Bubba Wallace is still three races away from joining Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s new 23XI Racing team, but already, the team and Wallace are striking a decisive and unapologetically progressive tone.
Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black driver, has partnered with Root Insurance to produce a new ad, entitled “Unapologetic.” Using tweets, headlines and news clips from the summer of 2020, the ad serves as both a statement of purpose and a direct rebuttal to the President of the United States.
Yeah, we’re pretty far beyond Winston Cup, STP and Goodwrench territory now.
The aim of the Wallace-Root partnership is obvious from the first seconds of the spot: this isn’t merely a typical hood-sticker-and-postrace-thank-you sponsorship. The ad, produced by Tool of North America and directed by Wesley Walker, takes a swift tour through Wallace’s chaotic summer, from calling out NASCAR for its use of the Confederate flag to drawing criticism by name from the president.
In the midst of the summer’s ongoing racial justice upheaval, from social justice protests to the discovery of a noose in a Talladega garage to NASCAR distancing itself from the Confederate flag, Wallace emerged as the sport’s most famous active driver. Though he lacks the on-track success of Hamlin, Kevin Harvick or any other playoff drivers, he’s reached out beyond the sport in a way that no one since Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and he’s aired his political, racial and social views in a way almost unseen in the sport’s history.
Over the course of the summer, Wallace became the public face of a sport trying to thread a moving needle: distancing itself from longstanding racist symbols and fans, responding to the concerns of old-school fans uncomfortable with social justice’s presence in the sport, and reaching out to a broader, more diverse fanbase.
Even as the country was roiling with protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, NASCAR officials found a noose in the Talladega garage space designated for Wallace. Although Wallace himself did not see the noose, he decried racism still present in the sport, and drew the support of the entire garage for doing so.
An FBI investigation later found that the noose was not aimed at Wallace himself, but that did little to satisfy Wallace’s critics, who included in their number President Trump:
Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020
That tweet — though based on a false premise (the noose was not a hoax) — is the centerpiece of Root’s “Unapologetic” campaign. In the spot, “media” surrounding Wallace shove microphones into his face and ask if he’ll apologize. In response, he simply walks away as the words “Progress owes no apology” appear on the screen.
The Wallace/Root campaign will draw pushback. It obviously stacks the public-opinion deck in Wallace’s favor, to start. Critics of athletes’ move into the social justice arena contend that they risk alienating audiences or costing themselves sponsors and ratings. Root Insurance, clearly, is taking exactly the opposite approach, willing to sacrifice potential customers turned off by their message in return for the loyalty of those that support it.
That’s a significant change for both driver and sponsor; in recent years, sponsors in NASCAR have preferred their drivers drive away from controversy at 200 miles per hour. Better to have a bland driver than potentially offend a fan has been the prevailing wisdom. Not with Root and Wallace, however.
Like with everything else involving Jordan, Hamlin and 23XI, the ad will have an impact. Will it have an effect? We’ll find out next season.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at email@example.com.
More from Yahoo Sports: