DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was four years ago when Bubba Wallace burst onto the scene with a second-place finish in the Daytona 500. He lost the race to Austin Dillon by .260 seconds and was overcome with emotion afterward.
He was disappointed he didn’t win and proud of his effort.
On that day, Wallace was viewed as a racer, who drove a fearless race.
That all changed with the civil unrest that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer that was caught on video and infuriated a nation.
Suddenly, Wallace was swept up in a movement as the only African American driver in a sport deeply rooted in the rural South.
He was in the national spotlight after an apparent noose was found in his garage stall at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. It was later revealed that the same door pull was there the previous October, but that boyhood emotion that Wallace displayed at Daytona in 2018 had been forgotten.
Today, Wallace walks with broad shoulders that often bear a heavy burden. He gets hateful comments on social media on a daily basis and some believe Wallace’s victory last October at Talladega was fixed.
Other hateful comments are directed at him, simply because of his race. The burden of being the face of a civil rights movement is often heavy. On Wednesday morning at Daytona 500 Media Day, Wallace was asked, “When are we going to stop hearing about the black drivers in NASCAR?”
Wallace’s response was direct.
“It’s always the media asking that question,” he said. “I’m never walking in and saying that. That’s always been my take. When will you stop hearing about me being the black driver? Whenever y’all stop saying it.
“Simple as that.”
But representing his community is something Wallace, who drives the No. 23 Toyota owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, takes seriously.
“Where I’m at with the sport I’m in — I’m the only one at the top level right now, so it’s fun walking that line and being confident in that and being comfortable,” Wallace said. “I’ve gotten here because of my talent and what I’ve been able to do. It creates a lot of excitement especially for Speedweeks this year just because of our superspeedway résumé and what we’ve been able to do.
“But as far as a driver and going out there and competing, you get a new shot out there every weekend and I try to make the most of those opportunities every weekend.”
With NASCAR fresh off a successful exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum that attracted many first-time minority fans, Wallace, who was once part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, feels positive about that effort.
“I feel like we are trending upward,” Wallace said of NASCAR’s diversity efforts. “There are a lot of cool and exciting things happening in our sport. Go back to the Clash two weeks ago to see that demographic and environment – having some new faces out, having minorities out to experience this sport was super cool and just getting them to experience what race day is all about and what NASCAR is about is trending upward.
“Representation matters. People at home watching on TV motivates them to come out and buy a ticket and watch.”
Wallace’s sponsor, McDonald’s, announced a line of souvenir apparel and clothing that is directed at the African American and Hispanic community.
“Did you see the pictures? Did you see the (Wallace’s) fiancé (Amanda Carter)? Dang, she was fine,” Wallace said of the McDonald’s apparel. “She posted the photos and I had some downtime on the way over here and I was like damn, who is that (to her)?
“Hopefully, it does well. McDonald’s has done a lot for my career and to have some fun away from the race track incorporating the racing line and that apparel line is super cool. We all had a lot of fun being involved. It was pretty cool.
“I think there are a lot of African American fans that are looking for like firesuits to wear as street wear. They are all about the fashion – they want the bomber jackets. It takes them back.
“I remember my sister — she may have had an M&M’s jacket in high school,” Wallace noted. “I was in middle school at the time. I didn’t really follow that trend because I had my own firesuit to wear on the weekends. That was so big to her and that generation, so to see them where they are at now — they want that stuff back.”
Wallace plans to wear some of the merchandise sooner rather than later.
“I actually brought that bomber jacket that I was wearing in the photo shoot to Daytona this weekend,” he said. “I might pull it out for race day because it is going to be a little bit chilly.”