State of the Black Athlete

Bubba Wallace has the car and the drive to change NASCAR

As the first black racer with a full-time Cup ride in 45 years, he knows his progress is pivotal

At its core, a racer’s job is intricately simple: find the best line to run and hang on until it takes you home. For 500 miles, drivers sling their 2-ton machines around, changing lanes, experimenting, searching—a 200 mph trial and error—until they find that perfect balance between concrete-wall kamikaze and dude, get the hell out of the way.

That will be Darrell Wallace Jr.’s job on Feb. 18 at the 60th Daytona 500, as he pilots that race’s most revered ride, Richard Petty’s No. 43. Striking a balance will also be his challenge all season long while traveling a path worn by only one man before him.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” Wallace says, “but I’m a black NASCAR driver.”

Wallace (call him Bubba—everyone has since his big sister tagged it on him as a baby) states the obvious with the intention to disarm. He wants to address it, but he wants the person sitting across from him to be comfortable. He’s the first full-time black driver at NASCAR’s top level since Wendell Scott, who raced from 1961 to 1973 against Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts and Jim Crow. Scott is still the only driver of color to win a Cup race. That was Dec. 1, 1963, eight months before the Civil Rights Act passed, and Scott was denied his celebration when race officials in Jacksonville, Florida, claimed a scoring error. Scott’s tale inspired a film starring Richard Pryor (Greased Lightning), and in 2015 Scott was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Still, no other black driver has strapped in for the full ride until Bubba.

Auto racer Scott Wendell of Danville, Va., stock car racing’s only African American driver, is shown May 24, 1972, with the maroon Chevrolet Monte Carlo he will drive in the World 600 at the Charlotte , N.C., Motor Speedway. The car was prepared by Junior Johnson and is owned by Richard Howard, who owns a string of furniture stores and also operates the track.

AP Photo

“When he retired, there was no one after him, and when he passed [in 1990], there was no one,” says Warrick Scott, Wendell’s grandson, who runs the family foundation. “When he left this earth, whatever those last thoughts were, if he thought about NASCAR, it wasn’t nobody else to consider. So if you look at it that way, it’s pretty profound.”

“To be fair, I’m half black—Mom’s black, Dad’s white,” Wallace says, smiling and pointing to his face. “But this, this looks different than the other guys. It might come as a surprise, but I’ve known this about myself for a while now.”

Wallace laughs, but he’s not making light. The 24-year-old knows why his interviews, photo shoots, TV spots, everything crammed into his pre-Daytona calendar make him the busiest of his fellow NASCAR millennials, a large, talented group that has rushed in to fill the void created by the retirements of Gordon, Earnhardt, Stewart and other legends.

“I’m the only one that’s here. NASCAR is, I wouldn’t say desperate, but they’re looking for a new face,” Wallace says. “They’re getting a new face behind the wheel, but it’s the same face in the stands. We have a great fan base, and they want to continue to grow that. They’re not trying to change that fan base. They want to just bring a bigger impact to the outsiders that are looking in. Because it is a fun sport.”

And no one has more fun. Bubba’s drum sessions with young racer Ryan Blaney? Social media gold. The duo regularly pop up in the infield, mixing with “my late-night people,” as Wallace calls them. He lip-syncs speed-metal songs on Instagram and marked his ascendance with shirts reading: “Darrell not Waltrip, Wallace not Rusty, Junior not Earnhardt.”

Darrell Wallace Jr., driver of the #99 Maestro’s Classic Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series LTi Printing 200 at Michigan International Speedway on August 12, 2017 in Brooklyn, Michigan.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

“I also have fun, you know, winning races,” he adds, splaying five fingers for five of his wins in NASCAR’s Truck series. (He has six, but his other hand isn’t free.) “I take it very seriously. It’s work. But it’s the best work in the world because it’s the most fun in the world.”

That’s what he must defend more than he’d prefer. Fun. Ever since his dad put him in a go-kart as a tween, the track has been fun, but when he talks to black sports fans and CEOs, who hold the purse strings to potential sponsorship dollars, fun is a hard sell. They know Scott’s struggles and see only the stars and bars of the Confederate flags flying over RVs in the same infields Bubba roams at night.

