'Man, I want to be just like him:' Wallace's inspiring Talladega win goes out to kids with racing dreams

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'Man, I want to be just like him:' Wallace's inspiring Talladega win goes out to kids with racing dreams
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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dream big, kid.

Bubba Wallace became NASCAR‘s second Black driver to win at the Cup Series level Monday at Talladega Superspeedway. Rain postponed and shortened the YellaWood 500, yet Wallace beamed despite the dreariness, making sure his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota was out front when it mattered most — just 118 laps into the 188-lap event.

“This is for all those kids out there that want to have an opportunity at whatever they want to achieve and be the best at what they want to do,” Wallace said. “You‘re going to go through a lot of [expletive], but you always have to stay true to your path and not let the nonsense get to you. Stay strong, stay humble, stay hungry. There have been plenty of times that I wanted to give up, but you surround yourselves with the right people and it‘s moments like this that you appreciate.”

RELATED: Wallace wins at Talladega | Official results | Commemorate Bubba’s win

Wallace‘s first win came in his 143rd career start — and it happened at the track where, in his 85th career start, he was thrust into the social-justice spotlight.

In June 2020, a week after NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, a noose was found in Wallace‘s Talladega garage stall. An FBI investigation concluded the garage door pull had been there for months, ruling out a hate crime. Nonetheless, the Cup Series garage rallied behind Wallace during pre-race ceremonies as a sign of support.

Wallace then willingly became a public voice for NASCAR, advocating for awareness and change toward racial equality.

“He hasn‘t let anyone change him, which has been, I think, the best thing,” Ryan Blaney said. “He‘s still (the) Bubba that I‘ve known since we were 10 years old.”

And that‘s in spite of outside influences.

Social media turned into a dark place for Wallace and started to negatively affect his mental health. To break that cycle, Wallace decided to stay off his main platforms, having now been absent for months. He has learned to not let other people‘s opinions bother him and accepted the fact he cannot please everybody.

“I can‘t fathom it, right?” said Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing. “I mean, I try to. I try to understand, but I‘ll never pretend to kind of understand what any minority goes through. I just don‘t. I‘ve never had those life experiences, so it‘s hard for me to judge one way or another.

“But I see it on my social media. People just automatically dislike me because I hired Bubba Wallace. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? We‘re trying to give him an opportunity and put him in great equipment.‘ And it‘s great to see results when that happens.”

It‘s no fluke, either. Wallace put himself in the position to win. There were 39 other cars that could have done the same but didn‘t. Wallace led the last five laps at Talladega.

In his new ride at 23XI Racing, Wallace has accomplished more top-five finishes 31 races into the schedule than he did in three full 36-race seasons previously — three in 2021 vs. three from 2018-20. He was fifth at Pocono Raceway in June and runner-up at Daytona International Speedway in August. And then, of course, Monday’s breakthrough victory.

“It shows that someone who is not as common in the sport, being a person of color, can come in and have success,” Blaney said. “I hope it opens a lot of kids’ eyes who want to try out racing — see success that Bubba has like, ‘Man, I want to be just like him.‘ ”

To Wallace, that fellow driver of color was Wendell Scott, though he raced long before Wallace was born in 1993. Scott made history as NASCAR‘s first-ever Black winner in 1963.

NASCAR‘s modern era is considered 1972 on. That leaves Wallace as the modern-day inspiration.

“I didn‘t dream about being here when I was kid,” Wallace said. “But this is kind of a dream come true.”