When you clip a driver on the rear fender coming from the inside, it’s not considered a very Christian move in the world of NASCAR. A pass like that inevitably pushes your competitor’s car toward the wall, and when you’re going at speeds well over 140 miles an hour, the wall is the last place you want to be headed. That’s what happened the day Dale Earnhardt died. Sterling Marlin just grazed him from the inside, and to the naked eye, it looks like the most unremarkable collision. The kind you might not even report to insurance. But at those speeds, the aerodynamics of a race car are wildly altered. It’s visually underwhelming and technically chaotic. Earnhardt started to go perpendicular. He collided with Kenny Schrader, then the wall, and by the time the rescue team made it to Earnhardt’s car, he was dead.
During the NASCAR All-Star race in July, Michael McDowell deployed a similar move against Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., driver of Richard Petty Motorsports number 43 car and Wallace was pissed. He doesn’t mince words. At the post-race interview, he called McDowell a “joke.” Wallace said he couldn’t “wait for the God-fearing text he’s going to send me about preaching and praise and respect.” In other words, Wallace does not appreciate it when someone threatens him with their notion of decency.
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“Decency.” Like “dinnertime” or “success,” it is one of those words that has a different meaning to almost everyone. On the race track, decency means not wrecking your fellow man for personal gain, which is why in 2019, Wallace threw a bottle of water in fellow driver, Alex Bowman’s face when he spun him out in Charlottesville. But Wallace is no stranger to breaking the rules of decency either. In April of this year, when NASCAR was on hiatus due to coronavirus, Wallace quit a NASCAR-sanctioned virtual event after being wrecked in a video game, losing a real-life sponsor in the process.
He certainly didn’t hold his tongue this summer when, in June, Wallace advocated to remove the Confederate flag from NASCAR races. This was followed by the discovery of a noose in his garage. Then the FBI found had been hanging there for months. All of that was all punctuated by a tweet from President Donald Trump, asking if Wallace had apologized for the noose “hoax.”
“You know, as someone who’s super passionate about being vocal and wants to voice their opinion, biting my tongue is hard,” Bubba told me during an August Zoom call. “For me I always wear my heart on my sleeve, and if you disrespect me then it’s…” he trails off, pausing for a moment. “[People] shouldn’t. I always say you shouldn’t swoop down to their level, but I have no respect for you.” He’s plenty frustrated, sure. But in a Twitter battle with the President of the United States, he was admirably measured. In this time where he’s been, perhaps unwantedly, thrust into the spotlight, it’s clear his next move would matter. It would matter a lot.
Wallace has had three months to process what it’s like to be in the crosshairs of Donald Trump. Being called a liar by the President is intimidating, but he has been called a lot recently. Brave and ignorant and selfish. A leftist and a liar. For a while, some conservatives called him “Bubba Smollett,” a racist and frankly, uninventive comparison to the actor Jussie Smollett who, in 2018, falsely claimed that a hate crime had been perpetuated against him. But on that racetrack, Wallace is competitive. For 500.3 miles, he’ll be rolling through Talladega—the same track where his crew found a noose hanging—and he’ll be vicious and unrelenting, but by God, he’ll be decent, whether or not you agree with his definition of the word.
Wallace started racing when he was nine, dyed in the wool of NASCAR country, where his family moved when he was a young kid. Movie stars go to Hollywood. Drivers go to North Carolina. The Bethlehem of stock car racing has produced kings like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, and Junior Johnson. Back in 2002, over in Concord, North Carolina, Wallace’s father, Darrell Wallace Sr., bought a Harley Davidson. The owner of the Harley shop had connections to the greater North Carolina go-kart racing circuit. Wallace got involved, and thus, North Carolina birthed another racing celebrity. “We went out and bought a go-kart the next weekend and went racing,” Wallace told me, with a laugh. “So not your normal get-into-it story but that’s just kinda how it all worked out for us.”
In 2017, at the age of 24, Wallace drove in the Cup series for the first time—the highest echelon of NASCAR competition. To make the honor even greater, he was plucked out by The King himself, Richard Petty. “They were over in somebody’s race shop. I don’t even remember the deal, but the boys were sitting around, talking racing, and Bubba was there,” Petty told me during a video call. Aric Almirola had been driving the 43 car but was sidelined with an injury and needed a stand-in driver. “Bubba was one of the first ones I looked at. They give us a list and say, ‘Which way you wanna go?’ and I said, ‘Let’s try something a little bit different here.’” When Almirola left Richard Petty Motorsports for Stewart-Haas Racing, Bubba was first in line to step into the 43 car permanently.
