DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Darrell Wallace Jr. has been hit with the "n" word all his life. He's heard it in whispers, in shouts, up close, from a distance, and even from an official at a race track. He was 14 years old, running late models in North Carolina, when his dad heard an official describe his son as "that n----- kid." Darrell Wallace Sr., calmly approached the official and said, "Did you forget my son's name?"
The official "went to stuttering," Wallace, Sr. says. He was soon out of a job.
Wallace Sr., who is white, shrugs when he retells the story outside the media center Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. There isn't a hint of anger. Not even an extra octave of shock in his voice. The "n" word has been used about his son "too many times to count," he says. It's not worth ranting and raving about hurled epithets.
"He's gonna get 'em til the day he dies."
It's hard not to wonder why father and son aren't more upset. They each speak about the occasional burst of hate as part of the journey. They both talk much more about the kindness of strangers, the extraordinary chances they've had. NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program helped the 19-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. so much that he wonders if it saved his career. Back in 2010, after a slump on the track, he actually quit racing. NASCAR reached out soon after.
"It would be interesting to see if we didn't get that call," Wallace Jr. says.
Now he's driving for owner Kyle Busch and working with the legendary Joe Gibbs, who compares his attitude and competitiveness to that of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Friday night, Darrell Wallace Jr. will make his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start. He's already the first African-American ever to win a NASCAR K&N Series race – a single-A series, if you will – he notched three top 10s in four Nationwide Series races last season and he's only the fourth full-time black driver in NASCAR's long history.
He's a trailblazer and he's got the ability to be a monumental figure in a sport where, incredibly, women have been more successful than African-American men.
Wallace Jr. is already a face of progress in sports, taking a star turn here during Black History Month. Yet to be a face of his sport, he will have to strike a very precarious balance. Winning as a driver takes ferocity. That's easy to summon. Winning as a brand? That's different. And it's especially different in NASCAR, where ferocity is sometimes loved and sometimes loathed. A white driver who fires back at a real or perceived slight can add to his legend. Just look at Wallace Jr.'s idol, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
A black driver who lashes out? Well, that might be seen as something else entirely.
Darrell Wallace Jr.'s racing career is miraculous. He grew up in Mobile, Ala., playing basketball until his dad, a racing fan, suggested a turn in Go-Karts. Darrell Jr. was nine at the time. There were two huge obstacles: Mom and money.
Darrell Jr.'s mother, Desiree, ran track at the University of Tennessee. He gets his athleticism from her. But the love of racing doesn't come from Mom. At one of Darrell's first races, Desiree saw a go-kart speed by and noticed something missing: a driver. Moments later, she saw a little kid lying on the track. He was OK, but Desiree wasn't. "Oh hell no!" she told her husband. "My baby ain't getting ready to race!"
She relented, obviously, though she won't be in Daytona this weekend for her son's truck race as she prefers to watch the action from home. The bigger issue, for both parents, was finances. Darrell Sr. says it took an $80,000 investment just to get his son started on the go-kart circuit, between all the travel, maintenance and the kart itself. He says he was dropping $250,000 a year when Darrell Jr. got to late-model racing as a teen. And he estimates that he's spent more than $1 million total on his son's career, even though Darrell Jr., known as "Bubba," isn't even 20 years old.
Lack of diversity in NASCAR, Darrell Sr. says, is "not a black issue; it's the economy."
And the Wallaces aren't from wealth. Darrell Sr. had to work ridiculous hours at the industrial cleaning company he owns in Tennessee to keep his son on wheels. He says he has paid several bills late and borrowed money just to make payroll. Desiree is a social worker, so she's not rolling in dough either.
Despite all the toil, the family nearly gave up on the dream because it got so expensive. In fact, when Gibbs first called Darrell Sr. in 2010 to work on a deal for his son, he told Gibbs he'd call him back because his insurance adjuster was about to take him for lunch, and he wasn't about to give up a free lunch.
Gibbs and the NASCAR diversity program basically saved Wallace, Jr.'s career. There was no way the Wallaces would be able to afford another $250,000 season.
"I wouldn't have been able to take him to the next level," Darrell Sr. says.
