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Nascar's Bubba Wallace plays trump in race game

Bubba Wallace is drawing plaudits after his runner-up finish at the Daytona 500, the best by a black driver.
Bubba Wallace is drawing plaudits after his runner-up finish at the Daytona 500, the best by a black driver.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

FLORIDA • The enduring image from last weekend's Daytona 500 was not of race winner Austin Dillon or Danica Patrick bowing out of Nascar for good in a seven-car pile-up. Instead, it was Desiree Wallace crashing a post-race news conference to congratulate her son, a genial 24-year-old driver named Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr.

"Man, you did that thing, baby!" she said, sobbing as she held her boy in a near minute-long embrace. "I am so proud of you. You waited so long, baby."

"You act like we just won the race," he said through tears.

"We did!"

In truth Wallace had finished second, a great showing for his maiden voyage in the Great American Race. It was also a return to prominence for Richard Petty, the Nascar legend and owner of Wallace's No. 43 car.

Wallace's result was the highest finish ever in the Daytona 500 by a black driver, and the highest finish in a Monster Energy Cup race in 47 years - a pair of mile markers left by the great Wendell Scott, who was infamously denied an opportunity to celebrate his seminal Grand National victory in 1963 because race organisers did not want him hugging the white women.

TAKING THE HIGH ROAD

My parents are always telling me to be the bigger person. To never give the media anything negative to talk about. Obviously we're all human and we slip up every once in a while, but I have to set an example.

BUBBA WALLACE, on his responsibility as a role model under the media's spotlight.

"I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do and my family pushes me each and every day," Wallace said in between hugging his sister, Brittany, and dissolving into a gasping, shoulder-heaving mess. "They might not know it but I just want to make them proud."

Wallace is not usually so emotional after a race. But beneath his basement drum sessions (which he says help his hand-eye-foot coordination in the cockpit) and the fart stories he tells at the expense of his girlfriend, Amanda, lies an unerring sense of obligation - to his team, to his family and to his race most of all.

And though he is just one of many non-white male scions to break into the major leagues of stock car racing since the sport started pushing for diversity 14 years ago, he is the only one who serves as the Rorschach test for how those efforts will ultimately play with Nascar's Maga (Make America Great Again) hat-wearing, Confederate-flag waving loyalists.

On the one hand, Wallace has everything Nascar looks for in a modern Cup star: good looks, Southern charm, an extensive dirt track racing background, and the driving skills to match.

On the other hand, the "keyboard warriors", as Wallace calls them, are always out there on Twitter. Chief among them was a 42-year-old Wisconsin man who coded his messages in white supremacist dog whistles and insulted Wallace's dead grandmother.

Wallace did not take the bait, and his troll was soon outed as a boys' high school golf coach eventually shamed into resigning.

"My parents are always telling me to be the bigger person," Wallace said. "To never give the media anything negative to talk about. Obviously we're all human and we slip up every once in a while, but I have to set an example."

Cutting even deeper, perhaps, are sponsors who still hesitate to fully support a black driver. He went from challenging for the Xfinity title in 2015 and 2016 to a "race-by-race" schedule last year.

When Aric Almirola was injured, Petty's operation reached out to Wallace. After he acquitted himself well in four relief appearances, including a pair of top-15 results down the stretch, Petty approached Wallace to join full-time this year as a second driver.

The relationship with Petty became a bit more complicated when the 80-year-old waded into the raging national anthem debate, telling USA Today: "Anybody that doesn't stand up for (the anthem) ought to be out of the country. Period."

Wallace insists there were no hard feelings. "He's coming from the patriotic side of it. That's the way I took it. We hadn't really discussed it, and there's no need. I've always stood for the national anthem, and I will continue to do that. That was just a hiccup or whatever you wanna call it."

Besides, he knows Petty's heart. When Scott was sputtering across the colour line in the 1960s and 70s in ramshackle equipment that he ran and repaired himself, Petty was the one who slipped him excess parts and tyres, who opened his home to Scott and his family.

That Petty is now abetting the rise of a driver who has the potential to do for US auto racing what Tiger Woods did for golf feels like an arc coming full circle.

"A little bit of a splash in the motorsports world goes a long way since there aren't a lot of familiar faces in it," said Wallace.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Nascar's Bubba Wallace plays trump in race game'. Print Edition | Subscribe