How Bubba Wallace pushed NASCAR to evolve in 2020

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NASCAR stands with Bubba Wallace (2:00)

Bubba Wallace vividly remembers the emotions he felt as NASCAR drivers and crew members came together to support him. (2:00)

THERE WAS A specific moment during this most extraordinary of years that Bubba Wallace believes changed him forever.

It wasn't June 10, when NASCAR finally banned the Confederate flag from its racetracks. It wasn't June 22, when every person from the NASCAR Cup Series garage pushed and cheered Wallace's No. 43 Chevy down Talladega Speedway's pit road after a rope fashioned into a noose was found in the garage stall of NASCAR's only full-time racer of color. It wasn't Sept. 21, when Wallace signed to drive for a new Cup Series team co-owned by current NASCAR star Denny Hamlin and Basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. It wasn't even March 13, when the coronavirus pandemic forced NASCAR to leave the racetrack for more than two months.

No, the day that changed Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. forever was May 5. It was when the months-old video of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery being run down and shot dead as he jogged through a neighborhood was released to the public. The incident had taken place Feb. 23, just days after Wallace had finished 15th in the Daytona 500, a mere 150 miles south of where Arbery died in Brunswick, Georgia.

The proximity of time and place was one of many reasons Wallace stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the footage, taken by one of the assailants, over and over.

"You heard the gunshots, and I was just like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, what? Rewind, rewind it.' And watch it again and just see him just kind of flop over. I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say, I didn't sleep," Wallace, 27, recalls for SportsCenter Presents 2020: Heroes, History and Hope (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN app). "Just how, OK [these guys are saying], we can just go hunt you down and get away with it. And be fine. Kill you in broad daylight, just because we think that you're up to no good. We think that you're a suspect, into robbing unfinished houses or vandalizing, whatever it was, and we're gonna go kill you. That ain't right."

In a NASCAR life, there are no pauses. Certainly none long enough to sit, reflect on society, decide that enough is enough and then formulate a plan to do something about it all.

But spring 2020 brought the longest, broadest pause of all due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When Bubba Wallace emerged from that pause, he did so with a renewed conviction and a disconnected brake line.

BEFORE 2020, Wallace was not afraid to speak out on issues of race. As the first full-time racer of color in NASCAR's Cup Series since 1973, he has known from the first lap he ran that speaking on behalf of Black motorsports fans and participants is part of the gig. Still, he never fully immersed himself in that responsibility because he was too busy trying to move up the stock car racing ladder. Every racer is overly sensitive to chatter about advantages received to land top-shelf rides, be it a parent with money, a connection to a sponsor or being put at the front of the line because of a diversity program. Wallace, whose mother is Black and father is white, wanted the conversations about his upward mobility to focus on his ability to compete at 200 mph, not the color of his skin.

During that climb, he collected plenty of experiences, stories and lessons that might be used to inspire people who are treated differently because they are viewed differently. And from time to time, he would share them, whether it was to inspire a young Black racer or to shut up the occasional racist social media troll. But only from time to time. Racing was his focus. Not racial equality.

"Now he understands, it's time to stop putting up with this. It's time to have a conversation, whether people want to have it or not." Darrell Wallace Sr., Bubba's father

Now it is both.

"Bubba always cared, he was always aware of what was happening in the world when it came to race relations, because he saw it firsthand. But he's also Bubba. He doesn't take too much too serious, and he never has. At least, he didn't until this year," says his father, Darrell Wallace Sr. "Now he understands, it's time to stop putting up with this. It's time to have a conversation, whether people want to have it or not. I think that you could say that about nearly everybody in America this year. You could say it about everybody in the world. But everybody doesn't have the stage Bubba has, and most haven't had the year that he has had, either."

On May 5, as Wallace was affected by the Arbery video, NASCAR was less than two weeks from returning to the racetrack. The world was less than three weeks from learning the name George Floyd. Cities were less than a month from having their streets filled by protesters, marching and calling for social justice, as athletes representing every sport demanded the same from every corner of the globe.

Wallace saw the events converging in the form of that familiar, gathering force race car drivers are trained to identify by nature: He saw opportunity in momentum. He assumed everyone else in the sport would see it, too, especially considering what happened among their very ranks on April 12.

Kyle Larson, one of NASCAR's foundational young stars, dropped the N-word during a virtual racing event packed with real-life stock car racers. In a matter of 48 hours, his sponsors had pushed him out of his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Within minutes of saying it, Larson called Wallace and left a distressed voicemail, crying. The next morning, he called again, and again Wallace sent him to voicemail. Instead of calling Larson, Wallace contacted Mike Metcalf Jr., the pit crew coach and gas can man on Larson's team. Metcalf, who is Black, was upset. Wallace finally called Larson back around the time of the driver's firing.

"He was super apologetic," Wallace recalls of the conversation with Larson. "I said, 'Hey man, it's in your vocabulary, dog.' It ain't just like, 'Oh, am I going to say it again?' If you use that on a regular [basis] -- I don't know if he does or not -- but it sounds like to me you do, then you have got to get that out of your vocabulary, you know? People say to me, 'Hey, they say it in rap music.' Whatever, that's that culture," Wallace says. "It's not the NASCAR culture. It's not. We know what to say and what not to say. You sign the dotted line, you don't say stupid s--- like that.

