DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (McClatchy) — The questions come intermittently, sprinkled into a large group interview at Daytona International Speedway. But the central idea, like hot air and the truth, always rises.
So Bubba, what’s it like being a black NASCAR driver?
And Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. (his sister gave him his nickname the day he was born) sits there and graciously addresses it, time after time. Even mainstream media outlets have come to speak to him, NASCAR’s first full-time African-American driver since Wendell Scott in 1971. The Daytona 500 on Sunday will be his first race in that capacity.
Back to that question. Wallace, 24, meets it head on again, speaking clearly and brashly as is his personality, one of the most vibrant of all of NASCAR’s young drivers. He’s been doing so ever since it was announced late in 2017 that he would drive the No. 43 car made famous by seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty.
At the time, Wallace tweeted: “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.”
As for why Wallace felt the need to say that?
“It’s because of you guys,” Wallace told the media Wednesday. “You guys are going to keep putting the black driver out there, so I’m telling fans to embrace it because that’s all they’re going to keep hearing.”
Wallace is not at all shy about his status as the only black driver in a predominantly white sport — addressing the same group of reporters, he acknowledged all the “coverage that I’m getting right now and the entourage that I have following.”
But while Wallace’s race might be what so many in the media are focusing on, he said he’d rather be known for something else.
Wallace earned his ride in Petty’s No. 43 with his on-track merits. In two of NASCAR’s lower circuits, the K&N Pro Series East and the Camping World Truck Series, Wallace accrued 12 victories and 31 top-5 finishes in 71 races.
His successes there are what got him a seat in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, the equivalent of Triple-A baseball (as the sport’s penultimate level). And while he didn’t replicate his production there, his relative struggles were as much a sponsorship and stability issue — he only ran 13 of a possible 33 races last season and still managed to finish in the top-10 eight times — as anything else.
When Cup driver Aric Almirola, who has since taken Danica Patrick’s place at Stewart-Haas Racing, injured his back last season and missed seven races, Petty tapped Wallace as his fill-in.
Wallace said he let the moment get to him at first. He was nervous, or trying to do too much, or more likely some combination of the two. After starting 16th in his first Cup race, Wallace finished 26th.
But then Wallace’s talent came through. He gradually improved, finishing 19th, 15th and then 11th in his next three Cup starts. That improvement, and Wallace’s ability to handle the gravity of the moment, sold Petty on Wallace — and now the young driver doesn’t feel the pressure he once did.
”Richard Petty told me before climbing in (this year), no need to be a hero,” Wallace said. “No need to overstep anything that you’re doing. I’m here for a reason, and I’m here because I’ve proved my point, so just go out there and do what you do.”
And what that is, is racing. Wallace’s race and back story (his father is white, his mother is black) will likely be replayed at length this weekend and for the rest of the season, but those aren’t the things Wallace wants to be recognized for.
He said he wants to be known as a good NASCAR driver. And while he understands why the mainstream media are tuning in to him, and he understands how historic his arrival is, he also isn’t letting that distract him.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s riding this weekend,” Wallace said. “I know it. I pay attention to it.
“I’m looking forward to it, to be able to represent the black culture … but I’m doing my best at managing it, keeping it behind me, and that’s the best thing I can do.”
One last question rises from the pack, on whether Wallace has ever faced backlash from anyone for being black in a predominantly white sport.
“No, never have,” Wallace said. “I’m just a race car driver.”
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