Wal­lace sets sights on blaz­ing more trails

The Beaufort Gazette (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JENNA FRYER

Bubba Wal­lace does not care about the way things used to be done in NASCAR, and he is not in­ter­ested in how vet­er­ans be­lieve he is sup­posed to drive.

The rookie be­hind the wheel of Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 al­ready has de­fied odds by be­com­ing the only black driver at NASCAR’s top level. Reach­ing the pin­na­cle of the sport is just the start of what Wal­lace hopes to ac­com­plish.

“I’m dif­fer­ent, I’m not like any­body in this sport, and that’s not based on skin color,” Wal­lace said. “I have a I-don’t-give- a-damn fil­ter, and there are a lot of guys still stuck to an old sys­tem that’s been the same thing for them the last 20 years. Well, that’s bor­ing. That’s su­per bor­ing.

“I do my own thing and think, ‘Why are we do­ing it this old way still?' Throw the old sys­tem out the win­dow. Peo­ple are afraid of change, but I want to change ev­ery­thing.”

Wal­lace has two races re­main­ing in a rookie sea­son with a sto­ry­book be­gin­ning at the Day­tona 500. He fin­ished sec­ond, the high­est ever for a mi­nor­ity in NASCAR’s ver­sion of the Su­per Bowl, and it launched Wal­lace into the na­tional spot­light.

But Day­tona is un­like the bulk of NASCAR’s sched­ule so when that high sub­sided, Wal­lace found him­self try­ing to keep his head above wa­ter. His Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports team switched from Ford to Chevro­let dur­ing the off­sea­son, aligned with a new team part­ner and hired a new driver in Wal­lace. The seat was open be­cause Aric Almirola moved to Ste­wartHaas Rac­ing, and pri­mary spon­sor Smith­field left with him.

A mid-level team un­der­go­ing so much change could not avoid strug­gling and it’s been that way all year for RPM and its ea­ger young driver. The loss of fund­ing has made it feel as if the team is some­times run­ning

up­hill.

Wal­lace heads into Sun­day’s race at ISM Race­way near Phoenix ranked 28th in the Cup stand­ings. He has led 19 laps and had two top-10 fin­ishes, but hasn’t been close to a strong fin­ish since Day­tona back in Fe­bru­ary.

It’s a slow climb and se­cur­ing fund­ing re­mains a top pri­or­ity for Wal­lace, who was born in Alabama and grew up in sub­ur­ban Char­lotte, the North Carolina home of most NASCAR teams.

“We are still try­ing to do the best we can, the goal is still to try to get more spon­sor­ship for the next two years, at least,” Wal­lace said. “I don’t know CEOs or com­pany mind­sets in how they go about spon­sor­ing, but I’m su­per com­pet­i­tive and if you only see the re­sults sheet and see how we are run­ning, it’s hard for me to show that there is more to it than that. It be­comes a chal­lenge to show­case why we are a bet­ter fit for some spon­sors and a bet­ter fit than other teams.”

The Air Force is Wal­lace’s spon­sor at Phoenix in honor of Vet­eran’s Day. The Air Force has part­nered with RPM for 10 con­sec­u­tive sea­sons and is typ­i­cally on the car around pa­tri­otic hol­i­days.

Wal­lace has made bond­ing with his spon­sors a pri­or­ity and has vis­ited four dif­fer­ent Air Force bases this year. He has par­tic­i­pated in var­i­ous drills and al­lowed the As­so­ci­ated Press to ac­com­pany him to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where he flew in an F-16 with the 77th Fighter Squadron, known as the “Gam­blers.”

He went through flight train­ing be­fore Maj. Gen. Scott Zo­brist led him into the air. Cap­tain Jack Howard, a rookie pi­lot, flew Wal­lace’s jet, reach­ing over 9Gs.

It was an adren­a­line rush, even for a driver who has had more than his share of hard crashes this sea­son. Wal­lace was even dis­ap­pointed to learn the G forces he and Howard pulled ranked only sec­ond on the squadron board for guests.

Push­ing for the most he can get is the same way Wal­lace races, and he pointed to a re­cent race in Dover, Delaware, as an ex­am­ple of how he is an anom­aly in NASCAR. Wal­lace fig­ured he was four laps down in his ver­sion of the Dover story dur­ing a late restart that put him near the front of the field. Be­cause he wasn’t on the lead lap, Wal­lace said other driv­ers be­lieved he should move out of their way. He re­fused.

“Af­ter the race you hear all these guys com­plain­ing, ‘There goes Bubba rac­ing again,’ ” Wal­lace said.

“You are damn right. I am not go­ing to roll over. … Go race. We aren’t here to ride around and put on a dog and pony show. I am not go­ing to lay over for you. If you think I was tough to pass, well, sorry bro, drive harder. I’m go­ing as fast as I can.”

PAUL SAN­CYA AP

Bubba Wal­lace rec­og­nizes that his race will al­ways be as im­por­tant to some as what he does on the track. “I’m here to win races and be me,” he says. “If some­one doesn’t like me, that’s not my prob­lem.”

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