Bubba Wal­lace sets sights on blaz­ing more trails on track

The News & Observer (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-adamn 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.”

Cel­e­brated for be­ing the rare mi­nor­ity to make it to NASCAR’s big leagues, Wal­lace rec­og­nizes that his race will al­ways be as im­por­tant to some as the way he races. He has seen Twit­ter en­gage­ment turn nasty be­cause he is black, but is adamant he does not let it bother him. Nor will he use it as a way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate him­self from the rest of the field.

“Un­til we get more driv­ers of color, the color of my skin is go­ing to be an is­sue for a long time,” he said. “I know I am Bubba Wal­lace. I don’t pull the race card . ... I’m here to win races and be me. If some­one doesn’t like me, that’s not my prob­lem.”

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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