Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. has a trophy–a 10-foot-tall grandfather clock–that he earned on October 26 of last year after becoming the first African-American driver since Wendell Scott in 1963, to win in one of NASCAR's national series, winning the Camping World Truck Series Kroger 200 at Martinsville Speedway.
The impact of Wallace’s victory, which came in his 19th truck start, is as colossal as that clock. The 20-year-old speed demon mixed it up with Sprint Cup vets Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick and led a race-high 96 laps, including the final 50.
It was a perfect amount of time for Wallace to bask in the glory of the historic victory and shed a tear for the appropriateness of winning his first race in Scott’s backyard (Scott, who passed in 1990, is a native of nearby Danville about 30 miles east of the track).
The winning trophy is prominently placed in Wallace’s new bachelor pad (he recently moved out on his own for the first time). “It’s something to be proud about,” the 20-year-old racing phenom told The Shadow League. “It reminds me every 15 minutes of just how big that win was.”
The epic win was multi-layered in meaning. It was captivating because the light brown-skinned Wallace is a rare African-American in a sport that’s been trying to diversify for 65 years, but remains white as computer paper. The fact that Bubba is the fourth African-American to drive full-time in one of NASCAR’s top three national series, joining Scott, Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester is also historical, but hardly reflects the audacity of Wallace’s racing goals.
The win marked another emphatic step in a steady, arduous and uphill battle for Wallace to achieve legendary status in his profession. "That’s my ultimate dream, Wallace said, “to make the racing Hall of Fame.” The clock is also a symbol that it's his time to shine and when his career is done, Wallace hopes to have been as consistent, classic and dependable and anticipated as its patterned tick-tocks.
Wallace totally embraces his mixed heritage (his dad is white and mom is black) and the fact that his darker skin distinguishes him as an “African-American" racer. He also doesn’t fight the inevitable comparisons to other barrier breakers in white-dominated sports.
“I’ve been called the Tiger Woods of NASCAR for a couple of years,” Wallace told TSL. “It is definitely different because I'm a mixed kid trying to break through. It not easy that’s for sure. But trying my best to be positive about everything is the key. My mom always told me… because of (the nature of) this sport you can’t give the media anything negative to talk about. Sometimes emotions get the best of me, but I have to just work through it and that's just part of the sport.”
Like President Barack Obama, Wallace is as white as he is black, but you can’t convince the general public of that, so it’s an inevitable burden he says he doesn’t mind carrying. Besides, Wallace doesn’t dwell on his racial composition. He doesn’t have time to because Wallace says, “it’s hard enough maintaining a good race, staying in front and trying to impress sponsors. I don’t mind carrying the torch for black NASCAR racers,” he insisted, “but I try to put that stuff aside really and focus on winning races.”
Any lapse in focus, Wallace says, can change your fortunes dramatically in NASCAR, which some call the Russian Roulette of all sports.
“There’s always the risk of danger and always somebody ready to come take your spot, no matter what color they are and you have to be on top of things. Stay humble and stay hungry,” said Wallace. “If I don’t stay on top of things I can be out of a ride to a kid younger than me. That’s just the way it goes. If you slack off one year that’ll cost you the next because you won’t be in that car… somebody else will.”
Wallace, a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program that was formed in 2004 to help multicultural and female drivers advance from the grass-roots series, has been smashing records and more often than not, finishing first since innocently and aggressively venturing into the lily-white world of racing.
At the age of nine, he started racing go carts as well as local late model events. It’s been reported that Wallace often had to deal with racism among other competitors and was even called the N-word by a track official at 14-years old, but Wallace told TSL that his biggest social challenge was traveling. “Growing up my social life was kind of tough you had those friends in school and then all of a sudden you started traveling and didn’t see them as much,” Wallace reminisced. “You kind of make a new family and new friends at the racetrack and that’s kind of how it is today. There’s kids that are my age and we all hang out at the race shop and we race together.”
If Wallace was ever disrespected on the track that was years ago. The nomadic, highly competitive and major-stakes lifestyles that these young racers share–and Bubba's thirst to dominate the game–creates tense moments on the track but also inevitably bonds them and a brotherhood develops. During the off season, they all live like normal teenagers and 20-year-olds just listening to music and playing Xbox.