"If someone really wants to talk, let's talk. I want to talk. But you have to want to talk with me."

Larson and Wallace talked about culture and who you surround yourself with. Wallace says the conversation has since continued throughout the year and believes a progression occurred through those multiple conversations. Larson was reinstated by NASCAR in October and signed with Hendrick Motorsports for 2021.

A month later, as NASCAR returned to the track May 17 at Darlington Raceway, Wallace attempted to have that talk with every other driver in the Cup Series garage. There is a group chat that includes all of those drivers, as well as NASCAR operational executives. As racing came back, that chat sprang to life on what seemed to be an hourly basis. With everyone's attention, Wallace reached out to his rivals and friends en masse, especially once Floyd's death occurred a week later. NASCAR was among the few sports on network television every weekend. It felt like the perfect platform.

"I said to the group, 'We really need to speak on this issue, guys. Like, this is an important time for our country and our sport,'" Wallace says of the chat. "[The response] was like, 'What tire are we going to be running at the next race?' ... Somebody asks about family coming back to the racetrack. It's like, 'Guys, we've got to do better than when is family going to be allowed at the racetrack.' And I just put, 'OK.' What a joke."

Wallace then sought out the sport's biggest names for one-on-one conversations. While most of those talks were good, he says, many turned into the same broken record.

"A lot of it was sponsors," Wallace says. "It's tough. 'They don't want us to talk about it.'"

More than any other sport, auto racing depends on corporate dollars. Logos on the hood of the car pay for the engine beneath it. As the saying goes, no bucks, no Buck Rogers. In exchange for writing checks for millions of dollars a year, the leaders of those corporations expect a not insignificant measure of control over the perception of their race team and especially their race car driver. Representing those sponsors becomes a 24/7 job.

LeBron James has endorsement deals with Coca-Cola, Nike and Beats, but he doesn't wear their logos all over his uniform during games and certainly not on his shirts when he goes out to dinner. Race car drivers do. Wallace, a racer since he was in middle school, understands that. He says he now has a better understanding of the other side of representing oneself and those corporations, and he also wants to help his colleagues develop a greater understanding.

"I encourage you to pick up the phone and talk to your CEO of the company and be like, 'This needs to be talked about,'" he says. "I also get it from the other side of, 'It doesn't affect me. I don't have to talk on it.' But it is so much bigger than you, so much bigger than your race team, so much bigger than your sponsors. This is about life, and they didn't want to speak on that."

WALLACE REPEATEDLY REITERATES his understanding of their mindset. For most of his life, that was how his brain worked, too. To him, not bringing attention to his skin color meant not having to deal with, "You're only here because you're Black." Instead, he was able to ignore that chatter as he moved up the ladder, powered by wins collected from the first time he slid into a kart and then through the short-track ranks.

His entire life had been a search for fun. He deflected serious moments with a smile and quick comeback. Even now, he says that instinctual response will pop up during discussion of heavy topics.

He also says he looks back on those moments as a timeline of lifelong education, preparing him for the here and now. When he was 9, his 18-year-old cousin, Sean Gillispie, was killed by Knoxville, Tennessee, police when they believed Gillispie was reaching for a weapon; it was his phone. As a teenage racer, the N-word was shouted in Wallace's direction by a rival. When his parents sat him down to have a long, serious talk about it, he told them he appreciated the chat, but he wanted to know if they were done so he could go upstairs and play video games.

Twice, he has been pulled over in what he recalls as tense incidents, each happening when he was between 19-20 years old just as he was breaking into NASCAR's Truck series and winning races. The first, he crossed a double yellow line to pass a vehicle that was an unmarked police car and ended up surrounded by plainclothes officers with their guns drawn, asking if the sports car was really his. The second stop, for failure to give a signal, resulted in a search of his brand-new Toyota 4Runner because the officers suspected him of transporting drugs.

Along the way, his mother, Desiree, who is Black, tried to turn those moments into lessons about life in America for a young Black man, race car driver or not. Meanwhile, Darrell Sr., who is white, hauled his son to racetracks all over the Carolinas, helping his son make his racing dreams come true while always being conscious of the role his mixed-race background was going to play in the perception of his career.

"Bubba was always just Bubba," Desiree says. "Larger issues of the world? He wasn't ready to deal with that yet. He's Bubba. He just wanted to race and have a good time, and hey, if that doesn't work out, what's next? The flag he was worried about was the checkered flag, not the Confederate flag."

His mother and father and everyone who knows Wallace well have talked about his constant comments of levity, especially when it came to race and racing. Ryan Blaney, his best friend in the sport, has repeatedly been cracked up during prerace ceremonies when Wallace spots a few Black fans in the grandstand and jokes, "Well, look, there's at least three of us here today."

"He will always be a jokey guy, that won't change," his mother continues. "But as he became a man, as his profile increased, out there driving Richard Petty's car at Daytona, the world also was changing around him. And now he looks back on things like the death of my nephew and says, 'OK, now I understand. Maybe we can help some other people understand, too.'"

