When you think of sports that are mostly dominated by white men, what comes to mind? Baseball and hockey are probably the first to come off the top of your head. Neither of these sports are ever going to be dominated by black people the way the NFL and NBA are. But at least we’ve seen some progress since the first players broke barriers.
What if I told you that NASCAR hasn’t had a black full-time driver in 47 years. Wendell Scott was the last full-time black driver in NASCAR back in 1971 and was mildly successfully.
Bubba Wallace, a 24-year-old NASCAR driver from Mobile, Alabama, stands out like a sore thumb in his field. On Sunday, he became the second African-American man to race at the top level when he placed second at the 60th annual Daytona 500. He outpaced veterans Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. His team is headed by racing legend Richard Petty and Wallace dons his iconic No. 43.
Wallace stole the show in his postrace press conference when he was overcome with emotion at being at one of the biggest stages in NASCAR and doing so well in front of his family.
“It’s a sensitive subject,” he said, “but I’m just so emotional over where my family has been the last two years, and I don’t want to talk about it, but it’s just so hard.”
He learned he loved driving fast at the age of nine while racing go-karts. He got his start in driving through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program in 2010 when he was just 16. The program looks to engage minorities in the sport whether that be as drivers, owners, sponsors, or crew members.
Since then, he has succeeded at the lower levels, earning 31 top-5 finishes in 71 races. So Richard Petty had reason to want to take him under his wing. Despite looking different from the rest of the field, Wallace was the real deal.
Jackie Robinson dealt with racism at the highest magnitude traveling all over the country. There were times when he let the hatred get to him. But ultimately, there was nothing that was going to stop Robinson from being great.
The same narrative could be written for Wallace. Racing is already a event that is viewed mainly by white people. 94% of its viewers are Caucasian. Add the current social climate in Trump’s America and you see hatred similar to the 1950’s being directed at Wallace.
Late last year, Wallace tweeted about accepting and embracing being the only African-American in the top level of NASCAR. He was met with racist comments from Wisconsin golf coach Brent Nottestad regarding his inabilty to “drive himself out of an open wet paper bag.” I’m not even sure what that means or how that coach came up with such an insult. He also told Wallace to quit with the “I’m black bs. You’re terrible.” After the school district got word of the coach’s comments, Nottestad agreed to resign from the high school.
Wallace should be able to celebrate being the only black driver in the most white professional sport in America. It hasn’t happened in 47 years. Think about all the top-level NASCAR drivers since 1971. Not one of them has been black. That’s impressive. On top of that, he is succeeding at just 24.
He could be an outlier in the sport for a long time. Or his success could bring an influx of African-American racers to the sport in the future. Regardless, America should keep its eyes on Bubba Wallace. He might be the next feel good story to get Trump’s America grumbling.