Rising NASCAR Talent Bubba Wallace Isn't Going to Stay In His Lane
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. is getting ready for a race. The twenty-three-year-old NASCAR driver is at his new house in North Carolina – his first “big-boy purchase.” A last-minute packer, he’s getting his clothes together when we talk, before he jets off for the final preparations at the racetrack in Kentucky. He’ll watch the footage of last year’s race. He’ll spend hours running laps in a virtual car programmed to mimic the handling and conditions of its corporeal cousin; practicing every turn, every bend. But as he’ll tell you, no program can mimic, “the sensation of speed. There’s nothing like going 218 miles an hour into turn one, with a brick wall inches away. It’s surreal.”
It’s been a tumultuous year for Wallace. He’s gone from hustling in the lower divisions to driving the most iconic car in motorsports –Richard “The King” Petty’s number 43 – and voicing one of the characters in Pixar’s Cars 3. When the race ends in Kentucky, Wallace will end up finishing 11th, his highest ever. But it could wind up as his last start of the year. Once 43’s usual driver recovers from injury, Wallace might very well be out of a job.
NASCAR is a team sport. The driver is just one part of a large machine of technicians, mechanics, and strategists. And there are more good drivers than there are cars for them to drive. But it’s not just about how good you are – sponsorships play a huge part in who sticks behind the wheel, and Wallace admits, “I don’t have that one brand that will stick with me.”
Why that is, beyond the elephant in the room, is an open question. He’s not only an aggressive, good driver: he’s handsome, endearingly cool, and savvy on social media, where he posts videos of himself goofing around on his drum set and living the highlife. “I’m always about standing out and looking different,” he says when I ask him about his style. “Look, I’m already different. It’s fun for me to carry on with that, wearing crazy shoes or joggers. People look at me like ‘what are you wearing?’ But that’s me.”
By racing at NASCAR’s top level, Wallace joins a tiny fraternity of seven black drivers. He’s only the second since 1986. The last time an African-American driver won a national race, he wasn’t allowed to keep his trophy. And though the sport has changed, the Confederate flag still routinely flies around speedways, and Wallace routinely fends off virulently racist online trolls.
Of course there are lots of people, both within and outside NASCAR, pulling for him. “I got a lot of eyes on me to see what I can do, how I perform,” he says. “You can definitely feel it at times. Other competitors know that too. You gotta keep your head on a swivel because everyone and everything is coming after you. Whether they’re pulling for you or pulling against you, you gotta be ready for it all.”
Written by Nick Hurwitz
Photographed by Ryan Barnett