Three years later, Wallace announced another big change at the end of summer 2020. He would be leaving Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of the season. A month before he announced his departure, Petty himself said of Wallace, “I was very impressed by not only the way [Bubba] drove the car, by the way he handled himself. He felt more like a family member, and I thought he could fit into the Petty organization.” Bubba says, “I might be the driver of 43 but I’m trying to rewrite its new history… You know, I respect the hell out of what Richard did, but, it’s my time now and trying to rewrite its history and see where it can go.” That tenure ended sooner than most expected, but that’s how it goes. NASCAR is a business. Family is made from blood, not oil.
Wallace lifts his shirt sleeve up to show me the tattoo on his bicep. Racing fans know all about the Petty signature inked on the back of his right thigh—now an ode to a closing chapter in his career—but Wallace shows this one off with a boyish excitement. Across his upper arm is a set of praying hands, holding a playing card to memorialize his grandmother who passed in 2016. “We loved playing cards together,” he says, proudly holding up his shirt sleeve. “It has the Ace of Spades cause I always called her my Ace of Spades.”
Wallace’s North Carolinian family has had a massive impact on his worldview, specifically when it comes to racing. He relies on the words of his mother Desiree, a social worker in North Carolina, to guide his behavior off the track. “My mom was very big on [reading the room]. Just by looking at you from across the room, I can get the vibe that you’re not a fan of me, and it’s just like, ‘Okay, well then if I don’t have to, I’m not gonna be around you.’ I’m not gonna put myself in that position.” The more competitive side is more in line with Darrell Sr. When it came to that scuffle with McDowell, Wallace says, “My dad was always an eye-for-an-eye type of guy. You wreck us, we wreck you. And now it’s a little bit more different—now I got wrecked… in that moment, a lot of people took that as attacking his faith and it definitely wasn’t that. I have nothing against that. I’m a Christian myself. When you go disrespectful, then that shows the character that you are. That’s what I was getting at.”
Wallace’s outbursts have largely been accepted as a spicy and exciting part of his personality—the hallmark of a passionate driver, or any young athlete for that matter. But the line between on-track and offtrack behavior has always been blurry in NASCAR. It’s the nature of sports to allow for a certain level of athletic performance that verges on aggression. But the rules around behavior outside the strict confines of competition changes from sport to sport. NASCAR culture says, this is a gentleman’s sport with some baked-in Southern values, topped with tailgate parties. It says get pissed for a good reason, shotgun a beer, and pray during the moment of silence. And until recently, that all happened under the damning flap of a Confederate flag.
That brings us to June 8, 2020, when Wallace called for the Confederate flag to be banned from races. (In 2015, NASCAR asked fans to stop bringing the flag to the track, but that was more of a request than a mandate.) The move was risky; NASCAR is a sponsor-driven sport. The logos and stickers on Wallace’s car aren’t just preferred brands—they’re indicative of big money sponsorships. In this case, morals trumped money though. “The Ahmaud Arbery death to this day is still tough to even think about,” Wallace says, looking away from the camera. “And George Floyd was top of the line for me. You know, I took a stance and did not care what sponsors said.” To his surprise, sponsors stood behind him faithfully, including the U.S. Air Force. “Like you’re representing part of the government there,” he says, still seemingly surprised. “And it’s just like damn, they’re sticking behind me 100 percent.”
Two days after Wallace voiced the need for the removal, NASCAR heeded the request, releasing a statement saying that all confederate flags would be banned moving forward. People outside the sport were stunned that the perceived redneck-go-round that is NASCAR managed to do a good thing. Proponents of the racist symbol felt stymied. But a small group in the middle, the dedicated fanbase on the inside, saw it as proof that their favorite sport was shifting.
How does NASCAR stop fans from bringing the flag—not to mention the values it represents—into, say, Bristol Motor Speedway, which holds 162,000? That’s still TBD. “Removing something doesn’t mean that it’s gonna be instantly better. There’s gonna be people that are still carrying that pride, that want to voice their opinion on who should be there, who should not,” Wallace says of the ban. “Hey, let us handle that, you know? I’ve said the last couple weeks: no one should feel any different than going to a NASCAR race than they do going to an NBA game, NFL game, [or an] MLB game.”
But the detraction around the flag ban hit critical mass: At the end of June, one of Wallace’s pit crew had reported a noose hanging in garage number 4 at Talladega Motorspeedway in Alabama—the garage Wallace and his crew were occupying. Wallace wasn’t there. Steve Phelps, the president of NASCAR, called Wallace out from his trailer to deliver the news in person; an FBI investigation commenced. The next day, racers—previously hit by a water bottle or not—pushed Wallace’s car out in solidarity. “Seeing that symbol of unity on pit road there at Talladega was pretty powerful for all sports to witness,” Wallace says. “The first thing I said after climbing out of the car after being pushed down there was, Man, I don’t like half you guys in the field but I do appreciate all you for this. I’m a sarcastic person, and I’ll say something, and it’ll piss ya off but I had no harm behind it.”
