Can Darrell “Bubba” Wal­lace Jr. re­ally change the face of NASCAR?

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By RONDA RACHA PENRICE

HAMP­TON, Ga. --- Tiger Woods changed the face of golf. Venus and Ser­ena Wil­liams TRANS­FORMED ten­nis. And now Darrell “Bubba” Wal­lace Jr. may do the same for NASCAR.

The 24-year-old race car driver’s Cup Se­ries de­but at the iconic Day­tona 500 got the na­tion’s at­ten­tion. As NASCAR’s first full-time black driver in its elite se­ries since Wen­dell Scott in 1971, all eyes were on Wal­lace. Thanks to his sec­ond-place fin­ish, the high­est-ever by both a black driver and a rookie, those eyes didn't wa­ver. As Wal­lace trav­eled to Hamp­ton, Ga. to race the Folds of Honor Quik­trip 500 Fe­bru­ary 25 at the At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way, fan at­ten­tion stayed riv­eted on him.

Even by NASCAR’s su­per me­dia and fan­friendly stan­dards,Wal­lace did a lot that Fri­day prior to the Quick­trip 500. On top of the req­ui­site press con­fer­ence, he squeezed mul­ti­ple one-on-one in­ter­views, mostly with lo­cal At­lanta TV me­dia. Wal­lace knows that the height­ened in­ter­est in him is a com­bi­na­tion of his race and his Day­tona 500 per­for­mance. In­stead of down­play­ing the at­ten­tion to his race, Wal­lace, whose fa­ther is white, has em­braced it.

“There is only 1 driver from an African Amer­i­can back­ground at the top level of our sport. I am the 1.You’re not gonna stop hear­ing about “the black driver” for years. Em­brace it, ac­cept it and en­joy the jour­ney,” he tweeted Novem­ber 8, 2017.

Em­brac­ing his race doesn’t mean dwelling on it though. “You can psych your­self up by read­ing all the his­tory and what­not and do­ing all of that but that just puts too much pres­sure on your­self,” he said dur­ing an in­ter­view at the At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way. “So I’ve learned to fo­cus on just the driv­ing as­pect of it and let ev­ery­thing else set­tle in be­hind.”

Wal­lace, who was born in Mo­bile, Ala. and raised in Con­cord, N.C., be­gan rac­ing go karts at 9 years old. By 16, he was com­pet­ing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Se­ries East, the sport's main de­vel­op­men­tal se­ries for groom­ing its next gen­er­a­tion, as part of NASCAR’s Drive for Di­ver­sity ini­tia­tive. His first race at the Greenville-Pick­ens Speed­way, he won, be­com­ing the youngest driver to ever win at the THAT track. Af­ter an­other win, he fin­ished third over­all in the se­ries and re­ceived the Rookie of the Year award, a first for an African-Amer­i­can driver.

He won three more times in 2011. Driv­ing for Joe Gibbs Rac­ing TEAM in 2012, he held his own, stay­ing near the top and even win­ning one race. He had five wins in two years. In 2014, he fin­ished third over­all while driv­ing the truck se­ries with Kyle Busch Mo­tor­sports. He fol­lowed that up by driv­ing with Roush Fen­way Rac­ing in the Xfin­ity Se­ries from 2015 to 2017. When Aric Almirola was in­jured last year,Wal­lace filled in by driv­ing for the iconic Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports. His stel­lar per­for­mance prompted a wel­come as their full-time driver of the le­gendary no. 43, now a Chevro­let Ca­maro ZL1, for the 2018 sea­son.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, nick­named “The King” for a ca­reer that in­cludes seven NASCAR Cham­pi­onship and Day­tona 500 wins each, plus over 700 Top 10 fin­ishes in 1,184 starts, strongly be­lieves Wal­lace is a fu­ture NASCAR star.

Ap­proached dur­ing the roar of prac­tice rounds at the At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way Fe­bru­ary 23, the NASCAR leg­end said he saw Wal­lace part of the sport's fu­ture.“NASCAR’s face, as far as driv­ing, is chang­ing,” Petty said. “It changes ev­ery 12 to 14 years; we’re right in the mid­dle of that. That was one of the rea­sons I was look­ing for a younger driver. Of all the ones that we looked at, we thought Bubba was go­ing to be as good or bet­ter than any of the rest of them, per­son­al­ity-wise, driver-wise, spon­sor-wise, the whole deal.”

Bill Lester, the his­toric black NASCAR driver who raced two Cup-level races in 2006 and gar­nered seven top-10 fin­ishes in the truck se­ries from 2000 to 2007, cham­pi­ons Wal­lace but warns that the lack of ma­jor spon­sor­ship is a huge ob­sta­cle to WAL­LACE re­al­iz­ing his full po­ten­tial.

“If they do not get more cor­po­rate sup­port, they’re go­ing to strug­gle,” Lester said of Wal­lace and his team via tele­phone. “I al­ways had a good look­ing car but, when it came to ev­ery­thing that was nec­es­sary to [run] at the front, I didn’t have it and that was be­cause I just didn’t have the re­sources that the top-run­ning teams had and he is in the same po­si­tion.”

NASCAR spon­sor­ship is a re­volv­ing door so any race week, spon­sors can step up. That has given Wal­lace an op­por­tu­nity to at­tract non­tra­di­tional spon­sor­ship like the black-owned, Colum­bus, Ohio-based mov­ing com­pany E.E. Ward. Brian Brooks, co-owner of the com­pany founded by for­mer Un­der­ground Rail­road con­duc­tor John T. Ward in 1881 that also counts Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports as a client, shared that their sup­port of Wal­lace in At­lanta, espe­cially dur­ing Black His­tory Month, was a very hope­ful ges­ture.

To be a strong con­tender, Lester in­sists that Wal­lace needs For­tune 500 sup­port. “With him not hav­ing full spon­sor­ship, which is about an $18 mil­lion to $20 mil­lion propo­si­tion per year these days, he’s at a deficit,” Lester said.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF UR­BAN NEWS

Bubba par­tic­i­pates in the race at the At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way in Fe­bru­ary of this year.

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