THE ROAD TO Atlanta stretches before Bubba Wallace and his wife, Amanda, as they drive their hulking RV into the Georgia sky. The crinkle of a McDonald’s bag echoes through the speaker during our phone interview as Wallace continues on his sixth full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series. The expectations for this run are stacked, and having Michael Jordan as your boss doesn’t help, either.
Wallace was the first name Jordan called when he announced the 23XI race team with Denny Hamlin in 2021. The 29-year-old is currently the only full-time Black driver in the Cup series, and was the team’s standalone driver during its debut season. While he didn’t make the 16-car playoff cut — finishing 21st in the standings — the year was a first for both Wallace and Jordan.
The 23Xl Racing driver took home the trophy at the YellaWood 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway, making him the first Black driver to achieve that victory since Wendell Scott took the checkered flag in 1963. And it was the first triumph for organization, helmed by the first Black principal owner of a full-time Cup team since Scott drove his own race car from 1961 to 1973 in 495 races.
As Wallace and Amanda make their way through breakfast, the conversation moves into how one keeps sane when the world is watching as you barrel 200 mph down a speedway. The answer for Wallace is simple: Heavy metal.
“I always say the heavier the song, the louder the song, the better it makes me feel,” says the Alabama native. “Something about it elevates me to a better place mentally. It gets you pumped up. And when you’re pumped up, that helps everything, especially when you’re trying to get ready for a race.”
“A lot of people ask, ‘How do you how do you deal with the ups and the downs of the sport?'” he continues. “And I always tell them to find an escape, which for me, is my music — when you’re frustrated after a race, when you’re at home and you’re frustrated and down and out… Whether it’s music or something else, find an escape to the madness of life.”
Wallace recalls how heavy metal helped him through a rough period of his life in 2019.
“Amanda and I weren’t in a good spot. And the racing side of things wasn’t in a good spot. And it’s like, no matter what you did, days were just kind of merging together, and the depression would last for a long time,” says Wallace. “It was hard to get out of that funk.”
When asked if there was a specific song that he listened to during this period, Wallace answers,
“I never had the suicidal thoughts or anything. And that song is kind of what it’s about. But it’s saying, ‘Hey, Death, get fucked.’ And it’s saying, ‘I can beat this and get through it,'” explains Wallace. “That’s the way I took it at least. And so it made you feel like, yeah, I could do this. And you just kind of play it on repeat every day.”
In 2020, Wallace made headlines when speaking against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and spearheading a successful campaign to ban the Confederate flag from all NASCAR events. In June that year, he had worn an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt and displayed the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag onto his car at Martinsville Speedway in solidarity with protesters around the world, at the cost of sponsorships for that event.
By the time he had spoken to Jamil Smith for Rolling Stone later that month, he had been both praised and condemned by the media for taking a stand — a position he didn’t see as political, but as “right versus wrong.”
“Speaking up for what I see is wrong and wanting to stand on the right side of history doesn’t seem political,” the NASCAR driver said at the time. “It just seems like common sense to me as a human being… Just treat each other with respect. It’s not that hard.”
Now, speaking to Wallace two years later, he is as point blank as ever — honest and straightforward. Before the conversation ends, he talks about the power of music and community. When thinking of Floyd’s death and racial inequality in America, he remembers the song “No Place To Breathe” by metalcore band Silent Planet:
“Place your hands to the pulse of this city/Keep your ear to the ground, hear her gasp ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’/Are we so blind to believe that violence could give birth to peace?”
Wallace follows up with another recommendation, this time grounded in bluegrass fiddle and the banjo: Tyler Childers’s title-track from Long Violent History, an album the Kentucky singer-songwriter released following the killing of Breonna Taylor that reckons with the nation’s past and present.
“My man put his reputation on the line with this song talking about all things black and white in 2020,”
Wallace later writes, in an email. Grounded in bluegrass fiddle and the banjo, Childers laments in the opening:
“It’s the worst that it’s been since the last time it happened/It’s happening again right in front of our eyes/There’s updated footage, wild speculation/Tall tales and hearsay and absolute lies.”
When asked if Wallace has always been able to talk so openly about his experiences with mental health, he says,
“I feel like I have, just no one’s really asked. That’s the thing with life. You don’t know what other people are going through,” he says, before adding this: “We always go up to people and say, ‘Hey, how are you today?’ Instead of being like, ‘How do you feel right now?’ That’s totally different. Right? It’s pretty powerful.”
Bubba Wallace’s Rolling Stone Playlist
Avenged Sevenfold – “Unholy Confessions”
Miss May I – “Hey Mister”
The Devil Wears Prada – “Hey John, What’s Your Name Again?”
August Burns Red – “Back Burner”
Silent Planet – “No Place to Breathe”
Amity Affliction – “Deaths Hand”
Lil Wayne – “A Milli”
Dealer – “Crooked”
Tyler Childers – “Long Violent History”
Parkway Drive – “Vice Grip”