Darrell Wallace Jr. might never be Jimmie Johnson, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr., but Wallace, whose nickname is “Bubba,” might not need to be a stock car legend to leave gigantic footprints everywhere on the NASCAR circuit.
“I am a kid of color,” Wallace told BET.com Wednesday.
Yes, Wallace is, which made what he did Saturday at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia no insignificant achievement: He won a NASCAR race, something no Black man had done since the late Wendell Scott nearly five decades ago.
Scott won long before Wallace, 20, was born; Scott won back in an era when Blacks on the NASCAR circuit and in the grandstands proved scarcer than Chicago Cub pennants. The good ol’ boys of this Southern fried cult didn’t warm to drivers and fans of color.
Wallace, a handsome, charismatic Alabaman, is mindful of that unwelcoming past and has stories he can tell about it. Why dwell on the yesteryear? For he’s never let the ghosts of the past haunt him or derail his love for auto racing – and for the NASCAR circuit.
Nor has he been blind to the changes the organization has made. NASCAR isn’t now his grandfather’s NASCAR. The organization has done what a mainstream sport like baseball hasn’t done: nurture Black athletes.
In winning the Kroger 200 Camping World Truck Series race, Wallace proved his victory was not just for himself but for NASCAR officials as well. Their investment in Black drivers had paid off, and what it might do is draw to a sport an audience that has long ignored it.
As circuit officials give out high-fives for Wallace’s win, they have even more reasons to celebrate. In the pipeline are other Black drivers, young men who will surely change the face of the stock car industry. For success breeds interest and interest brings in more green – a color that every American seems to love.
That should be the message that other nontraditional sports should take a minute to listen to. It’s a message that an old-school sport like Major League Baseball can learn from, because it has seen Blacks walk away from the game by the thousands.
Yet let baseball go its own way; let it get lost amid the ever-evolving interest of today’s fan and cling to its old ways. For in its place are other sports ready to step in and pull its fans their way.
NASCAR officials might be on the way to doing just that. While their efforts to court Black interest started before Wallace’s win in Martinsville, they should surely step back and take a bow for seeing the value of having a multicultural audience to market their product.
“This is a tough sport, and trying to breakthrough is hard,” said Wallace, three days away from his next race in Texas. “This sport has more downs than ups compared to any sport I’ve been a part of. We can go from being on the top one weekend and being on the very bottom the next weekend.
“That’s how tough it is.”
Yet he knows his success is the kind that businesses in America want to see when they invest money in diversity, and he’s going to use what’s left of his rookie season on the circuit to court that investment.
For now, people can look at Wallace as a Black face behind a steering wheel, but the grandstands in Daytona, Talladega or Sonoma could soon fill with hundreds or even thousands of men and women who look more like Wallace than they do Jimmie Johnson.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)