“How crazy does that look? A black guy in an infield near a Confederate flag is going to play Redneck Jenga with redneck fans?” Wallace says about a popular game with 2-by-4s. “It doesn’t bother me one bit. And it doesn’t bother them. They get excited a driver’s in their presence. In the old days, drivers didn’t venture out much. The younger generation’s trying to change that. I’m trying to change that.”

Many are watching to see if he can, especially those already living in his oval world. After her son’s win in a lower-level event at Richmond, Desiree Wallace pulled the teenager away from the celebration and pointed him toward the grandstand. She grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, barely aware of NASCAR. When her son began racing, she was typically the only black face in the stands. She makes it part of her job to remind Bubs of his potentially larger role.

“I said, ‘You see all these black people? What are they doing?’” she recalls of Richmond.

“Cleaning up the trash,” he told her.

With his Daytona 500 debut, 24-year-old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. becomes the first black driver to race full time at NASCAR’s highest level since Wendell Scott nearly 50 years ago.

“Exactly,” she shot back. “You should have a problem with that. They don’t even know about racing. They don’t even know there’s a black kid in this race.” The sad part, she says, “is the track is next to a black community. The stands should’ve been full of people of color. It was like a reality check for him. I said, ‘This is your purpose, to change that. One day, you will.’”

Brad Daugherty, a five-time NBA All-Star, grew up attending short tracks in the North Carolina mountains. His retired Cavaliers jersey: No. 43. Because he loves Petty. He’s been a NASCAR team owner for almost two decades. “I’ll be honest, when I started in racing I believed black-owned businesses would jump in with both feet,” he says. “Whether it’s another basketball player or black CEO, I always answer the same question. ‘Man, what are you doing out there with those flags and those racists?’ I tell them, ‘You think I’d be there every weekend if it was like that?’ I just want so badly to get them to the track, the right track, once. I’ve gone there my whole life and don’t hear that mess. I just have a hard time convincing them. Maybe Bubba can.”

Wallace on his ambitions: “I want to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame!”

Over the past three seasons, NASCAR’s internal market research says the minority slice of its fan base has grown from 20 percent to 24 percent. “How much can be attributed solely to Bubba?” asks NASCAR executive VP Steve Phelps. “We don’t know for sure. But we know how much he cares about that. We know he works very hard at that. So to give him some credit for that seems like a safe assumption.”

Wallace has had plenty of racial-related struggles.

When he was 9, his cousin Sean Gillispie was killed by a Knoxville police officer who believed the 19-year-old was reaching for a gun. The family contends he was grabbing his phone. Desiree still can’t talk about it without crying. Just as Wallace was arriving at NASCAR’s national level, he was pulled over in Virginia for failure to signal, but the traffic stop attracted multiple cruisers and K-9 units, all searching his newly tricked-out Jeep for drugs. He returned home to Concord, North Carolina, frustrated. Darrell Sr. was enraged and said his son should’ve fought back or bolted. Desiree knew better. “That was the first time I had to tell [Senior], ‘You’ll never understand what it is to be black.’ I sat Bubba down. I said, ‘Whatever they ask you, you did the right thing.’”

The first time Wallace was faced with the N-word, truthfully, he didn’t really hear it. He was racing at a short track when a grump barked it at his parents. It returned Desiree to her childhood, when teens at an all-white school shouted it at her track team during warm-ups. She told Bubba the story, explaining the history of ignorance behind the word. She warned that it wouldn’t be the last time he’d hear it, not close. Bubba, not even old enough to buy anything M for Mature, sat quietly, processed it and then asked to head upstairs to play video games.

He hasn’t heard it at the racetrack since. He doesn’t hear it at all. But he reads it on social media. Long ago he resolved to tune out “keyboard heroes,” but that changed last November when 42-year-old Brent Nottestad, a Wisconsin high school golf coach, reacted to Wallace’s landing the Petty ride, tweeting to the racer: “Please quit with, ‘I’m black’ bs. You’re terrible. There are 1423 more credible drivers than you.” Nottestad didn’t stop at dropping a numeric code associated with the Southern Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang. So Wallace never took down his tweet that prompted Nottestad—it’s pinned atop his Twitter profile: “There is only 1 driver from an African American background at the top level of our sport. I am the 1. You’re not gonna stop hearing about ‘the black driver’ for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey …” Nottestad was fired from his job, issued a public apology and deleted his account.

