Los Angeles—Three years after making his debut at the elite level of NASCAR racing, arguably the biggest victory of Bubba Wallace’s career has come off the track.
The only black driver in a predominantly white sport, Wallace has been outspoken on racial injustice since the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd on May 25.
Wallace led calls for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from its arenas, a move that the sport’s governing body eventually made in a landmark decision on June 10.
The flag has long been a staple at NASCAR tracks in the sport’s southern US heartlands, but it remains a symbol of slavery and racism for many.
Wallace, who this season has raced wearing a T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” and in a car emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter,” applauded the decision, voicing hope NASCAR would “come together and really try to be more inclusive.”
“You look at the Confederate flag and how, yes, it may mean heritage to most, but to a group that is in a lot of pain right now, that’s a symbol of hate and it brings back so many bad memories, signs of oppression from way back when, and there’s no good that comes with that flag,” Wallace said.
“That’s the message we’re trying to get across: It’s not about you, it’s about a group of people that we are trying to bring together and make the world a better place for,” he added.
While NASCAR chiefs and many of Wallace’s fellow drivers have saluted his activism, it also has met with ugly opposition.
Wallace continues to be subjected to racist abuse on social media. And on Sunday, a noose was discovered in his garage at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, leaving the sport in shock.
“This will not break me,” Wallace said after the noose’s discovery. “I will not give in, nor will I back down.”
On Monday, he produced a battling 14th place finish at the Geico 500.
In a post-race interview where he was not wearing a face mask, he explained: “I wanted to show whoever it was that you’re not going to take away my smile.”
Activism, however, is a role that Wallace has grown into over time.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said he had started out focusing only on racing.
“I never saw color and never thought I was treated differently because I was black,” Wallace told the Times.
“I was way too young to understand what a trailblazer was or a pioneer was.”
Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1993, Wallace is the son of a white father and African-American mother.
He was drawn into motorsport at an early age, starting to compete as a nine-year-old in Bandolero racing, an entry-level motorsport where cars can clock speeds of around 70 miles per hour.
In 2010, at the age of 16, he won a place in NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” program, a project designed to boost the number of minority drivers and fans in the sport.
From there, Wallace worked his way through the junior tiers of NASCAR before making his debut in the top-flight NASCAR Cup Series in 2017, racing for Richard Petty Motorsports in their famed No.43 Ford.
Wallace was the first African American to race in the Cup series since 2006, and in his first full season in 2018, he enjoyed a stellar showing at the Daytona 500, where he finished second.
He followed that with a third place at the Brickyard 400 in 2019.
Richard Petty team manager Philippe Lopez describes Wallace as a “roller-coaster” personality.
“It’s nice to be around a personality like Bubba,” Lopez told The Undefeated website. “Sometimes the lows get too low, but when things are good and successful, his enthusiasm is just infectious and it jumps to the whole crew just because he can get so positive. He becomes the cheerleader and it’s really cool to witness.”
Wallace, meanwhile, says he was not prepared for the plaudits he earned last year in speaking about his battle with depression.
“For weeks and weeks, I’m still getting thanked for talking about depression, that it’s helped so many people,” Wallace said.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was such a big deal.’ I was just asked what was going on, and I told them because I’m an open book. What you see is what you get.”