“The Ahmaud Arbery video was the final straw for me in being silent. That shook me to the core like nothing has in the past,” Wallace, 26, said in a telephone interview Friday. “Something flipped inside of me to be more vocal and stand up for racial equality and make sure we get a hold on that and change the face of this world and get it to a better place. Creating unity and compassion and understanding of each of our brothers and sisters is so powerful. We have to preach that to the ones that don’t want to listen and understand.”
Having risen from NASCAR’s Truck and Xfinity series to stock-car racing’s elite ranks, Wallace has yet to win a Cup Series race. (He finished second in the 2018 Daytona 500.) But he made an inestimable mark on NASCAR this week, becoming the first driver to publicly call for it to ban displays of the Confederate flag at events. Less than 48 hours later, NASCAR did just that.
For his efforts, Wallace has been inundated with extremes. He has had a surge of 30,000 new social media followers, many declaring newfound love for NASCAR, Wallace and his No. 43 Chevrolet. But he also has received plenty of condemnation and even threats.
“They see me as somebody who’s tearing down their heritage,” Wallace said of fans who are irate about the ban. “But we’re not trying to close the door on you; we’re opening the door to many others that want to be a part of this sport.”
The only full-time African American racer in NASCAR’s Cup series, and the first since the late Wendell Scott of Danville, Va., retired in 1973, Wallace is uniquely suited to lead NASCAR into the future its executives say they want: one in which women and minorities feel welcome and fill the grandstands, pit crews and driver ranks in numbers that mirror the diversity of America.
Wallace’s father is white; his mother is black. Both are NASCAR loyalists and fans, in particular, of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. So Bubba, who started racing at age 9, grew up an Earnhardt fan, too.
Today, Wallace occupies the most iconic ride in NASCAR: the No. 43 that stock-car racing’s “King,” Richard Petty, drove to seven championships. Though 56 years younger than Petty, his boss at Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace has due respect for his racing elders but handles himself as his own man, with his own style, brandishing a tattoo of Petty’s famous autograph on the back of his right thigh.
Unlike the many NASCAR drivers who shrink from controversy for fear of alienating corporate sponsors, Wallace speaks his mind, whether discussing depression, which he has suffered from, or now, as the nation wrestles with its legacy of racism following the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police, speaking up for those who can’t and asking others to listen and try to understand.
“I encourage people to have those tough conversations just to educate yourself on what goes on and how we can create equality in the world and grow together as one,” Wallace said. “Yes, all lives matter. But black lives matter, too. And many in the black community don’t feel like their life matters; they feel like they’re discriminated against just because of being black. We are trying to get the narrative across that our lives are just as important as anybody else’s.”
It is exhausting, Wallace acknowledged, racing at nearly 200 mph and advocating for change off the track. But he insists he can shoulder both jobs and, ideally, serve as a bridge to NASCAR’s future.
“I’ve always been a person that has said what’s on my mind and stand behind it with a lot of heart and passion,” Wallace said.
So after seeing the video of Arbery’s Feb. 23 slaying that reached the Internet on May 5, Wallace vowed to effect change in his corner of the world.
Floyd’s death, as a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, followed May 25, the weekend after NASCAR emerged from a two-month quarantine to resume racing.
Amid the blur of seven Cup Series races packed into 3½ weeks and nationwide protests over Floyd’s killing, Wallace emailed NASCAR President Steve Phelps to say he felt NASCAR needed to take a stand on the divisive issue of the Confederate flag.
Wallace wanted Phelps to understand that many African Americans who might love racing, just like he and his family so, were staying away from tracks because of a symbol that, to them, represented hate.
“I was standing up for people whose voices haven’t been heard,” Wallace said. “It makes them feel uncomfortable. And if we wanted to see change and create inclusion in the sport, I thought this was the perfect time for NASCAR to stand behind our message and get rid of the flag.
“I just said, ‘Hey, we need to take a stand here and make change in the sport and get rid of the flag because there are so many people who are bothered by it,’ ” Wallace said, recounting his message to Phelps. “ ’They want to attend races, but they don’t because they see the old stigmas. They see it as a good ol’ boy sport and the racist undertones of that.’ ”
Phelps listened, according to Wallace.
Change came quickly.
NASCAR notified drivers of the plan to ban displays of the flag one hour before it was announced Wednesday afternoon. Wallace heard the news from Phelps directly and extended congratulations.
“It has been a long time coming,” Wallace told NASCAR’s president. “But we can’t stop here. We’ve got to keep going.”
Joined by other NASCAR executives and a handful of drivers, they plan to talk next week about stock-car racing’s next step.