ThatsRacin

Defending Bubba Wallace, honesty, and how to cope with NASCAR’s great money issue

Bubba Wallace says his new boss Richard Petty is awesome

African-American driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. takes over NASCAR's iconic No. 43 car made famous by Richard Petty.
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African-American driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. takes over NASCAR's iconic No. 43 car made famous by Richard Petty.

No one likes talking about money — especially when there’s not enough of it to go around.

So give Bubba Wallace a heck of a lot of credit for doing so. Two days before the most recent NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Wallace met with reporters to discuss the state of his season.

And he let everything out in the open.

“We are kind of behind,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is dollar signs and over the years we have kind of tip-toed around that, but that’s enough of that. We are kind of behind on money.”

That’s... hard to admit. Like, really hard. Here’s a 25-year-old in his second season at NASCAR’s highest level, driving one of the most famous cars in the sport’s history — the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 — and this is the situation he’s stuck in? Wallace has received plenty of buzz for being the first full-time, African-American driver at the Cup level in almost 50 years, but that moniker has always ignored his true driving skills.

He’s not perfect, but someone with his charisma and personality and talent certainly deserves better than having to discuss financial issues. In a perfect world, he should be answering questions about continuing to improve in his sophomore season, or what it was like to lead laps at Bristol the year before. Instead...

“It’s all about being up front and being blunt. It’s coming down to a crucial time,” he continued. “I mean, we just have to start running better. I have asked why would new companies want to come in and sponsor the No. 43? You can play the race car number all you want. You will get a lot of attention, sure.

“But for me, I’m competitive and look at results, and new companies don’t understand that. The more money you spend, the better you do. “

It’s odd to hear anyone in sports speak so frankly and openly about financial troubles. NASCAR has more than its fair share of those, and yet, it’s often an extraneous or supplementary point in larger arguments. But to hear someone like Wallace — someone who’s supposed to represent the best of NASCAR’s future — have to spill his guts, his frustration like that?

It’s sad. Sad not in an ironic way, either. It’s genuinely sad, as in, you feel for Wallace. NASCAR fans want him to succeed. He’s a nice, talented guy with overflowing energy... but instead of getting to harness that, he’s stuck answering for missing dollars and cents.

Of course, some people will say, “Well, if he performed better, maybe money wouldn’t be as much of an issue.”

True, but it’s much more complicated than that.

NASCAR sponsorships are the lifeblood of the sport. Teams make as much as companies are willing to give them for partnerships and well-placed spots on their cars every week. Cars that run at the front, that get the primo TV time, that get more coverage in newspapers and on the radio — well, companies want to partner with them. It’s the most efficient use of their marketing dollars, which makes complete sense. Teams then take that money and invest it back into their cars, so they can continue running near the lead — and of course, continue raking in those sponsorship dollars.

It’s a self-fulfilling circle for the upper echelon of teams that fall into that loop. But for everyone else? For people like Bubba Wallace?

Less time up front means fewer sponsorships. Fewer sponsorships means less money teams can re-invest in their race programs. Investing less money in research and technology means teams don’t run up front as often. Rinse, repeat. It’s an inescapable loop, where the only options are to either: Run better (which requires more sponsorship money), or earn more sponsorships (which requires strong performances).

Clearly, those two options aren’t options at all.

Which all leads back to Wallace, and his graceful transparency this weekend. He didn’t have to address RPM’s struggling operation. He could’ve pulled the typical sports figure response, kept positive, and gotten out of his interview as quickly and painlessly as possible.

But that’s not Bubba Wallace, and that’s why fans love him. Because he’s got passion, and he’s going to wear it — whether it’s joy after a runner-up Daytona 500 finish or anger at his situation now — openly on his sleeve.

There’s no easy solution to Wallace’s problem, nor for any of the other drivers in a similar position. If there were, the sport wouldn’t be grappling to maintain its place in the greater American sports landscape. But in NASCAR, it is increasingly becoming a case of the haves versus the have-nots, with sponsorships as the main determinant. Successful teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske keep churning and growing bigger, while the less successful ones are fading more permanently into the background.

NASCAR is better off with Bubba Wallace doing well. It’s better off being open and transparent with its shortcomings, just like Wallace was.

But both those things come at a cost. And as we unfortunately saw with Wallace this weekend, there just isn’t anyone to foot either of those bills.

This week’s NASCAR race at Richmond: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400.

Distance: 400 laps, or 300 miles.

Where: Richmond Raceway, a 0.75-mile asphalt oval in Henrico County, Va.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

TV: Fox. Radio: MRN.

Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.

Also this week: ToyotaCare 250, Xfinity Series, Richmond Raceway, 7 p.m., Friday, FS1.

Worth mentioning: If Kyle Busch wins this weekend’s race, he’ll officially tie Richard Petty (six wins) for most in the event’s history.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Kyle Busch: Another win, and the only question now is whether he can realistically hit double-digit victories.

Ryan Blaney: The most consistent driver this season without a win? Blaney has an argument, especially after another Top-5 at Bristol.

NOT

Aric Almirola: An early wreck with William Byron cost him his afternoon at Bristol, and now he falls to ninth in the points standings.

Erik Jones: Finishing 24th at Bristol is far off the early-season flashes Jones had shown this year.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.


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