Bubba Wallace and the changing face of NASCAR
Illustration: Chris Gash
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. is the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top division, and he’s helping transform its culture into one that better reflects the diversity in America.
Wallace, who started racing at the age of nine, is one of the very few Black drivers ever to overcome the racial barriers in stock car racing to compete at its highest level. Last year, he took the checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500, becoming only the second Black driver to a earn a NASCAR victory.
For Black History Month, which coincides with the start of the 2022 racing season on Sunday, Wallace shared his thoughts on those who helped pave his way and offered advice to young athletes who may feel excluded from the sport they love.
“When I think of the pioneers who came before me, I think of Wendell Scott, Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester,” Wallace said, “men who all had characteristics I admired."
A heroic figure in the sport today, Scott and his family were denied access to hotels and restaurants during his career because of their skin color. In a biography, Scott’s grandson paints a picture of unyielding prejudice and hatred they faced during that time. Spectators waved Confederate flags in their faces and accosted them with racial slurs. Competitors sabotaged Scott’s racing equipment and collided with him on the track.
In 1963, Scott became the first Black driver to win a NASCAR race, but was denied his trophy, victory lap and winnings, which were awarded instead to the second-place finisher. Scott had defeated him by two laps.
Ribbs, who previously competed in NASCAR’s top division, became the first Black driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500, one of the most prestigious races on the IndyCar circuit, in 1991.
Lester, who Wallace used to choose as his driver playing video games growing up, started 142 races in the early 2000s. Lester said he faced his share of hostility and was openly booed for the color of his skin. However, he said his biggest obstacle was landing corporate sponsorships that help drivers fund the best cars, equipment and staff.
Led by Wallace, there’s a new push for diversity and inclusion in NASCAR. In 2020, Wallace successfully called on NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events, signaling a new era of inclusion in the sport.
“My message to other young athletes who may feel excluded from the sport they love is to stay hungry, humble and persistent,” Wallace said. “There were many times I thought the door was shut on us. If I didn’t keep after it and keep my name in the loop, I’m not sure I’d be here today. You have to really want it. And if you do, then you can’t stop fighting for it, no matter how hard things get.”
Wallace said he never set out to inspire future generations of Black athletes, even though that’s where he finds himself today. “I didn’t come into this sport with the goal of transforming the way people think about NASCAR or motivating young people to chase their dreams,” he said. “However, I see that I’m having that effect now, and it’s bigger than any trophy I can win.”
“There’s still a lot of work to do. But if I can inspire one person to set a goal and achieve it, I feel I’ve accomplished something. I hope that one person inspires someone else, because even after I’m long gone, there will always be more work needed to inspire and shape our youth in a positive way.”
NASCAR itself has made strides through its Drive for Diversity program, a summer internship that recruits new drivers, pit crew and front office employees. According to NASCAR, more than 400 students have graduated the program since 2000, and roughly 60 graduates currently work in motorsports. Wallace is the program’s most prominent alum, but the pipeline includes emerging stars like Rajah Caruth and Lavar Scott.
"Black History Month allows us to highlight the rich and significant impact of Black Americans in NASCAR,” said Brandon Thompson, NASCAR Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion. “From Elias Bowie breaking the sport’s color barrier in 1955 to the impact of Sam Belnavis, who exceled on the business side of NASCAR and all points in between, there are incredible stories that need to be told.”
Leidos is a primary partner of Wallace during the 2022 racing season, which begins Sunday at Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum. Wallace, who drives for the new 23XI racing team owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan, is featured in the upcoming documentary RACE: Bubba Wallace, which will stream on Netflix starting February 22.