NASCAR history was made in 1961, when Wendell Scott became the first black driver to race at the sport’s top level.
But it wasn’t the breakthrough moment it might sound like. Since then, only two other black drivers — Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 and Bill Lester sporadically between 1999 and 2006 — have competed at that level.
“The Southern, white sport has integrated slower than any other major American sport after decades of racism and discrimination,” Jonathan Jones wrote last year in the Charlotte Observer.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, a 23-year-old driver from Mobile, Ala., will be the fourth black driver to race in the NASCAR Cup Series, the sport’s top level, when he participates this weekend at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway. He will also be the first in 11 years.
Wallace, who has raced with NASCAR at lower levels for five years, will fill in for Aric Almirola in the No. 43 car, while Almirola recovers from fractured vertebrae sustained in a fiery crash on May 13 at the Kansas Speedway.
Richard Petty Motorsports, his team, made the announcement on Monday.
“We are very proud of Bubba and his development,” team President Steve Newmark said in a statement. “We believe that Bubba has tremendous potential and will continue to excel in NASCAR’s top series.”
For years, sportswriters and NASCAR officials have kept an eye on Wallace as a potential breakout star who could increase the sport’s diversity.
When he was 18, for example, the New York Times said he might be the next Scott. It continued:
Nearly every major American sport has black stars, including Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Serena Williams, but the top three NASCAR national series have none. It is a glaring absence in a sport desperate to attract new fans and diversify its audience.
Wallace started driving when he was 8 years old. At the time, he was playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball, his eyes already on the elusive sport of college hoops. But his father bought him a go-kart, and he immediately took to it.
His skill, though, didn’t mean the climb to the spot’s apex would be easy, particularly given the racial climate of NASCAR.
After all, this is a sport that is almost entirely white. In 2013, a demo profile from Nielsen, pulling from TV viewership data, found that only 2 percent of NASCAR viewers were black, the Atlantic reported. Its white viewership, meanwhile, was 94 percent.
The stereotype of the sport’s fans, meanwhile, come with images of Confederate Flag tattoos and, indeed, Confederate flags themselves. Hoping to combat this image, in 2015 NASCAR instituted a program in which fans could turn in a Confederate flag for an American flag.
The idea got a skeptical reception.
“No one in this crowd is going to give up their Confederate flag for an America one,” one security guard at the Darlington Raceway in South Carolina told SB Nation. “They already own an American flag. Plus, they think by handing over the Confederate flag would be a form of surrendering in their mind.”
“There’s nobody (of color) in the stands. There’s a few on the pit crews and in the office there are some,” Wallace told the Charlotte Observer. “It’s not enough to finally say the sport is changing. It’s going in the right direction. You just have to keep getting after it.”
“You still look in the stands, it’s predominantly white,” he added to CBS. “You still look on the track, it is all white, except for one.”
NASCAR implemented a Drive for Diversity program in 2004, which “targets marketable minority and female drivers with grass roots, local and regional racing experience” and seeks to “develop and train drivers both on and off the track.”
Wallace entered the program in 2009, and became a hopeful prospect for NASCAR’s top brass.
“He’s somebody with the most promising talent who is an African-American come through our diversity program,” Brian France, chairman and chief executive of NASCAR, said in 2012. France came under fire for publicly supporting Donald Trump in the presidential election. “Look, that’s a breakthrough if it materializes, and if not him, there’ll be somebody who’s going to walk in the door and be a star and it’s going to be good for us.”
But even with the sport’s support, it hasn’t always been easy. The comparison of Wallace and Scott is apt.
Wallace said he’s often been the target of racial slurs, not just from fans but other drivers and some racing officials. When NASCAR let him take over its official Instagram account, he sent some photos and videos from the Black Entertainment Television Awards, only to be greeted with a torrent of hateful comments.
“I’ve experienced that since Day 1 of racing,” he told the New York Times. “It doesn’t hurt me. It bothers my parents more than anything. For me, it’s just something I hear through one ear and it goes right through the other and just keep moving along and don’t even dwell on it. Because the more you dwell on it, the more it affects you.”
Meanwhile Scott, who remains the only black driver to win at the Cup level, which he did in 1963, faced a more immediately dangerous form of racism.
As ThinkProgress reported:
He was booed constantly by fans, intentionally wrecked by many of his competitors, and barred outright from competing in some tracks. When, despite all of those obstacles, he finally did get to Victory Lane, his win wasn’t even acknowledged because the racetrack didn’t want to hand him the trophy in front of everyone — after all, it would have been a scandal if the white trophy girl had kissed him, per NASCAR custom.
Some say a victory for Wallace could be a turning point in what has proved to be a decades-long struggle for the sport.
“I think it’ll break things wide open because he does have the innate ability to drive race cars extremely well,” former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler told the Charlotte Observer. “If he wins a Cup race,” he said, the sport will attract a new wave of African American drivers. They will all “want to be Bubba.”
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