Bubba Wallace and Blazing His Trail Week After Week

Recently, TSFJ's very own Jason Clinkscales "shocked the world" by spending a few days in Daytona, Florida for a full immersion into all things NASCAR, including witnessing the historic Daytona 500 up close. Beyond his social media posts, this is a two-part series of observations of an incredible five days in central Florida. You can read Part 1 here.

There’s a fascinating question that had been swimming around the racing world since before last Sunday’s Daytona 500; one that’s equally plausible and unthinkable, depending on who hears it.

‘Can Bubba Wallace become the next Tiger Woods?’

It’s a bit weird and almost uncomfortable for a number of reasons; with the largest looming one being that the iconic golfer has spent much of the last decade trying to reclaim himself from personal and professional turmoil.

But there’s also the fact that when it comes to NASCAR on a whole, there are so many moving parts just to stay in a race, let alone win it, that thinking about potential history can be pretty challenging when you’re just trying to make it to the next week.

When we look at trailblazing sports figures of any sort of black descent, their stories are formed with several intermingling parts. There must be sheer and undeniable athletic dominance – from Jack Johnson ruling the boxing world as its first black heavyweight champion over a century ago to Serena Williams winning a Grand Slam while pregnant. One or many chapters are devoted to significant trials and tribulations that laid the foundation to said dominance, especially if they are related to troubled homes and poor finances. There must be doubters – real or imagined, personal and institutional – that have placed some form of racial obstacles along the way.

And believe it or not, the stage where these icons ply their trades absolutely matters in their stories. Of the countless sporting legends that broke various barriers, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell and yes, Tiger, all mattered because they also played for and won championships.

Because those figures transcend their respective sports, we try to apply the same storytelling templates into other sports where African-Americans haven’t exactly thrived much in the past. Which is exactly why this weekend in Atlanta and every other week in this NASCAR season is crucial to Darrell Wallace Jr.’s story.

The pressure to be successful in NASCAR is immense – a unique kind of pressure because of the underlying factor that a loose screw or dangerous drafting can lead to far worse than the loss of a race, but potentially a loss of life. But being “the black driver” in the circuit has certainly added an extra layer on the proverbial racetrack.

Based on last Sunday’s incredible second-place finish at Daytona, it’s easy to be so focused on what he can and hopes to accomplish, and rightfully so. But it’s clearly important to Wallace that he wants the world to see him as more than potential history, but as just Bubba. Despite a negative experience in his go-round with reality television – a show for BET called 'Changing Lanes' filmed back in 2010 - he dove into what’s become a well-received docu-series on Facebook Watch.

And even as media, focusing solely on his ethnic background means that most reporters will miss out on all of his quirks and thoughts about himself and the world around him.

On the media attention: “Traditional media has a way of labeling me, they’re always going to label me as the black driver to start off their headlines. They’ve been doing it for years… and they’re going to keep saying it until there’s one white guy in the sport, so that’s when it’s going to change. Hey, I’ve accepted it, so join along for the ride, don’t pay too much mind to it and just tune in.”

On the current state of affairs: “It’s almost like we’re going back in time, like we’re being segregated a little bit, no matter if you’re black or white, girl or boy, everything. It’s like everything’s being compartmentalized, put in categories. I come in here and I don’t see anyone racially, but it’s the outside world. And we see that, and we tell ourselves, ‘don’t feed into it.’ For us, it’s that cliched reason: it’s our season, I’m just focused on getting to Homestead.” (Homestead, Florida is home to the final race of the NASCAR season.)

On NASCAR’s marketing to young sports fans: “It doesn’t look any different to me when we’re out doing fan engagements. But as far as changing it up as far as there being more teenagers? I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. It’s the attention span, it’s not there anymore. Four hours for a Cup Race, it’s just tough for us. Now with social media and you can keep up to date with it, then go back to playing ball with your friends or playing video games. Every sport is behind the 8-ball on that. Social media has just killed the game.”

On his driving style: “If you look at my hands, one hand’s normal like everybody else, but the other, it follows the steering wheel. My hand is always pointing up. I don’t know why I do it. Actually, I learned it from video games. It’s so weird.”

On his musical tastes: “I’m a little bit different. I’m the heavy metal, screamo stuff. People y’all never heard of. Fit For A King, Miss May I, Asking Alexandria, Blessthefall. I enjoy all kinds of music, but country? Eh, trying to get into a little bit of that.”

In retrospect, perhaps the most poignant thing he’s said in the midst of the Daytona hoopla was about failure, or at least relative failure in NASCAR. Wallace says that it’s critical for any aspiring driver, regardless of racial or gender background, to understand that the quote from the fictional Ricky Bobby is true, but not absolute. “If you finish second, you failed,” he quipped. “If you finished third, you failed. Big picture, you failed. You come back next week, and you win. Martin Truex, Jr. (last season’s Cup Series champion) won eight of 36 races. That’s a horrible percentage, horrible odds. Go across the board to the NBA – Boston, the Warriors? Their win-loss records are great, way up there. We’ll never see 38-10 in this sport.”

Finishing in second presented all sorts of emotions for himself and his family during a remarkable post-race press conference on Sunday.

It was knowing the struggles of both being one of few in the world at the top level of his sport and being the only one of the few that’s African-American. It’s understanding the personal and familial sacrifices to make it to Daytona in the first place, let alone having a chance to win it outright. It’s being behind the wheel for a racing icon and hopefully becoming one yourself in a decade or so.

Maybe asking Bubba Wallace to be the next Tiger Woods or constantly reminding him that he’s the first African-American full-time driver in decades isn’t fair to him or anyone else. But he’s embraced the calling as much as he possibly can. Not only because there’s no reason to shirk from history, but because whether it’s at Daytona or Dover, Martinsville or Michigan, there’s no better time for him to make some than any given weekend.

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