“As far as music goes I try to listen to anything current that sounds good,” said Wallace, who is enjoying a press parade and some social downtime before the season kicks off again second week in February. “I’m not a country music guy (like most NASCAR fans), but I was at a rock concert the other night for two bands, Blessthefall and August Burns Red. Hard rock, alternative rock… If it has a good beat and a good break down then I’m all for it.”
Wallace was born in Mobile, Alabama and moved to Concord, North Carolina when he was 2. Even though he is accomplishing legendary feats on the race track, his story is different from most child prodigies whose parents introduce them to athletics and shape, mold and drive their abilities, affections and desires for higher achievement in a particular sport.
“I played basketball from ages five through eight,” Wallace said. “My older sister played since she was five too and it felt like it was the right thing to do, just follow in her footsteps. I just knew that was going to be my path, but now…I can’t even make a free throw,” Wallace admits, bursting into laughter. “I played AAU for two years and just about the time we were going to start the new season, racing came about and basketball was out the window.”
Eventually his sister’s basketball influence waned. However, the nickname she gave him stuck, although he doesn’t recall why she started calling him Bubba. Over the years, the name has naturally developed an un-coerced and undeniable purpose, sort of like Wallace’s improbable racing career. “My Dad’s name is also Darrell,” he reasoned, “and my nickname makes it easy to separate us at the race track.”
Wallace’s introduction to racing and his abandonment of hoops happened by accident. One day, Wallace says, his dad bought a Harley Davidson and “took it to a guy to get it all fixed up and the guy that did it for him (Chris Rogers), raced at a track over by our house and he invited us to come watch him one day and we got hooked. The rest is history. I’ve just been working hard each and every day to get to that next level. I never watched it on TV or knew about the sport until that day, it was more self-inspirational to get in to it and with the help of my dad and Chris we all just became a team and started going to the race tracks together every weekend. Then we bought a kart."
Bubba makes it sound simple, but Darrell Sr. says it took an $80,000 investment just to get Bubba started on the go-kart circuit, between all the travel, maintenance and the kart itself, he was dropping $250,000 a year by the time Darrell Jr. got to late model racing as a teenager. He estimates that he's spent more than $1 million on his son's career to date. In fact, the financial burdens of racing almost forced The Wallace's to give up racing in 2010 but since hooking up with Gibbs and D4D, Wallace's expense are covered, but the battle for sponsorship is continuous.
Wallace may have had an instant love affair with racing, but he says it really became a serious endeavor when his father realized that he also had a natural handle for the craft and a trampoline resiliency to failure. “My first race was a national event and I didn’t do too well in that one, “Wallace said. “My dad thought I was going to quit, but I was like “nah,” let’s get out there and race again. Win or lose it was a lot of fun.”
And after his initial hiccup, Wallace quickly found his groove. “It’s just something… a hidden talent that I never knew I had until I started racing,” Wallace said. “It didn’t take us long to start winning and having good equipment helps, but we never had the best stuff out there, we had to deal with what we had and sometimes we come out on top and sometimes we didn’t, we just had to work on our stuff to get it better and try harder next time. It’s all about having that desire to fight for it and do anything you can to get an edge. You really have to have that mentality to be successful in this sport.”
So we know Bubba has fight in him.
But where did his need for speed come from?
“I don’t know,” Wallace said. “The more classes or series, the next car you get into it gets faster and faster and before you know it, you’re going over 100 miles per hour. It doesn’t feel like it and it’s cool to think about and you’re kind of like, “wow,” but when you’re racing that all gets thrown out the window. You do your best to go out there and try to win, it’s less about speed and more about making the right moves."
He doesn’t claim to be much of a dancer, but when it comes to whip-wheeling Wallace is two-stepping, cabbage patching, Dougie Freshing and pop-n-lockin’ his way to becoming a household name in racing. If Wallace’s success continues to coincide with his swelling popularity, then maybe he can be more than the Tiger Woods of NASCAR, because PGA greens haven’t seen anything close to Tiger Woods since he stormed the game just before the turn of the century. How much of a pioneer has Woods really been for golf? He’s more of an anomaly than a trend setter.
Wallace says he wouldn’t mind seeing more black kids gripping the steering wheel and ripping the race track. He has already experienced the early effects of his success as a guest on "The Steve Harvey Show" and joining the cast of FOX Sports 1's show "Crowd Goes Wild"–and is intrigued with the possibilities.
