Long: Let drivers be who they are, especially Bubba

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

LAS VEGAS — Please don’t change Bubba.

And please nobody change him.

Bubba Wallace was a whirling dervish of personality, opinion and openness Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — as he has been throughout his career. And as the sport needs.

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Drivers fuel NASCAR. It’s a point NASCAR President Steve Phelps stressed last year before the season finale in Miami, saying that “every driver is really important for us to help drive star power in our sport.”

Drivers are akin to the quarterback in the NFL and the superstar in the NBA. But unlike athletes in those sports, NASCAR drivers can struggle in how much personality they reveal.

That’s not a problem for Wallace. Although his team has funding, it doesn’t have a major corporate presence choking his personality.

For that, he was Friday’s headliner at the track even if his car was not in the top 25 in either practices in single-lap speed.

Among his pearls in a 20-minute session with reporters:

# He warned veteran drivers upset about being raced hard that “shit changes every day. Get accustomed to it.”

# He was realistic about his chances this weekend, noting that his team finished third at Indy with a new car. The car he’ll race this weekend was last run in March at Las Vegas. “Hopefully we can show up and run top 15.”

# He called the search for funding for his Richard Petty Motorsports team an “uphill climb. … It’s still been a gruesome battle on that side of things.”

While there are many personalities in NASCAR — recall Clint Bowyer going into the stands at Darlington to interview a fan sitting in the rain — some are reluctant to express themselves as freely because of past experiences, social media or sponsor considerations.

Wallace isn’t deterred by such things, discussing the depression he’s battled this year and blasting Kyle Busch with an expletive-filled tirade at Watkins Glen.

Look, this is someone who plays video games on Twitch for others to watch, is constructing a drum room and flew Fit for a King’s drummer in to help set the room up, and is active on social media.

Wallace’s comments Friday came a day after former champion Brad Keselowski acknowledged that expressing one’s opinion can be detrimental in auto racing.

That it is Keselowski, who offered outspoken opinions earlier in his career on everything from how the sport could be better to raising questions about concussion diagnosis, talking about the limits to a driver’s personality is disheartening.

“The penalties for having a big personality are real, and I want to win,” Keselowski said. “Winning comes before anything else. You can’t win when you don’t have sponsors.

“The last thing sponsors want is big personalities. That’s just a reality of it. Sponsors want safe personalities, they want personalities that sell a lot of whatever and that’s not necessarily a big personality. It’s the reality, whether you like it or not. It’s part of the business model.”

Kurt Busch, whose public flare-ups have cost him rides, said that “I know what Brad is talking about. I agree with Brad on his main point, winning is everything.”

The question is if Wallace can thrive with more sponsorship. Sponsor World Wide Technology, through a leadership donation in May from founder and chairman David Steward, provided additional funding and led to Victory Junction being on Wallace’s car for a select number of races, including this weekend at Las Vegas.

With the extra money, the team had a new car built for Indianapolis. Wallace took advantage of problems by others and moved into the top 10 and continued to climb. Once he was third, he held others off in the final laps to finish there.

After scoring his best finish of the season, Wallace yelled on his radio: “Yeah! That ain’t supposed to happen! That is not supposed to happen! We did it! Nice job!”

He called out haters on Twitter during his NBC Sports interview after the race.

“I’m just here taking it all in and enjoying it and making the most of it,” Wallace said in his interview after the Brickyard 400. “But again, that’s not supposed to happen. We’re not supposed to run with these big teams. What the hell? Somebody can drive.”

And will drive hard. He says he’s not afraid to race hard when needed.

Every generation changes the racing. Veteran drivers were upset with Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson, with how hard they raced when they came in as rookies in 2002. Now, the same refrain is heard as a new generation makes its impact.

Asked if the etiquette on the track is changing, Kyle Busch noted how “those rules are changing.

“I think it’s just the nature of Mark Martin not being around and (Tony) Stewart and (Jeff) Gordon and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and some of those guys that knew how to race, but also the aero-package and what these cars drive like nowadays.

“A lot of these  younger kids now come up running Late Models and K&N cars and beating the doors off of one another throughout their careers and here they are doing it at the Cup level. It’s just a different form of where these guys are being taught to race.”

The challenge is to be aggressive and successful. Wallace seeks success. It has only been fleeting in NASCAR’s premier series, although his two best finishes there — second in last year’s Daytona 500 and third at Indy last week — are at two of racing’s iconic tracks.

“I love how aggressive we race,” Wallace said. “That’s just what I was taught growing up; be as aggressive and clean as you can. There is a fine line, but if the opportunity presents itself for me to force the issue onto you, absolutely it’s going to happen.

“I fell victim to it at this race earlier this year. Ryan Preece and I were racing for I think the lucky dog or something. We came out on a little different pit strategy about two laps or so and we were racing hard against each other. In my Monday morning debrief, I texted him and said I was sorry and it was just hard racing. He was like, ‘Why are you apologizing for racing hard?’ I was like, ‘you are absolutely right.’”

Just as there was no need to apologize how he raced, there is no need for Bubba Wallace to apologize for who he is.

Let’s keep it that way.

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