America at Large: Bubba leading the drive for diversity in Nascar
First full-time black driver in 45 years finishes second in his debut at Daytona 500
Nascar driver Darrell Wallace Jr and team owner Richard Petty. Petty’s own driving career was so imperious he is known simply as “The King”. Photograph: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
When Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Bubba Wallace would drive the team’s number 43 car for the 2018 Nascar season, Brent Nottestad took the news badly that the sport was getting its first full-time black driver in nearly half a century.
A 42-year-old high school golf coach in Wisconsin, he tweeted Wallace the following message, “Please quit with, ‘I’m black BS’. You’re terrible. There are 1,423 more credible drivers than you.”
A hateful comment made all the worse when it emerged 1,423 is a symbolic number beloved by white supremacists of the Southern Brotherhood.
Although he later apologised and no longer coaches golfing teenagers, there is no word on how Nottestad reacted last Sunday evening when the man he reckoned wasn’t up to the job finished second in his debut at the Daytona 500.
After a superlative drive in the flagship race that kicks off every Nascar season, Wallace broke down with emotion. His were the joyful tears of a man who knew too well this was a performance and a result likely to impact far beyond one iconic racetrack in Florida.
“There is only 1 driver from an African American background at the top level of our sport,” says his social media profile. “I am the 1. You’re not gonna stop hearing about “the black driver” for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey.”
To grasp the nature of “the black driver’s” journey and to understand why his second-place finish caused such a fuss, there’s a story told of a night a few years back when Wallace won a race at Richmond, Virginia.
As he celebrated victory in the type of minor league event where budding Nascar superstars must cut their teeth, his mother Desiree pulled him aside and told him to peer into the grandstands. There, a small army of black people from a neighbouring community had arrived to clean up the emptying bleachers.
“They don’t even know about racing,” Desiree Wallace told her son. “They don’t even know there’s a black kid in this race. This is your purpose, to change that. One day, you will.”
If that’s the sort of lofty and perhaps ultimately unrealistic aspiration the late Earl Woods used to visit upon pre-Trump-loving Tiger in the mid-1990s, comparisons between the pair are kind of inevitable.
Although there’s no suggestion Wallace is a once-in-a-generation talent set to rewrite the Nascar record books, he is, like Woods, somebody of mixed race (Bubba’s dad is white) trying to make it in an almost exclusively Caucasian sport which boasts a long history of institutionalised racism.
That 45 years have passed since Wendell Scott was the last full-time African-American driver in Nascar only tells half the story because his career was constantly undermined and regularly derailed by those determined not to have somebody of his colour competing.
“When Scott won his only national race, Nascar officials, fearing he’d kiss the white trophy queen, declared another driver the victor,” wrote Brian Donovan, author of Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of Nascar’s First Black Driver.
“Long after the crowd and the queen had left, Nascar grudgingly admitted that Scott had won. For years, South Carolina’s major track, Darlington Raceway, banned Scott because he was black. This cost him any chance for sponsorship.”
At a time when so many did their utmost to hinder Scott’s progress, Richard Petty was always anxious to help. In the middle of a driving career so imperious he is known simply as “The King”, Petty regularly passed on tyres and equipment to his cash-strapped rival and once battled race officials who were, using a suddenly-invented rule, trying to force Scott’s all-black pit crew to shave their beards or face disqualification. It’s somehow fitting then that Petty, now 80 -years-old and owner of the team that bears his name, has given Wallace his shot.
The 24-year-old drove into history at the same time as Black Panther, the first superhero movie starring an African-American, shattered the opening weekend box-office record for February.
Two significant socio-cultural milestones except it’s just assumed a lot of those people who turn up at Nascar tracks with the stars and bars of the Confederate flag billowing from their RVs and pick-up trucks were probably not filing into cinemas to marvel at Chadwick Boseman’s turn as the King of Wakanda.
Whether or not Wallace’s abilities behind the wheel and his charismatic personality can force that vehemently redneck constituency to confront their own historic prejudices remains to be seen. Certainly, Nascar does deserve credit for recognising its long-standing racial problem and instituting the “Drive for Diversity” with an eye on bringing in more minority fans and drivers. In 2010, a 16- year-old called Bubba’s development took a significant step forward in that very programme.
Shortly before climbing into his car last Sunday, Wallace received a phone call in pit lane from Hank Aaron. One of the greatest baseball players ever, Aaron was forced to start his professional career in the Negro Leagues due to the sport’s infamous colour line, and his best days in the majors were pockmarked by racial abuse. He hails from the same Alabama town as where Wallace was born and on this day he just wanted to pass on a last-minute message.
“From one Mobile son to another,” he said, “always believe in your dreams and anything is possible.”
And then some.