Bubba Wallace is best hope for full-time black driver in NASCAR Cup series

NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Bubba Wallace waits in his car for the start of practice on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Bubba Wallace waits in his car for the start of practice on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.

It’s 2015 and, just like the past 50 years, there’s still no black driver consistently racing in NASCAR’s top series.

But here is Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. trying to do just that.

The 21-year-old driver, who is biracial, has youth, charm and, most importantly, talent. He’s on the cusp of racing at the Sprint Cup level while this year competing on the Xfinity circuit. He’s NASCAR’s best hope now at seeing a black driver at its top tier.

The Southern, white sport has integrated slower than any other major American sport after decades of racism and discrimination. Strides have been made since the turn of the century, and today NASCAR has female, Hispanic and Japanese-American drivers racing at its top level along with a burgeoning development program for minorities.

Even though African-Americans make up more than 13 percent of the country’s population – and a greater percentage in the Southern states where NASCAR dominates – there is not a black driver in the Cup level.

It’s tough for anyone to break through because of costs associated with starting in the sport as well as securing and keeping sponsorships. But even in the best of economic times, it’s been difficult for a black driver to get into any of NASCAR’s national series.

Wallace sits in fourth place in the Xfinity series points standings before Saturday’s Hisense 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s raced inside the top 15 for 91 percent of the laps this year.

He doesn’t believe he’s owed a spot because of his skin color. Wallace understands this moment in history and accepts the challenge, he told the Observer this week. He said NASCAR has made some strides with African-Americans, but not enough.

“There’s nobody (of color) in the stands. There’s a few on the pit crews and in the office there are some,” Wallace said. “It’s not enough to finally say the sport is changing. It’s going in the right direction. You just have to keep getting after it.”

Family spent $1 million plus

Wallace and his family don’t know why his older sister nicknamed him Bubba the day he was born in Mobile, Ala., but it stuck.

The family moved to the Charlotte area when he was 2 years old, and soon after, Darrell Wallace Sr. started a Concord industrial cleaning service that continues to expand.

Wallace, born to a white father and black mother, wasn’t interested in racing until he got into go karts at the age of 9. He estimates that between 2003 and 2009, as he grew more serious about racing on dirt and short tracks, his family spent more than $1 million of its own money on equipment and travel.

In those lower levels, Wallace was subjected to racism by other drivers, he said. When he was 13 a fellow driver shouted a racial epithet at him after a race in Braselton, Ga.

Last year, NASCAR turned over its Instagram account to Wallace, who sent pictures and videos from the Black Entertainment Television Awards. He received many racist comments.

He tweeted, “The people who are upset over the Instagram takeover w/ NASCAR n BET.... are what’s wrong with the world today. #ignorance.”

Now he’s primed to become the fourth black driver in NASCAR’s top series, following the late Wendell Scott, Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester.

Scott, a 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, remains the only black driver to win at the Cup level after he claimed victory in the 1963 Jacksonville 200. An alleged scoring dispute led to Scott not being named the winner until fans went home and he never received his trophy. He competed in 495 NASCAR races in mostly second-hand equipment and had 147 top-10 finishes.

Ribbs ran three Cup races in the 1980s. His brash personality was polarizing, and he eventually had a falling out with the sport. In recent articles, Ribbs referred to NASCAR as “Neckcar” and “al-Qaida.” Through a spokeswoman, Ribbs declined to comment for this story.

Lester is the most recent black driver to compete in NASCAR’s top series, racing in two Cup-level races in 2006. He competed mostly in the truck series between 2000 and 2007 with seven top-10 finishes in 142 races. Lester didn’t race until he was nearly 40, and lack of sponsorships forced him out of NASCAR.

NASCAR has suspended two people since 2009, a driver and a crew chief, for using racial slurs. Confederate flags still fly in the infields of some tracks across the South.

Diversity progress

There has been notable progress from the top of the sport in the past 15 or so years. NASCAR enlisted the help of Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, to join the league’s diversity council and give each NASCAR employee diversity training. NASCAR CEO Brian France told Lapchick he wanted the sport to “look like America,” and Lapchick initially had his doubts.

“I expected it to be a one-time (training program),” Lapchick said. “But over the course of the next decade or so, I believe we have trained every single NASCAR employee, including this year, in eight of the 10 years.

“Nobody has done as close to as much active work to try to make things better in terms of diversity and inclusion than NASCAR has.”

Lapchick noted that NASCAR has not given its consent to be included in his institute’s annual racial and gender report card, which looks at the makeup and hiring practices of major U.S. sports leagues.

And while Lapchick has given diversity training to NASCAR employees, he has not done the same with individual teams, which operate as independent contractors with NASCAR.

Along with training, there’s also Drive for Diversity, a program that began in 2004 to develop minority and female drivers to race in one of NASCAR’s premiere tiers. The sport has also expanded its reach into Mexico with more speedways. And, of course, there’s Danica Patrick, the 33-year-old female driver who has competed in the Cup series since 2013 but whose six top-10s in 93 races haven’t matched her celebrity.

But stands are still a sea of white faces. According to a Nielson study, 94 percent of the TV viewers for the 2013 Sprint Cup Series races were white – the highest of any major American sport. Only 2 percent were black. Demographic breakdowns of ratings from the 2014 season were not available.

There are few black people in the stands and no black people behind the wheel, so there aren’t many to show on TV.

NASCAR’s premiere race, the 2015 Daytona 500, was seen by 13.4 million viewers. An Observer review of the five-and-a-half-hour-long FOX broadcast of both the pre-race show and the race itself showed a black person being seen prominently on screen for a total of 1 minute and 51 seconds.

More than half of those 111 seconds came from two events: footage of a prayer breakfast Darrell Waltrip took part in with President Barack Obama, and Kid Rock’s pre-race concert with a black drummer, black saxophonist and black backup singers.

New diversity leadership

It takes passion and money to compete in NASCAR, and Max Siegel has both.

He was hired by NASCAR in 2009 to fix Drive for Diversity. The program began in 2004 and sent drivers and a stipend to teams across the country. The progress was difficult to measure and the distribution of funds wasn’t monitored.

No driver who took part from 2004 until 2009 is currently racing in one of the top three NASCAR series.

“When I took the program over, I wouldn’t say it was a joke but a lot of people wouldn’t return my calls or were pretty bitter about it,” said Siegel, who said the initial plan looked good on paper but didn’t work. “I totally understand why the drivers are frustrated. But it was less NASCAR’s issue. NASCAR would invest in a team, and if a team owner didn’t come up with the rest of the money then it was problematic, and that was the impetus to change the model.”

Siegel, 50, has a background in sports and culture. A former music executive, Siegel was friends with the late Hall of Fame football player Reggie White and tried to form a minority-owned racing team before White’s untimely death in 2004.

Later, Siegel became the president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., where NASCAR recruited him.

He started his own developmental team, Rev Racing, in Charlotte and put up $3 million of his own money. He offered comprehensive training and measured the progress of the drivers.

“You have to be extremely passionate, completely dedicated,” Siegel said. “You have to be focused, you have to be willing to take a risk and you’ve got to put your own personal resources up along with NASCAR’s.”

Wallace was part of Siegel’s first Drive for Diversity class under a restructured model. Only 17, he missed 67 days of school one year at Northwest Cabarrus High because of the travel demands. He became one of Drive For Diversity’s biggest stars in 2010 after winning two races in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East in his first year with the program.

Racing in the developmental series, Wallace won the Rookie of the Year award. The next year he won three races and finished second in points.

“He was winning races before he came to the Rev program and D4D, and he continued that when he came in and he’s continued beyond that,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations who also oversees the diversity program. “He gets it done on and off the track. ...There’s no end in sight that I can see for his success.”

Since Siegel took over the program, D4D has helped produce Wallace, Xfinity driver Daniel Suarez and Cup driver Kyle Larson, a Japanese-American racer who was last year’s Sprint Cup rookie of the year and ranked 22nd in points.

D4D also trains pit crew members, and Siegel said the program has 100 percent placement through NASCAR in its pit crew division under his direction.

Switch in teams

Wallace won five times in two years in the truck series, including becoming the second black driver and first since Scott to win in NASCAR’s national series.

After finishing third in points last year, Wallace switched from Joe Gibbs Racing to Roush Fenway in the offseason in a surprise move. He saw limited opportunity with the Gibbs team, since it had its maximum four Cup drivers.

Roush has three teams. That open spot appealed to Wallace as he moved up to the Xfinity series this year, where he hasn’t won in 10 races but is fourth in points.

“Obviously with how young he is and experience level in the Xfinity car being limited, I think we were hoping to see very good progress in the second half of the year,” said Eric Peterson, the director of Roush Fenway’s Xfinity team. “And I think he’s exceeding our expectations from a time standpoint and has really been darn quick, almost right out of the box.”

Like most drivers throughout NASCAR, Wallace has struggled to find sponsorships, with the cost of running a Cup Series team for a full schedule is $20 million or more. He came to Roush Fenway without a guarantee of a full season but secured one before the season began. Racing his No. 6 Ford Mustang with a sponsorship from Ford EcoBoost for most of the season, Wallace will race Saturday in the Cheez-It car.

Several early-20-year-olds are already in the Cup, and most of them got started earlier than Wallace. Still, Peterson said Wallace stacks up favorably to other young Cup drivers compared to where they were at this point in their careers.

There’s no rush from Roush Fenway to get him to the Cup level, though. He’s still transitioning from trucks to Xfinity, and he’ll have to deal with even more of a learning curve in the Cup. Roush Fenway Cup drivers Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each spent more than three seasons in the second level before getting a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup.

And just like when he’s racing, Wallace wants to get the timing right. He said he wouldn’t mind learning for another year in Xfinity.

“A good couple of years on the Xfinity side is the basis and foundation to move up to the Cup side,” Peterson said. “But for where he’s at compared to those guys during this stage, I think he’s right on par.”

A larger challenge

There’s a hope within NASCAR that Wallace can be the sport’s Tiger Woods – a young, black, successful face in a white-dominated sport.

“I think it’ll break things wide open because he does have the innate ability to drive race cars extremely well,” said former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler.

“If he wins a Cup race, I bet that four-cylinder division at Carolina Speedway that you can get into for X bucks, it’ll have more African-American kids that they don’t have now because they want to be Bubba.”

The comparison is obvious. Golf is also one of the whitest and most cost-prohibitive sports in America. Though its origins are in Europe and NASCAR’s are in the South, golf is still played on courses throughout the region with plantation in their names.

Many believed Woods’ Masters win in 1997 and his run in the early 2000s would spawn a generation of young, minority golfers. They picked up clubs and started playing the game. But nearly 20 years after Woods’ historic Masters victory, while the game is flooded with great young players, Woods remains the only African-American on the PGA Tour.

Siegel doesn’t want NASCAR to fall victim to the same experience. He sees Wallace as the most noticeable among the incremental changes within the industry. There are more black pit crew members, and applications for his D4D program have nearly doubled in the past six years.

If Wallace succeeds, it’s up to NASCAR and other teams like Rev Racing to develop and harvest that talent.

“We have a pretty good formula and pipeline right now, but now is not the time to stop the development,” Siegel said. “It’s going to require us to get four, five, six, seven, eight, nine Bubbas throughout the ranks of NASCAR. I would hate to see people feel like ‘OK, if he’s successful we’ve made it,’ because we really haven’t.”

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