Not long before the green flag dropped on Nascar’s momentous nighttime Cup feature at Martinsville, Bubba Wallace stood tall on the track in an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt, his face shrouded in an American flag mask and his Chevy Camaro machine bathed in matte black paint with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” writ large all over. When FS1 pit reporter Regan Smith sidled over to solicit his opinion on Nascar’s sudden decision to ban displays of the Confederate flag at all future events, he began with a sarcastic golf clap. “Bravo,” the Richard Petty Motorsports driver said. “That was a huge pivotal moment for the sport.”
This deliciously righteous victory lap, one saluted by everyone from LeBron James to the NAACP, was long in the making for Wallace, Nascar’s lonely champion for fairness and inclusion. It was a part the 26-year-old Alabama native – who tangled with the bottom five for a spell on Wednesday before finishing 11th – was destined to play, an eventuality that would sneak up on the wider world as the sport’s only black driver slipstreamed comfortably in the wake of the other multi-culti mascots farther up in the parade.
When Wallace burst on to the national touring scene as a 19-year-old truck series rookie in 2013, Danicamania was at the crest of its second wave. While Wallace went on to win four races and finish third in the standings a year later, a young Japanese American named Kyle Larson was blazing his own historic trail two notches higher in the Cup series. Even when Wallace drove his first ever race for RPM in 2017, the first Cup start by a black driver in 11 years, he was more than six months behind the groundbreaking debut of Mexico’s Daniel Suarez.
And when Wallace signed a multi-year contract to race for RPM ahead of the following season on the way to becoming the first black pilot to race in the Cup series full-time since 1971 – as the late Wendell Scott, the first ever black pilot, was winding down a career fraught with unstinting verbal abuse, unrelenting physical threats, constant financial hardship and chronic on-track fraud – Wallace replaced Cuban American pioneer Aric Almirola. At every turn, it seemed, there was always a driver to overshadow the only man on the grid who, even though born to a black mother and a white father, proudly identified as a black man.
But over the last seven years, the thin traffic ahead of Wallace has grown even thinner. Danica, retired since 2018, is a full-on yoga brand now. Larson – an unwitting racist, ironically – is on indefinite sabbatical. Suarez and Almirola have struggled to maintain relevance amid mediocre results. All of this would leave Nascar’s narrow progressive lane wide open. Still: If anyone tells you they not only saw Wallace charging into that lane with as much momentum as he did this week, but also Nascar trailing behind closely enough to get sucked into the 21st century at warp speed, quite frankly, they’re lying.
Like many of his black peers across sports, Wallace would be moved to speak out against systemic racism as Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted in all 50 states and spread around the world after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of an unarmed black motorist named George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds until the 46-year-old father of five lay dead in the street.
But instead of distilling his frustrations in a black square or an MLK quote on his social media feeds, Wallace went on white TV and did not hold back. On Monday, Wallace appeared on CNN Tonight to discuss the conversations he had with his fellow drivers before they released a video condemning racism before last Sunday’s Cup race in Atlanta. When host Don Lemon asked him what more the sport should do to walk the talk, Wallace did not stutter. “My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags,” he said. “Get them out of here.”
The many gearheads who see the flag as an expression of Southern pride are not trying to hear the part about it how it’s actually a vestigial banner of black enslavement
Make no mistake: these are fightin’ words in Nascar, a sport that’s as tightly wrapped in the rebel banner as the NFL is in the winning one. The many gearheads who see the flag as an expression of Southern pride are not trying to hear the part about it how it’s actually a vestigial banner of black enslavement. You know, the four centuries’ long institution of subjugation, rape and plunder that made southern whites so rich that the thought of losing out on this gravy train was reason enough for them to commit what still remains the most treasonous act in this country’s history.
When my father emailed a story link on Wallace’s call for a ban on the “stars ‘n bars”, it was a prime occasion to remind him, gently, that his son had made a similar ask in a 2015 Sports Illustrated column that was written after nine African American Charlestonians were fatally gunned down inside a historically black church by a Confederate flag-waving white supremacist. This is how deeply the rebel flag is woven into Nascar’s cultural fabric.
That the sport would bend to Wallace’s demand in barely two days’ time and announce a Confederate flag ban barely two hours before Wednesday night’s Martinsville race – after so many mealy-mouthed statements on the subject from Dale Earnhardt Jr and other star drivers; after team owner Richard Childress threatened to fire any employee who knelt during the national anthem and Wallace’s own team principal further stated that Nascar protesters “oughta be out of the country”; and after the many unarmed black men, women and children have died in hate crime killings in between that 2015 church massacre in Charleston and Floyd’s beastly murder at the hands of Minneapolis cops last month – was a development I certainly did not see coming in my lifetime, even as Black Lives Matter has become the hottest cause for corporate co-opting since breast cancer research.
And yet: I can’t help but wonder – what does enforcement of this new policy even look like? You know, when spectators are actually allowed back on-site? A Nascar race, after all, is a sprawling spectacle that attracts stars ‘n bars enthusiasts by the tens of thousands. Even if a track’s army of blue-haired volunteers manages to turn back a few of these rebels at the gate, there are still acres of grassy parking space around the track for rebel tailgaters to let their freak flag fly. You’re telling me the local police who are regularly tasked with keeping the peace at races are gonna be the ones hauling off these tailgaters kicking and screaming?
More to the point: How long before Wallace’s #BlackLivesMatter car is followed by an #AllLivesMatter car or a #BlueLivesMatter car? Given that how recently the Cup field has featured cars shouting paid endorsements of the Tea Party, Rick Santorum’s 2012 president campaign and, of course, Trump/Pence, Nascar could find its tracks looking as bitter and wounded as its social feeds did immediately after the governing body’s statement announcing the flag ban went viral. Surely, the sport will be poorer without truck driver Ray Ciccarelli, a perennial backmarker who left the job of announcing his Nascar exit to his wife, Sarah. “We will not participate in the sport after 2020 season is over,” she wrote on Facebook under his name. “I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl that do and it doesn’t make them a racist … i ain’t spend the money we are to participate in any political BS!! So everything is for SALE!!”
Granted, the notion of the Nascar track as a fresh beachhead in the culture wars hardly jibes with the vision Joe Gibbs once hoped for his second sport either. “Nascar,” the legendary football coach turned stock car team owner told me, “should be for everyone.” That was six years ago, when Wallace was driving for Gibbs in the truck series. And while that rosy pairing – between the coach who won the second of his three Super Bowls with a black quarterback and the kid who was once touted as Nascar’s Charley Pride – ultimately ran its course, it wasn’t for lack of success. In fact, the first victory they ever celebrated together was at Martinsville – a circuit that lies just 30 miles west from where Wendell Scott was born and buried, and a town that was once the venue for one of this country’s greatest miscarriages of justice. That on-track race win, some six years old now, wasn’t lost on history. This off-track race win shouldn’t be either.