Diverse NASCAR drivers Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace have ability to help sport grow

NASCAR drivers Daniel Suarez (left) and Bubba Wallace (right) are shown in this composite photo.
NASCAR drivers Daniel Suarez (left) and Bubba Wallace (right) are shown in this composite photo. Star-Telegram Archives

For Daniel Suarez, it’s a common occurrence every race weekend.

“I can’t tell you how many times I hear the comment, ‘Hey, Daniel, I’m from Mexico and I didn’t know there was a Mexican driver [in NASCAR]. Now that I know, I’m going to races and I’m following you,’” Suarez said.

“That really makes me proud – to get to see Mexican flags in the grandstands because I know who they are supporting.”

Bubba Wallace had a similar moment at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this season. Wallace had just finished second at the Daytona 500, a significant accomplishment for the circuit’s only black driver, and saw first-hand how it attracted black fans to the races.

“I remember two guys were standing along the fence next to the bus lot, they called out my name and said, ‘We drove here just to see you,’” Wallace said. “That really meant a lot. That was pretty cool. That’s a cool story to share.”

Suarez and Wallace are two fresh, young faces for a sport that is trying to create more personalities and trying to broaden its fan base. Suarez has the ability to reach Hispanics; Wallace the black community.

Much like Danica Patrick did with the female fan base, those two have the opportunity to help the sport grow. Neither has found Victory Lane at the highest level yet, but those within the industry are high on their futures.

They’ll be on display in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Suarez, driving the No. 19 Toyota, will start 14th, and Wallace, driving the No. 43 Chevrolet, will start 15th.

Count TMS president Eddie Gossage among those optimistic about the futures of Suarez and Wallace. But he’s also realistic on how much impact those two drivers alone can have on the long-term health of the sport.

“More steps need to occur,” Gossage said. “One Hispanic driver, one African American driver is not going to be, ‘Oh, we’ve resolved that issue. Check that one off the list.’ We need more to follow.”

That’s part of the issue with Patrick’s legacy. There is no female driver in the top NASCAR breeding grounds right now. Hailie Deegan is a name to watch but, at age 16, she is years away from getting under the Cup spotlight.

Patrick, for as popular as she was, never won a race. Heck, she never finished in the top-5.

For Suarez and Wallace, getting wins is the best way to truly ingratiate and excite their demographics. And they understand that.

“You need to be successful,” Suarez said. “Fans like to have their driver win races and be successful, or at least keep improving. That’s something that we have to keep working hard on.”

Suarez believes his team will become contenders as the season wears on. This is a guy who came up the ranks the right way. He won races in the truck and Xfinity series, and had solid runs in his first Cup season a year ago. Suarez had one top-five and 12 top-10s as a rookie.

Wallace, meanwhile, also came up through the ranks of NASCAR’s lower levels. He’s in his first full-time Cup season and had the remarkable run in the Daytona 500. But he’s finished 20th or worse in the five races since.

That doesn’t sit well with him or his team owner, Richard Petty, the man known as ‘The King.’ Petty won 200 races and seven championships in his legendary career.

“It’s been great to work with ‘The King’ and get to know him and what he’s about,” Wallace said. “He wants to win. He wants to get his number and his name and his organization back into Victory Lane and back into winning ways.”

The sooner Suarez and Wallace get those coveted wins, the better for NASCAR. This is a sport that has to expand and broaden its fan base.

Outside of the drivers, NASCAR has made a concerted effort to bring more diversity into the pit crews.

Meet Brehanna Daniels, a 24-year-old who played college basketball at Norfolk State and is now the tire changer for the No. 55 Toyota team in the Xfinity Series. Daniels is the first black woman tire changer on a national NASCAR series team, making her debut last season.

“I still can’t believe it to this day, but it’s crazy that it took this long for that to happen,” Daniels said. “I made history last year at 23-years-old.”

Daniels, like Wallace, has seen more and more black fans attending races.

“People hugging me, [saying] ‘You’re making history. You’re opening doors,’” Daniels said, smiling. “It touches my heart, warms my heart, to see that times are changing. I’m just glad to be a part of that change.”

Gossage said the track doesn’t have the ability to measure the demographics on race weekend, although his eye-test tells him there are more Hispanic and black fans at the races than there were 10 years ago.

He also admitted that the track doesn’t have the funds to properly target and market to minority fans.

“We’re reaching out to everybody as best we can,” Gossage said. “We have limited resources. We are not Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola or General Motors when it comes to our budgets to work with.

“We’re buying billboards ‘cause everyone drives past that billboard. Should it be in Spanish? All it says is April 8 and it has the NASCAR bar. I think everybody gets that.

“But, truth be told, we don’t have enough money to market properly to anybody, so we do the best we can with everybody.”

Suarez and Wallace can take care of it themselves with frequent visits to Victory Lane.