Bubba Wallace will be the most important NASCAR driver of 2020. Though he likely won’t win the Cup Series, the season-long top circuit, he’s already changed the sport for the better and is making motorsports more inclusive. In June, he called for the league to ban Confederate flags at its racetracks, something that NASCAR officials tried and failed to effect in 2015, but this time they listened. His #BlackLivesMatter wrap on his car at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway, a track that previously described races as “Civil Wars” and presented the winner with a Confederate flag, was revolutionary and led to cosigns from athletes like LeBron James and the NFL’s Alvin Kamara. NASCAR is changing and that’s a good thing. As its audience becomes younger and more progressive, the future of the sport will look like Wallace.
He not only has the full support of NASCAR and his team, Richard Petty Motorsports, which is owned by the sport’s most successful driver of all time, he’s been backed by the entire garage. When a noose was found in Wallace’s team stall before a race at Talladega last week, every driver and every crew member pushed Wallace’s car to the front and stood in solidarity with him. Ultimately, the FBI investigation surrounding the noose in Wallace’s stall found no evidence of hate crime, as the knot had been tied several months before Wallace’s team had ever been assigned the garage. That a noose was fashioned in a NASCAR garage is unacceptable, even if not intentionally malicious. But the fact that league officials brought in the authorities to look into it and protect their driver, and have since stood by him against racist claims that the incident was a hoax, shows how seriously they’re taking racism in 2020.
Wallace’s success in getting the league to support him is astounding considering the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick’s onfield protests—and also within the context of the history of motorsports itself. Of the 40+ full-time and part-time drivers currently in NASCAR’s Cup Series, Wallace is the only Black driver. The only other bit of diversity in the top racing circuit are Mexico’s Daniel Suárez and Aric Almirola, whose family is from Cuba—both white-presenting Latinx men. The fact that Wallace, who joined the Cup Series in 2017, is the first full-time Black driver since Wendell Scott, who retired in 1973, is a reminder that the sport has been structurally keeping people of color away for decades. NASCAR’s actions to back its driver and fight racism have been popular among its fans and newcomers to the sport, as a recent poll found that 76% of NASCAR viewers under 40 supported the Confederate flag ban. But the fact that support for the ban is just 53% among viewers over 40 and that a small minority of people nonetheless boycotted the league following the ban, should give you some idea of how far the sport needs to come to have a truly welcoming fanbase.
While the Confederate flag ban is a step in the right direction, the premier stock car racing association needs to do more. It’s not Wallace’s sole responsibility to fix the sport. Banning Confederate flags and supporting the only full-time Black driver isn’t enough and NASCAR needs to truly invest in diversity. While the sport’s Drive for Diversity initiative has some wins since its inception in 2004, elevating drivers like Wallace, Suárez, and Brehanna Daniels, the first Black woman to be a tire changer on a NASCAR crew, it needs to be seriously bolstered to ensure that more people of color can succeed in auto-racing. The indefinite suspension in April of Drive for Diversity alum and Cup Series driver Kyle Larson, a Japanese American, for saying a racial slur in a Twitch stream, proves that NASCAR must go deeper in fostering an inclusive environment.
In 1963, Scott became the first Black driver to win a race in NASCAR’s top division, outrunning his opponents by two laps. But when he crossed the finish line, NASCAR refused to give Scott his trophy and check, deeming second-place driver Buck Baker the winner. While Scott protested the result and eventually received a $1,000 check and credit for winning the race, his family wouldn’t receive the trophy until 2010, two decades after Scott’s death. Scott would eventually be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, in 2015, but the fact that it took over a half-century from his win for another full-time Black driver to join the sport is damning. Making matters worse has been NASCAR leadership, who’ve historically welcomed racists like George Wallace, who was an avowed segregationist. Then-NASCAR president Bill France, Sr., who later became his Florida campaign manager, reportedly told the crowd at the 1968 Southern 500 in South Carolina where Wallace was, “George Washington founded this country, and George Wallace will save it.” His grandson Brian France, who left NASCAR as CEO and chairman in 2018, openly endorsed Donald Trump in 2016.
It’s no wonder why the sport boasts so few drivers of color. As retired part-time NASCAR racer Bill Lester, who is Black, explained to the Washington Post, there are multiple factors keeping minority youth out of the sport, including a lack of exposure to motorsports among BIPOC youth, start-up costs associated with cars, training, and gear (and which typically call for a substantial family investment), and the need to you wrangle corporate sponsors to fund your team and equipment once you’re an established racer. For his entire career from 1961 to 1973, Scott’s racing team was self-financed. If NASCAR is serious about increasing not just the diversity of its audience, but of its garages, it needs to invest in communities that have been shut out and incentivize its corporate sponsors to follow suit.
These issues are not unique to NASCAR as golf, tennis, and hockey have all struggled to make their athlete pool more diverse. The sport’s fanbase also isn’t monolithic and efforts to paint the sport’s fanbase in broad and offensive strokes fall flat. Take a mid-aughts Dateline special where NBC sent a team of “Muslim-looking men” to racetracks to see if they’d experience hate. When the men watched the race without incident, NASCAR officials rightly called the network “outrageous” for their offensive stunt. But while NASCAR’s fanbase is increasingly diverse, and fans boycotting NASCAR over Bubba Wallace and the Confederate flag are a minority, the sport still has a long way to go before it becomes a sport for everybody—and that starts with the drivers at the center of it.
While there are several young drivers who have supported racial equality, including Wallace’s best friend Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Ty Dillon, and veterans like seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and current points leader Kevin Harvick, NASCAR won’t truly be diverse until its roster looks more like America. As one of the only American sports to safely and effectively restart during the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR has a perfect opportunity to lead the way in showing how a sport can reinvent itself to become genuinely inclusive. This is a sport that came about from bootleggers hot-rodding cars to outrun police during prohibition, which is cool as hell. Also cool: fast cars and 500-mile races.
Last week at Talladega, after the race, Wallace made his way to the stands. He found a group of Black fans attending their first NASCAR race—many of whom were wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. “I heard the Bubba chants, and I looked over and I see a decent amount of African Americans sitting in the stands, he told reporters. “I was like, ‘Dude, that’s badass, that’s awesome.’ I guarantee you that was their first race.”