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Bubba Wallace has goals for the new NASCAR season. Be consistently competitive. Win at least two races. And, of course, make his new team owner, none other than Michael Jordan himself, proud he hired Wallace to drive the No. 23 car.
Then there is his annual quest ...
“I have a goal every year to not be part of the headlines,” Wallace said. “Every year I have that goal. And I have failed every year. ‘Hey, I don't want to make any controversy.’ Something always happens, whether it's my doing or not.
“But it’s always my doing. Let's be honest.”
Actually, it often isn’t. Certainly not in 2020.
It isn’t Wallace’s fault he’s the Cup Series’ only Black driver, which meant that in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd during a police interaction in Minneapolis he was asked his thoughts. He expressed an opinion — he’d like to see the Confederate flag removed from race tracks — that NASCAR itself has sought for nearly two decades.
It wasn’t Wallace’s fault that a garage pull at Talladega was fashioned into a noose and then, six months later, at random, Wallace’s team was assigned to that very stall. Or that once discovered (Wallace never even saw it), NASCAR resulted with an aggressive investigation that brought incredible attention onto what turned out to be a bizarre coincidence.
And it certainly wasn’t Wallace’s fault that a faction of the fan base reacted to the story by blaming it all on him, even claiming he made it up or sought it out. Let alone that the sport’s feel-good moment — fellow drivers and pit crews ushered him down pit road — was somehow opportunistic.
Wallace has never been afraid of speaking his mind and has, like nearly every racer, found himself in a few spats — splashing water on Alex Bowman’s face or getting fined for intentionally spinning out during a race or quitting an iRacing event.
Last year was different though. Last year changed everything.
“I am the most hated person,” Wallace said.
Among fans, probably. Not that he doesn’t have his supporters. He does. Plenty of them. And, perhaps, more coming as his partnership with Jordan turns some heads starting Sunday in the Daytona 500.
NASCAR embraced Wallace’s call against the Confederate flag, which led to plenty of fan tumult and even protests outside of races. And driving a car with “Black Lives Matter” painted on it was met with mixed reaction.
Wallace may not shy away from this, but that doesn’t mean he wants it either. He said the stress of last year caused him to lose weight. He dreads the extra media calls. He at least says he’d like to just quietly go about his business.
There is no question he’d prefer to have more Black drivers, crew members, engineers, team owners and whatever. He works aggressively, both publicly and privately, to accomplish that.
He’s excited about the arrival of Jordan, because he hopes it opens more eyes to racing. NASCAR’s cocktail of speed and soap opera can cross any socio-demographic line. He points to the arrival of the entertainer Pitbull, who is a new co-owner of a different team, as proof.
“He fell in love with the sport after watching 'Days of Thunder,' ” Wallace said of the 1990 film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
“It shows other minorities, ‘Hey, if these guys are investing, then so can we,’ ” Wallace said. “And we can continue to grow our sport. And that’s what we need. They have ideas of how they want to see success and how they want to grow their names and their brands.”
NASCAR has bled fans and sponsors for years now. Meanwhile, the country is changing, not just more racially diverse, but with younger generations who have attention spans built on TikTok, not settling in to watch a 500-mile race.
NASCAR needs new fans. Yet to attract them, to make them feel welcome, some old traditions, such as the prevalence of the Confederate flag, must die. That has, in turn, driven some existing fans away. It’s also left Wallace as the face of change, fair or not.
“NASCAR [isn’t] where a lot of minorities [want] to go,” Wallace said. “... We are changing the game. Everything that happened last year, I think we put NASCAR on the map in a lot of new areas. A lot of new fans are looking to tune in this year. It’s important for all of us.”
Still, Wallace wishes it could happen with less drama, less controversy, less, as he puts it, “headlines.” Certainly less that have nothing to do with his actions but instead occur because he’s so isolated.
“Well, I look at it, go be a part of being the minority for 18 years, you’ll learn how to handle it,” Wallace said. “So it’s just another day in the life of ol' Bubba Wallace, here. So it’s all right. I'm good with it.”
He knows he is now on a team that has the resources and set up to be competitive. Which makes this season his best to become … just a driver, of sorts.
“This is what I have wanted for so long, to have the ability to prove the point that ‘Hey, I belong,’ ” Wallace said. “We are going to go out and compete, contend and become a household name on the race track.”
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