The FBI report was released a few days later, revealing that the noose, which was very much still a noose, had been hanging there as a “garage pull” since 2019. When we talk about the noose, Wallace lifts himself up out of his seat to readjust and get comfortable. People were flooding his social media with mentions, asking if he knew what a noose looked like. If he ever expected for his “hoax” to be “revealed.” He remained quiet. “I’ve been wanting to voice my opinion for so long,” he says, before settling back down. “What does a model car of, say, a Chevy Camaro, like a little Hot Wheels car… it’s gonna be like oh, that’s a Camaro! That’s what you’re gonna tell your kid when you’re playing with it. What’s the toy car representing? It might be a Camaro, but it’s a car. No matter the size of this rope, garage pull, the noose that it was fashioned into…it’s still a fuckin’ noose at the end of the day, you know?”
The thing about our current news cycle is that scandals, alleged hoaxes, and witch hunts have relatively short shelf lives these days. That is, unless the President of the United States floats it to the top of your timeline a full 10 days after the fact. Bright and early on Monday, July 6, Wallace was gut punched by a tweet from the President, reading:
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It suddenly became a standoff between the most chaotic leader of the free world and a African American rookie NASCAR driver. “I had four or five tweets that I wanted to send out, that were just like… they were funny. They were awesome,” he says, laughing, not willing to divulge exactly what they said. “It would have been stooping down to his level. It would have been showing hate… I sat there and I talked to my girlfriend about it, and while I was typing something out very serious and from the heart, I’d be like, But should I send this one? Like this is what I really wanna do! But she’s like, Hell no. Don’t do it, don’t do it at all.”
Almost exactly six hours later, what ended up on Wallace’s Twitter feed were a couple paragraphs typed out and screenshot in his Notes app, seemingly addressed to the Black and African American kids who might follow him. He explained that their words would be held to a higher standard. That they would always need to choose love, not hate, “even when it’s HATE from the POTUS.”
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In the following days, commentators and NASCAR fans analyzed what this month of chaos meant, especially against the most tumultuous month of Black Lives Matter activism to date. He became something of a stand-in for leftist politics in NASCAR. Wallace, however, is clear that he has no interest in wading into the political spectrum. “Instead of relating it to Democrats and the looting and the rioting and the left, I’m like, What the hell are y’all talking about, ‘the left?’ I turn left, is that what you’re talking about?” he jokes. “It shows how out of tune I am with politics. It’s just like, chill. Let’s bring it down a notch and just be like hey, we’re just trying to say we’re all equal.”
Wallace doesn’t see the moral onus of Black lives mattering as political in a left-right-center sense so much as he views it as a non-partisan, human rights concern. Even as he insisted on nonpartisanship, at June’s Martinsville race he donned an all black car with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on it. That, too, raised some eyebrows. “I am saying, hey, Black lives matter, hello? They matter just as much as white lives matter, as much as Latino lives matter. The organization did not pay for that race at Martinsville,” he says, referring to Black Lives Matter, noting that he’s not overly familiar with the organization itself. “We should’ve put ‘too’ on there. If we had put T-O-O on the back of that it would’ve been like: Oh! Ok, yeah. Now I get it.”
Still, that’s a big expectation for our society, so determined to see the absolute most awful in one another. Had the “too” been included, someone, somewhere, would have found a reason to be angered. Wallace and his activism can only shift the minds mobile enough to be shifted. Even with such a large platform and, let’s face it, the anointing as NASCAR’s one Black driver, Wallace is still a 26-year-old (nearly 27) young gun whose personality falls in that peculiar space between arrogant and self-assured. “I go into every room, every race track, whatever it may be, and if you don’t like me, I don’t give a damn cause I’m still gonna enjoy my time. I’m here, you know?” he says plainly.
In September, Wallace announced an end to his affiliation with Richard Petty Motor Sports. He’s moving to a new team, co-owned by Michael Jordan (yes, that Michael Jordan) and three-time Dayton 500 winner, Denny Hamlin. The move comes with a new car, new team, new statisticians, new everything—everything it takes to move up in the sport. The legendary number 43 donned by the King himself will close another chapter. Fans suggest that the number 23, Jordan’s old jersey number, might be the move. Those details haven’t been decided, but this Black-owned, African American-driven team is a historic moment for NASCAR. Why not make a statement.
But with this season nearly complete, 2021 will open up a new chapter for Wallace. Though, hopefully with fewer Twitter mentions from political leaders. But he knows that his role is always going to be riddled with the unfair qualifier of his race. Wallace can’t do much in the way of accomplishments without someone noting that he is the only African American driver to [insert record here] despite there only being two full-time Black drivers before him. “Nothing against media and what you guys do, but if you label this interview as ‘Interview with Black Driver,’ you know, you’re gonna get backlash from my fans ‘cause I’m just a driver, you know?” he says. But he’s never going to ask forgiveness for being blunt. Both off-track and on, he’s going to keep doing what he believes to be right. “I had to swing up higher than the highest office,” he says. “I’ll take it.”
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