NYT > Sports
Just over a year after almost single-handedly forcing American auto racing to face the sport’s longstanding racism problems, Darrell Wallace Jr., known as Bubba, became only the second black winner in the NASCAR top series, taking the top series first place in a rain. Shortened event on the Talladega Superspeedway on Monday afternoon.
Wallace, 27, rose from relative obscurity to national notoriety last year when he added his voice to the widespread national protest movement for racial justice and equality following the assassination of George Floyd. It wasn’t uncommon to hear an athlete speak on the subject – but it was unusual to hear a NASCAR driver.
For many it was moving to see that Wallace, currently the only black NASCAR driver, was wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt – based on the last words of Floyd and Eric Garner in 2014 after a New York City Police officers put him in a forbidden stranglehold – and displayed the slogan “Black Lives Matter” on his car last year. He talked about the racism that he experienced every day as a black in a predominantly white sport. In particular, his outburst of activism convinced NASCAR to ban the display of Confederate flags, which have long been an integral part of American car racing.
On Monday, Wallace had his greatest success on a racetrack when he maneuvered to the front of the field through rain five laps before the end of the competition, with 104 of 188 completed laps. After the race, Wallace choked back tears when asked about his milestone.
“I never think about things like that, but when you put it that way, it obviously brings a lot of emotion, a lot of joy to my family, fans and friends,” Wallace said in a television interview with NBC Sports. “It’s damn cool.”
The only other black driver to win at NASCAR’s top level was Wendell Scott in 1963.
Wallace, who drives for 23X1 Racing, the team of Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, in his first season, was born in Alabama and raised in North Carolina. His mother is black and his father is white.
Wallace told the New York Times last year that until recently he hadn’t spent much time thinking about his place as a black in a predominantly white sport. That all changed in 2020 after watching the video of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot while jogging in a largely white neighborhood in Georgia. Wallace said he was touched to think deeper about the racial dynamics of his country and his sport – and eventually to speak up.
On June 21 last year, a member of Wallace’s team reported finding a sling in the driver’s garage on Talladega Superspeedway. The next day, in solidarity, the other participants and crew members from Talladega pushed Wallace’s car to the top of the pit lane before their race. The FBI investigating the incident eventually concluded that the rope had been in the garage since the previous year and that Wallace was not a victim of a hate crime. NASCAR announced, however, that its employees would have to undergo training on unconscious prejudice.
Wallace had a far happier experience in Talladega on Monday afternoon.
Officials canceled the event after the afternoon’s second rain delay. Wallace and his crew, waiting at his pit stand, cheered and cheered when the decision was made.
Wallace was accompanied on the podium by his dog, a shepherd-poodle mix named Asher, for his victory photos.
“You always have to stay true to your path and not let the nonsense get you down and stay strong, stay humble, stay hungry,” said Wallace after the race. “I’ve wanted to give up many times. But you surround yourself with the right people and you value moments like this. “