The reluctant activist: How Bubba Wallace went from a kid racing cars to driving change in Nascar

The date is 21st June 2020, and Bubba Wallace is gearing up for the Geico 500, a Nascar Cup Series race held at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, his home state.

Bubba Wallace never saw himself as an activist, but in 2020 he took a stand. The 23XI Racing driver speaks exclusively to BlackBook Motorsport about life as Nascar’s only Black driver, the importance of representation in motorsport, and how he plans on leaving a legacy in a historically white sport.

That evening, Wallace is made aware of a “heinous” discovery near his car by Nascar president Steve Phelps; a noose has been found hanging in his garage stall by a member of Wallace’s team.

For context, Wallace is the only Black driver in the Nascar Cup Series and the first Black driver to have a full-time entry in the top-tier series since Wendell Scott in 1971. In 2021, he became the first Black driver to win a Cup Series race since Scott achieved the feat in 1963. This year, he qualified for the Nascar postseason for the first time.

Despite being eliminated from contention at last weekend’s Charlotte Roval race, Wallace is acutely aware of his unique and prominent position within the sport.

“I’m hopefully playing a small part and trying to bring awareness and grow the sport one fan at a time,” Wallace tells BlackBook Motorsport. “Knowing the path that Wendell Scott has created for minorities has been a blessing to learn about and an honour to continue that path on.
“We’ve had a lot of greats come through on the minority side of things and to play a small part in that is really, really special. To have my name in the hat with those guys is incredible.”
Wendell Scott made 509 Cup Series starts during his Nascar career, recording one victory

As the series’ only Black driver, the discovery of the noose that day in June caused national uproar. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) carried out an investigation but determined that the alleged noose had been in the garage since the autumn of 2019, concluding that Wallace had not been the victim of a hate crime.

Despite this, Nascar then reviewed every garage at all 29 of its circuits. Out of all the inspected tracks, 11 garages contained ropes tied in a knot; Wallace’s garage at Talladega Speedway was the only one tied in a noose.

The responsible party was never identified, nor was the intention ever fully established, but it highlighted the tense relationship between Nascar and diversity, especially given its rocky history with racism.

The reluctant activist

Notably, the incident at Talladega Speedway occurred just two weeks after Wallace’s activism had convinced Nascar to dispense with flying the Confederate flag at races, something that has come to symbolise historic racism and white supremacy in the US, especially in the Southern states.

The links between this symbol and Nascar’s largely white history are obvious, to the extent that it stirred the usually sedate Wallace to become the activist he is today. His mother, Desiree Wallace, told the New York Times in 2020 that “he doesn’t really care about anything but getting in the car and driving”, adding that “becoming a daggone activist [is] not Bubba”.

An early sign that Wallace was prepared to embrace activism came on 7th June 2020 at the Atlanta Speedway, where he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘I can’t breathe’, the phrase that became the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

This stand occurred three months before a similar act by Lewis Hamilton in Formula One, which saw the Brit wear a T-shirt carrying the slogan ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’. Wallace highlights the importance of himself and Hamilton pushing for change while having the visibility to do so.

Lewis Hamilton followed Bubba Wallace's lead in raising awareness of racial injustice to drive change
“It’s cool to be at the top level of your sport and having success, and it’s cool to watch Lewis be at the top of his game [as an] eight-time world champion,” Wallace explains, before insisting that he means eight.

Echoing the words of his mother, Wallace admits he never “set out to be a game changer”, stating that his focus was purely on being “a young kid that didn’t know much besides racing”.

“It’s crazy when you get out in the real world and you’re in the headlines, in the spotlight, how much more [there is] to it than racing,” he adds. “It’s been a challenge trying to navigate through all that.”

Root and branch reform

Drivers like Wallace and Hamilton are only capable of so much, though. It falls on them to draw attention to injustice in the hope of affecting wider change, but the real power lies with those above.

What was pertinent about Wallace’s campaign to remove the Confederate flag from Nascar races was that it was actually banned by the stock car series five years earlier. This half-hearted, superficial move meant it fell on the persecuted to shout the loudest – an outdated tradition in the steps towards equality.

This is why it is crucial for decision-makers to be representative of wider society, which is an area that Nascar, whose leadership team is predominantly white, still has plenty of room to improve on. But Wallace is well aware that it’s a difficult shift to make for such a historically white organisation.

“I think you have to have the right people in place from all avenues to create change,” he considers. “You’ve got to get people to understand why the change needs to be created, then you’ve got to have the right people to push for that change and advocate for standing up for being something larger than themselves.”

Indeed, Nascar has attempted to make progressive steps. Various diversity schemes have recently been rolled out under chief human resources officer John Ferguson, with moves including a diversity internship programme that aims to introduce new people to the sport.

Going further back, the Drive for Diversity programme introduced by Nascar in 2004 has led to some minority drivers featuring on the grid, including Wallace himself and Mexican-born Daniel Suarez. But they remain scarce in a field of white drivers.  

The issues in Nascar are systemic and the need for root and branch reform continues to be apparent. Drive for Diversity’s most successful graduate, Kyle Larson, only marginally qualified for the programme through a Japanese-American mother, and the 31-year-old was banned from Nascar for nine months in 2020 for using a racial slur while livestreaming a racing game.

Jump forward to now and progress is noticeably slow. Earlier this season, a fan inexplicably managed to hijack Wallace’s team radio during a race, telling him to “go back to where you came from” and “you’re not wanted in Nascar”. The stock car racing series still has many more steps to take.

Lessons from above

One promising development for Wallace and other Nascar hopefuls from minority backgrounds is close to home for the Alabama native. Driving for 23XI Racing means Wallace can count on the support of his team owner, National Basketball Association (NBA) legend Michael Jordan.

While the NBA boasts significantly more Black athletes than Nascar, the majority of its owners are white. With Jordan being one of two full-time Black owners in Nascar alongside his former college basketball teammate Brad Daugherty, it means Wallace can look up to his team’s leadership and see a reflection of his values and life experiences looking back at him.

“He (Michael Jordan) always tries to find the positives and the negatives, and even when it’s a frustrating situation, he’s always there for some positive outlook to help you look at it from a different angle,” Wallace explains.
“It’s all about [the] team with MJ, and I think that’s built inside our four walls here at 23XI, so it’s nice to share the same core values as the owners.”

The hope is that having this representation at the top level serves as a catalyst for a shift in Nascar’s demographics. People of colour made up around 23 per cent of Nascar’s fanbase in 2021, according to the series, but more drivers from minority backgrounds are required to push the needle further.

Visibility remains key and, for now, it falls on Wallace to lead the fight. He concedes that “there’s going to be a lot of stuff thrown at [him]” while he continues as the figurehead driving change. Just watch any Nascar race to see the amount of boos directed at the 30-year-old.

Ultimately, his legacy will be defined by how he deals with the adversity. Wallace knows “people will remember” his missteps, acknowledging that he doesn’t “handle every situation the best”, perhaps in reference to his middle-finger incident during a televised interview earlier this season.

Now a two-time race winner, though, Wallace is showing he belongs. That first victory was especially symbolic of his ongoing fight against adversity, coming out on top at the Talladega Superspeedway just 15 months after the noose was found in his garage.

Cian Brittle