger Woods, breaking down barriers in a predominately white sport. And he doesn’t have a full-time ride yet. He’s only in the No. 43 in relief of Aric Almirola, who is expected to be out until mid-August with a back injury.
Yet Wallace’s career milestone is also a milestone in NASCAR. It’s been 11 years since the last black driver, Bill Lester, competed in NASCAR’s top series, and he made only two career starts, both in 2006. Before that, Willy T. Ribbs made three starts in 1986.
Wendell Scott broke the color barrier in the sport in 1961, and competed in 495 races before retiring in 1973. Scott, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015, faced plenty of backlash from fans and competitors in those segregated times. In his only career victory, at Jacksonville, Fla., in 1963, race officials didn’t let him in victory lane, fearing a riot might ensue if the white trophy girl kissed him.
Wallace has faced his own racial hurdles, including those of a 21st century nature: Internet trolls bashed him in 2014 after he made posts about the Black Entertainment Television Awards on NASCAR’s Instagram account.
“I’ve experienced that since Day 1 of racing,” Wallace told the New York Times several years ago. “It doesn’t hurt me. It bothers my parents more than anything. For me, it’s just something I hear through one ear and it goes right through the other and just keep moving along and don’t even dwell on it. Because the more you dwell on it, the more it affects you.”
Wallace’s NASCAR Cup debut has been looming for several years as he worked his way up through the ranks, most recently driving for Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series.
As he chased his dream of becoming a star, he also embodied NASCAR’s goal of building a more diverse sport. Wallace joined NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program in 2009. The program had been founded in 2004 to provide minority and women drivers opportunities in the sport.
Wallace, who has six top-five finishes in 84 Xfinity Series starts and five victories in Camping World Truck Series competition, has shown he’s got the skills. Now he just needs a full-time ride in NASCAR’s top series. He hopes his performance the next couple of months will help him secure that ride.
“It’s a big moment for me and a big moment for the sport,” Wallace told NASCAR.com. “Sunday is all about driving a clean race. Don’t make anybody mad, try to gain and earn respect and prove myself to everybody.
“I’m looking just for a good, solid race and gaining respect from the veterans here and to prove to everybody that I belong in the series.”
Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler told the Charlotte Observer that if Wallace is successful, a new wave of African-American drivers will enter the sport.
“If he wins a Cup race,” Wheeler said, they will all “want to be Bubba.”