Much-Hyped Black Driver to Make NASCAR Debut in Iowa
“Bubba” Wallace arguably the best talent to come through circuit’s Drive for Diversity program
Luke Meredith AP Sports Writer
May 21, 2012NEWTON, Iowa (AP) -- Darrell Wallace Jr. has already crossed off a bunch of boxes on the checklist for a future NASCAR star. He dominated as a kid in karts, blew past the field in bandoleros and late models, and landed a seat for Sunday's NASCAR Nationwide race in Iowa even though he won't turn 19 until October.
Heck, Wallace even has the perfect NASCAR nickname: "Bubba."
But Wallace's undeniable skills aren't the only reason he's getting noticed.
In a sport that's been almost the exclusive domain of white male drivers, it's impossible to overlook Wallace. He's one of the most promising African-American drivers to come along in decades and arguably the best talent to come through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which was started eight years ago to give women and minorities a better chance of landing a NASCAR seat.
Wallace, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, will be the first black driver to run a Nationwide race since Marc Davis started in Nashville in 2011.
"It's different. I get looked at a lot more and talked about a lot more, but it doesn't bother me at all. It's actually cool. I mean, some people see it as, this is given to me because of skin color," Wallace said. "But others that have raced with me and have known me for a while have seen that I have the talent and skill, what it takes to run in this series."
There's little doubt that Wallace has earned his shot in the Nationwide Series by what he's done on the track.
Wallace grew up in Concord. N.C., just outside of Charlotte, where he got the nickname "Bubba" from his sister. He started running go-karts when he was nine at the urging of his father, and in 2005 jumped to bandolero cars, winning 35 of the 48 races he ran. Wallace won 11 races in 38 starts in a Legends car circuit a year later and was in late models by 2007.
Wallace signed with JGR in 2009. Team president J.D. Gibbs said it was clear from the way Wallace progressed from series to series with ease that he was a talent.
"It's not just all of a sudden. Everything he's done, he's done it well," Gibbs said. "When you kind of do it as a younger kid, it usually kind of paves the way for a pretty good career."
Wallace made it to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2010 and was named the Rookie of the Year, beating out fellow hotshot Cole Whitt by one point. He was the youngest and the first African-American driver to win a race in that series, notching a pair of victories. Wallace won three K&N races in 2011 and has a victory in three starts this spring.
Nationwide is the next natural step. Gibbs said that while Wallace would prefer to be looked at simply as a driver, he's also well aware that his skin color and his promise have put him in a unique position.
"The one thing about NASCAR is, it doesn't matter if you're female, male, (your) background - you have to be really good. But to have someone that's really good and is African-American in there, it will be real valuable for the sport," Gibbs said. "I think NASCAR knows it."
Wallace said he's gotten a lot of support from the racing community. But he's also had to deal with some prejudice.
Wallace said that some of his competitors in years past have resented him, assuming he only got his ride because he was black. Wallace said he's also had racial slurs and taunts thrown his way from the grandstands.
Wallace said that type of criticism serves as motivation for him. He's also reached out to the family of Wendell Scott, a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and the only African-American to win a race in NASCAR's top series.
"My goal is to look back at what Wendell Scott has done ... hearing all the stuff that he went through is definitely a lot different than what I go through now," Wallace said. "I'm just trying to carry his torch farther than he did and do it in the right way."
For now, JGR plans to have Wallace run the No. 20 Toyota in four Nationwide races this season, including a return trip to Iowa in August and dates in Dover and Richmond. Though the possibility exists that Sunday's race will be seen as just the first in a groundbreaking career for Wallace, it's still all a bit much for the 18-year-old to take in.
"Right now, I'm just like, `OK, cool,' you know? I don't think it's hit me yet. I don't even know if it will. It takes a lot, and I mean a lot, to get me pumped up. But I mean, this is big," Wallace said. "The mood I'm in right now is like ready to go. Just kind of ready to see what we've got."