Still, even now there's a struggle for sponsorships. DefyDiabetes will sponsor Wallace Jr. on Friday, and Toyota will back Darrell for a few races this year, yet they're actively looking for full-season deals. At a press conference, Gibbs was asked if he's been able to secure any sponsor dollars from companies run by or catering to a mostly-black clientele. He said there have been successful meetings but he didn't suggest contracts in place. Later, in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, Gibbs admitted the barriers to entry for all minorities are high.
"A lot of kids get ruled out," he said. "It's not something you just start doing. I don't think a lot can be done."
Whether black, white, Asian or Latino, it's simply cheaper and easier to practice basketball or football than to practice racing. Even if you have the funds for a go-kart for your son, daughter, niece or nephew, you still need to maintain it and find others to race.
"The biggest thing is getting the kid in a kart – they have to buy it and that's the biggest thing," Wallace Jr. said. "You can go to a sporting store and buy a basketball for 30 bucks or a football for 30 bucks. You go buy a go-kart and that's 300 bucks. What are you going to get? A basketball or a go-kart?"
So put yourself in Darrell Wallace Jr. shoes. Your father has stretched his budget to the limit for years. Your mother has stretched her nerves to the limit for years. Joe Gibbs, a racing and football legend, has put his support behind you. NASCAR has hoisted its diversity hopes upon you. And on top of all that, you have your own humongous dreams: make the Cup series; make it to victory lane; and make the kind of cultural history that only happens once in a long time in sports. Oh, and every positive step you take brings less and less triumph. Even the elite drivers in NASCAR only win a few races each season.
"You keep going up," Darrell Jr. says, "and you go down to maybe one win a year. That sucks."
Could there possibly be more pressure on this teen? Darrell Jr. says he doesn't feel much of it.
"I don't know why," he says, laughing.
Frustration? That's a different story. Every single driver feels frustration. Work all week, all season, all your life, only to wreck when some nimrod screws up drafting or, worse yet, runs you into a wall. Of course there's frustration. But the ironic twist is the frustration is what fans gravitate to – when words are exchanged, or when fights break out. Collisions of vehicles are a big draw, but not as big as collisions between egos. Hence the second question Darrell, Jr. faced Wednesday at his press conference with Gibbs, which was about "the line between dirty racing and short-track bumping and banging."
"Well, that's not really my call there," Wallace Jr. said. "… It's short-track racing. You're going to get that and it's going to happen. I don't know why everybody thought it was the end of the world when wrecks were going to happen. Like I said, with close-quarter racing like that it's going to get heated."
Not exactly pouring kerosene on a flame. It's the same non-reaction reaction his dad gives when asked about all the racism. Wallace Jr. won't be going there often, if at all, no matter how much he's tempted. He won't be baited by epithets, he won't be baited by other drivers, and he won't be baited by leading questions.
He tells a story about winning a lower-tier race and noticing a fan in the stands with his arm in the air and his middle finger outstretched. Wallace Jr. started doing donuts, closer and closer to the fan, until he was able to look him in the eye. That's the closest he's ever come to showing anybody up.
Behind closed doors? It's different there. "I'll walk to my hauler and you'll see s--- flying," he says jokingly. But he won't react in public. Never. NASCAR fans love anger and drama, yet they won't get it with Wallace Jr. Nope.
"I'm African-American," he says. "There are more eyes on me than anybody. They're going to take the negative before the positive."
Sad but true. Being a successful black man in a white sport is a balancing act, but being perceived as an angry black man in a white sport (or any sport) makes things even tougher. Desiree, who is black, taught her son from a young age that the rules are always going to be different for him.
"My mom told me, every weekend, always stay positive no matter what the circumstances," he explains. "Stuff's gonna go down. It's not gonna be your race. Media is gonna take the bad before the good."
Because of your race, he's asked.
So the obstacles only bring a smile to his face and a rev to his internal engine. You think he's a token black racer? That'll make him burn inside, even if you never see him smolder.
He gives a wink and a thumbs-up. It's all good, even though it'll never be all good. Darrell Wallace Jr. is a one-in-a-million driver about to make good on a one-in-a-million shot, backed by one million of his parents' hard-earned dollars. Past history won't stop him now, nor will the wrecks, nor will the haters.
Not one, not a million.
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