Since it was race weekend in the Motor City, it is appropriate to recount that an African-American male is breaking barriers in one of the most segregated sports – NASCAR.
The young Black driver is Darrell Wallace Jr. He said he’s gotten a lot of support from the racing community, but he’s also had to deal with some prejudice.
Wallace, 18, said that some of his competitors in years past have resented him, assuming he only got his position because he was Black. Wallace said he’s also had racial slurs and taunts thrown his way from the grandstands.
But that type of criticism serves as motivation for him. He’s also reached out to the family of Wendell Scott (documented in the Richard Pryor movie “Greased Lightning”), a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and the only African-American to win a race in NASCAR’s top series.
“My goal is to look back at what Wendell Scott has done. Hearing all the stuff that he went through is definitely a lot different than what I go through now,” Wallace said. “I’m just trying to carry his torch further than he did and do it in the right way.”
For now, Gibbs Racing plans to have Wallace run the No. 20 Toyota in four nationwide races this season, including a return trip to Iowa in August and dates in Dover and Richmond.
“Right now, I’m just like, ‘OK, cool,’ you know? I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I don’t even know if it will. It takes a lot, and I mean a lot, to get me pumped up. But I mean, this is big,” Wallace said. “The mood I’m in right now is like ready to go. Just kind of ready to see what we’ve got.”
In a sport that’s been almost the exclusive domain of White male drivers, it’s impossible to overlook Wallace. He’s one of the most promising African-American drivers to come along in decades and arguably the best talent to come through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which was started eight years ago to give women and minorities a better chance of landing a NASCAR seat.
However, not to the surprise of those that know Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins Super Bowl winning head coach, he has always been a inclusive person and after retiring and taking on NASCAR, the spirit of the man has not altered.
Thus Wallace finds himself with a golden opportunity.
“It’s different,” Wallace told reporters. “I get looked at a lot more and talked about a lot more, but it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s actually cool. I mean, some people see it as, this is given to me because of skin color. But others that have raced with me and have known me for a while have seen that I have the talent and skill, and what it takes to run in this series.”
There’s little doubt that Wallace has earned his shot in the Nationwide Series by what he’s done on the track.
Wallace grew up in Concord. N.C., just outside of Charlotte, where he got the nickname “Bubba” from his sister. He started running go-karts when he was nine at the urging of his father, and in 2005 jumped to bandolero cars, winning 35 of the 48 races he ran. He won 11 races in 38 starts in a Legends car circuit a year later and was in late models by 2007.
Wallace signed with Gibbs Racing in 2009.
“It’s not just all of a sudden,” Gibbs said. “Everything he’s done, he’s done it well. When you kind of do it as a younger kid, it usually kind of paves the way for a pretty good career. To have someone that’s really good and is African-American, it will be real valuable for the sport.”