By Dan Gelston
AP Sports Writer
Being an agent of change in NASCAR cuts both ways for Bubba Wallace.
He is seen as a hero to some, particularly those who have longed for a Black driver to shake things up in a predominantly White sport. To others, the 26-year-old Wallace represents something else entirely and he has seen plenty of haters out on social media over his career. It has intensified in recent days.
He has brushed them off, especially the ones accusing Wallace or his No. 43 team of being involved in a hoax, of somehow being behind the garage door pulldown rope fashioned as a noose that was found in their garage stall at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway last weekend.
Driver Bubba Wallace takes a selfie with himself and other drivers that pushed his car to the front in the pits of the Talladega Superspeedway prior to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega Ala., Monday June 22, 2020. In an extraordinary act of solidarity with NASCAR’s only Black driver, dozens of drivers pushed the car belonging to Bubba Wallace to the front of the field before Monday’s race as FBI agents nearby tried to find out who left a noose in his garage stall over the weekend. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
“You quickly realize,” Wallace said, “they don’t give a damn about you and I don’t give a damn about them.”
It has been a remarkable and exhausting three weeks for Wallace since he helped spark NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its races and venues. That is seen as a sea change for the 72-year-old stock car series with its core Southern fan base, but then came the noose and a federal investigation that ultimately determined Wallace had not been the target of a hate crime.
He’s been besieged with media requests and made the rounds on morning talk shows and chatted with late night hosts. Wallace even unified the sport when every one of the 40 teams on the grid lined up with Wallace and their series in an effort to show they do not and will not tolerate racism.
The face of a movement is a tough haul for anyone, especially when he stands as the lone Black driver at the top level of NASCAR.
“It’s just what I feel in my heart, what feels right,” Wallace said June 26. “I’m finally voicing my opinion on the tough subjects that a lot of people are afraid to touch on. I’m not afraid to speak my mind. I’ve done it and gotten in trouble and learned from it. People that know me, I’m 100 percent raw and real.”
Driver Bubba Wallace walks to his car in the pits of the Talladega Superspeedway prior to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega Ala., Monday June 22, 2020. In an extraordinary act of solidarity with NASCAR’s only Black driver, dozens of drivers pushed the car belonging to Bubba Wallace to the front of the field before Monday’s race as FBI agents nearby tried to find out who left a noose in his garage stall over the weekend. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
It’s part of his appeal, and why a small number of Black fans rushed the fence and cheered for Wallace after he finished 14th at Talladega. He wants more Black fans in NASCAR — he said his social media following has exploded and scores of famous fans like LeBron James have offered support – and said he is ready to lead the charge.
He would also like some of his newfound fame to lead to more sponsorship to fund the No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports. He’s not going to change his approach for them.
“Ever since I’ve been speaking out, I haven’t been thinking about my sponsors,” Wallace said. “I’ve been thinking about me being a human being and standing up for what’s right. I would hope that sponsors would see that and back me up on that.”
But he’s tired. His free time has been chewed up and life in the spotlight as a national newsmaker has him “wore the hell out” and there are two more races this weekend for a team that has been running well.
“It’s not like I wanted to be in this position or asked to be in this position,” Wallace said. “It just kind of happened.”
He is grateful NASCAR released the photo of the rope; NASCAR President Steve Phelps stated “the noose was real,” though it remains unknown who tied it. Phelps said NASCAR determined the noose was not in place when the October 2019 race weekend began but was created at some point during that weekend.
This photo provided by NASCAR shows the noose found in the garage stall of Black driver Bubba Wallace at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., on Sunday, June 21, 2020. The discovery prompted a federal investigation that determined the rope had been there since at least last October. (NASCAR via AP)
“We can’t say it was directed toward me, which is good,” Wallace said. “But somebody still knows how to tie a noose. Whether they did it as a bad joke or not, who knows? It was good for the public to see. It still won’t change some people’s minds of me being a hoax. But it is what it is.”
He has received support from NASCAR friends and foes, like fellow driver Aric Almirola who started a text with “we’re not friends and we don’t act like we are” but was ready to stand next to Wallace as a brother. Wallace even had fun on the Talladega grid after drivers pushed his car to the front, joking, “I don’t like half you guys, but I appreciate all of you guys.”
NASCAR is at Pocono Raceway this weekend for Cup Series races on June 27 and June 28, just one more piece of a grueling schedule where all eyes are on Wallace.
“Let’s get away from what happened at Talladega,” Wallace said. “Let me go out and have some good races, have some bad races, try and figure out what the hell we’re going to do to rebound from those bad races and get back to race car life.”