“I’ll be at the small races during the summer, like here in Charlotte and some of them (black/multi-race kids) come up to me and they’ll ask questions and talk about racing," Wallace said. "It’s cool to come out and watch them and see if they’ve got what it takes. I want to be a role model and inspiration to the younger kids of all races and just change the sport for the better, and winning will help kind of pave its own way there and hopefully get my name out there even more. That first win definitely helps get us more recognition. From there just keep pushing (and) striving for younger kids and their parents to take an interest and keep pulling other people into the sport."
Wallace's co-manager Kevin Liles knows a thing or two about promotion and building a brand that relates to the masses. As former President of Def Jam Recordings and EVP of Warner Music Group, Liles' artistic and entrepreneurial savvy is behind a stable of multi-platinum artists. "I'm so incredibly proud of Darrell, not just for the history he's made but the hard work he put in, "said Liles, current Founder/CEO of KWL Enterprises. "The opportunities are endless…DWJ's success has created a great foundation for KWL to continue building his overall brand. His journey is a testament to the potential of Generation E – the next wave of innovators and leaders, empowered by education and entrepreneurship – to break barriers in NASCAR drivers, technicians, engineers and more."
It was 2005, when a baby-faced Wallace’s inclination for domination began, as he won 35 of the Bandolero Series' 48 races held that year. For his competitors it was like coming to a rap battle and facing Lupe Fiasco every week. And over the years, Wallace’s skills improved with every piece of facial hair that sprouted. In 2008 he became the youngest driver to win at Franklin County Speedway in Virginia.
In 2010, Wallace won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year and was championship runner up. He won his very first race in the series, at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, becoming the youngest and first African-American driver to win in the history of the series, which began as the Busch North Series in 1987. In 2011 Wallace racked up three more wins.
Wallace, who competed under the NASCAR D4D banner from 2010-11, is the second graduate from the program to win a NASCAR national series race. Kyle Larson, a Japanese-American graduate of the Drive for Diversity program, won at Rockingham Speedway in April.
In 2012, Wallace finished among the top 10 in three of his four NASCAR Nationwide Series starts for Joe Gibbs Racing, with a best finish of seventh at Iowa Speedway, before breaking through in 2013 driving the No. 54 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports on the truck circuit. Wallace has aspirations of advancing to the prestigious Nationwide and Sprint Cup circuits with the team owned by the former NFL coach, who hit Wallace on the Android to give the young protégé his props in victory lane in October.
“We obviously think a lot about Darrell,” Gibbs said in a statement. “He has tremendous talent, and we really believe he can have a huge impact on our sport.”
Racing is not a sport for instant gratification seekers. Success is a very meticulous process and it doesn’t happen often for most drivers. It’s more like baseball in that way than basketball or football. Even hot-shot young guns like Wallace have to endure growing pains such as wrecks and losing races they probably should have won because of inexperience.
Wallace says he let a couple of W's get away early in his rookie season, but “when we finally got a win I was able to get that pressure off my back," he expressed with a sigh of relief. "We were close a couple of times and some bad breaks and rookie mistakes on my part cost us."
Instead of lamenting in defeat, Junior learned from each loss and didn't repeat the same mistakes. Wallace's racing experience is like a stroke from a paint brush, culminating in a masterpiece win at Martinsville Speedway one autumn day. “I had so much confidence coming into this race,” a champagne-drenched Wallace told FOX Sports, following his historic victory. “I told everybody that asked if I was going to win, ‘Hell yeah’ every time.
That’s Darrell Wallace Jr. in a nutshell. He’s brash, bold and unrelenting on the track, but a chill, down-to-earth conversationalist when stripped of his racing gear. He exhibits a sense of gratitude rather than entitlement for the opportunity to make a living chasing his child hood dreams.
Wallace knows that at the end of the day his skin color is only as important as his Pole Position. He is driven by his greatest fear, which Wallace says “is not knowing if I’m going to climb back in the car the next day. It could be because of injury or your out a ride and didn’t perform as well. You just have to give it your all."
Without the hardware, the novelty of Wallace as an African-American racer will wane. But his current exploits, genuine love for the sport and his uncompromising work ethic hints at a long run for the HOF hopeful. Bubba Wallace is not into slipping. So far he's driving down destiny's road, shifting gears, flipping lanes and headed towards the winner's circle.