Even as he becomes more comfortable with publicly pushing back hate, he still prefers to steer talk back to the oasis of racing. A racer is who he is, and he is good. Petty wouldn’t have hired him if he wasn’t. The King’s politics run a deeper shade of red than the trim on his cars. He was a longtime Republican county commissioner who ran for North Carolina’s secretary of state. When the NFL stand-or-kneel stakes rose last fall, he told employees that taking a knee during the anthem would lose them a job.

Darrell Wallace Jr., climbs into his car during practice.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

But while we’re in the process of erasing NASCAR assumptions, know that Petty also supported Wendell Scott when so many others did not. His Detroit-backed team was flush with resources. Scott worked out of a cinder block shop behind his Danville, Virginia, home, exiting his car midrace to do pit stops with his sons. If Petty Enterprises saw that the Scotts were low on tires or filters, they’d send gently used gear from the 43 to Scott’s 34. Lynda Petty, The Queen, taught the Scott kids how to log official NASCAR scorecards. “When he first got there, he wasn’t accepted at all,” Petty says, quickly adding that he was far from the only racer to help. “But the people seen how determined he was. He was gonna do it, come hell or high water. So they said, ‘OK, we’ll accept him. We’re gonna help him do what he needs to do.’”

Petty never helped Scott out of pity. Scott earned it. And Petty didn’t hire Wallace out of kindness; he believes Wallace has earned his shot, through penance paid on racing’s ladder and those Truck series wins. But mostly because of what Wallace did when he jumped into Petty’s car last summer as a sub.

“We threw him in the car at Pocono, and he was a sponge,” Petty recalls of Wallace’s first of four starts. He qualified 16th but finished 26th after a rookie penalty, speeding on pit road. “He was a lap down but was one of the fastest on the track. The next three races, he finished 19th, 15th and 11th. When he was done with us, he won a Trucks race at Michigan. And because of who he is, I never seen so many cameras and reporters for a guy who finished 26th. He handled it all like a pro.” The King flashes the smile that has sold a million bottles of STP. “I like pros. I’m not hiring anybody because somebody told me to. He runs like I think he can, people will stop asking about that stuff. Stop thinking about it. He’ll just be a regular guy in the garage. Like Wendell became.”

At least, that’s what Petty and Wallace hope. They know their partnership will ultimately be judged by results. So does NASCAR. Adds Phelps: “It’s not enough just to be there. Look at Danica Patrick. There comes a point where you have to win.” But everyone in the garage knows patience will be tested before that happens. Richard Petty Motorsports is in high flux, with a new headquarters, a new technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing and a new brand in Chevy, which is breaking in an all-new Camaro. RPM entered February still seeking sponsorship for half the season. That’s not a skin-tone issue but a sportwide problem. Last year, in his farewell season, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought for full funding.

These are challenges The King and Bubba want to talk about. Making horsepower, not history.

The Scotts know better. In their living room, mixed in with family photos, are framed images of Wallace celebrating at Martinsville on Oct. 25, 2014. That’s the day Wallace won a Trucks event in a machine painted just like Wendell’s, complete with a white No. 34 on the door. The Scotts joined him in Victory Lane. They also issued him a warning.

Says Warrick Scott: “He’s a connector. He has inherited a responsibility that has lasted 50 years. In order for him to do what he loves, you know, he has to digest that responsibility. If I was him, I’d be tired of hearing about it. Because at the core I feel he wants the same thing as my grandfather. To drive, man. ‘Can I just drive?’ And the answer is, ‘No, you can’t.’”

So what does Wallace want? If he runs his perfect line, the one between being just another racer and the Black Racer, where will it lead? He dreams of comparing the program from his final Daytona 500 with this one. In 2018, he’s the only black face in it. In 2038, he hopes to see seven or eight. Then he wants to see his face not in black and white but bronze.

“They ask, ‘What’s your ultimate goal?’ I always say, ‘I want to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame!’ To do that I have to win. And when it happens, I’ll get that fan screaming, ‘You’re only in the Hall of Fame because you’re black!’ Absolutely. But I’ll take it. And you know what? I’m there and you’re not.”

Maya A. Jones contributed to the reporting of this story.

Liner Notes

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s GOLD RUSH: powered by espnW, a special collaboration with ESPN The Magazine for its Feb. 19 issue. Subscribe today!