Before this year, he had publicly shared the stories of his traffic stops and Gillispie's death only a few times. By June, he was telling those stories to anyone who would listen, even those who in the end were still reluctant to speak out.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps, meanwhile, was supportive immediately. In just his second full season at the helm, Phelps told Wallace the sanctioning body's resources were at his disposal. Wallace responded by saying a simple promotional campaign wouldn't be enough. They needed to go big. Wallace jokes now, "For a split second, I was kind of running NASCAR at that moment."

He is also quick to credit and list the Cup Series racers who did answer his call for action, with a reminder of how short that list is.

"Jimmie Johnson, Ty Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney. ... I think six guys spoke out publicly. Six out of 40. Solid, right? Jimmie and Ryan were the only big names," Wallace says. "So, you know what? Y'all worry about when your family comes back to the track and what right-side tires we're going to run. I'll roll up my sleeves, and the rest of us will do the work."

THAT WORK STARTED when he took matters into his own hands. On May 27, two days after Floyd's death, Wallace tweeted:

"S---s getting old... hell it's been old. Wtf is gonna change??! #GeorgeFloyd"

The next race was at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Wallace made the ride from Charlotte to Tennessee on his motorcycle. Rolling through the Appalachians provided a perfect few hours of motorized meditation. He finished 10th in the Supermarket Heroes 500, his best effort of the season to that point. He decided to spend the night in his RV at the track and have a few beers, and he took to Twitter again.

This time, though, Wallace read the mentions. By his own estimation, 75% of them were positive. The other 25% wanted to fight. One of those comments included a Black college student and motorsports fan who believed Wallace wasn't doing enough.

After a testy public exchange, they took their conversation into direct messages and it continued through the night. By the time the sun rose, Wallace's suspicions about the powers of conversation had been galvanized. He decided he would force that conversation onto people, especially people in the NASCAR garage, whether they wanted to have it or not.

On June 3, he appeared on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s popular "Dale Jr. Download" podcast and called out the stars who refused to take a public stand. Wallace also did an Instagram live with Dillon, stunning Dillon into silence by recounting the stories of his overdone traffic stops.

On June 8, one day after a dramatic prerace address on unity by Phelps, Wallace went on CNN and said it was time for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag. Two days later, he walked the length of Martinsville Speedway's pit road wearing an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt and drove a race car painted in #BlackLivesMatter imagery. That same day, Phelps called him to say the Confederate flag ban was being announced shortly. Wallace set the phone down and started clapping into the speaker.

"I wanted to let him know it was about damn time," Wallace says. "We shared a quick laugh over that, but he was like, 'Yeah, I think that's a start.' I said, it's a big start. It's going to be tough to implement, but it shows that we're not messing around, you know? It shows that NASCAR is listening and they're understanding, which is what we've been asking for."

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Bubba Wallace confident NASCAR's push for diversity and inclusion will continue

Bubba Wallace is pleased with NASCAR's push for diversity and inclusion and is confident the movement will continue.

Throughout the spring, Wallace already had one date circled on his calendar, for reasons both good and worrisome. NASCAR visited Talladega Superspeedway for the June 20 weekend. The Daytona superspeedway cousin is one of Wallace's favorite racetracks, but its history and location also are what they are. Its construction in 1969 was overseen by segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. The closest town, Anniston, where most crews sleep during race weekends, was where the Freedom Rider buses were firebombed in 1961.

Those names and incidents are part of Talladega's past, not its present. But that past was a source of tension that could not be ignored as the Black Lives Matter movement was still marching through the streets across the world. The race at Talladega was also the first NASCAR event to allow fans since March. The 5,000 fans who attended the event didn't make a scene, but a parade of Confederate flag-flying pickup trucks circled the speedway grounds and a plane flew overhead pulling that same flag at the front of a banner that read: "Defund NASCAR."

When Wallace arrived on race morning, landing at the airstrip located behind the Talladega backstretch, he was greeted by members of a security detail who said they would be looking out for him. "My dad said, 'You got a gun?'" Wallace says. "I was like, no. He said, 'Man, you might want to get one.' He said, 'Just watch your back.'"

When he saw the Confederate flag flying behind the plane, he couldn't help but laugh. "I was like, 'Damn, more power to you, dog,'" he says. "You're going to spend your own money and do that?' Whatever."

A beautiful morning turned into a rainy afternoon, which led to a rainout and postponement of the green flag to Monday. Wallace had jumped into a car with Blaney and Chase Elliott to get pizza when Phelps called again. He was on his way to Wallace's motor coach to have a talk.

"He walked up the steps and sat on my dash of the bus, and he looked down at his feet, just quiet," Wallace recalls. "I'm ready to speak, and he looked up with tears in his eyes and was struggling to formulate sentences, just so much emotion. He said, 'Uh, there was a hate crime that was committed today.' And I was like, 'To my mom, dad, my sister? Are they OK? [My girlfriend] Amanda? Is she OK?' And he said, 'There was a noose found in your garage.' And my first reaction was, 'OK, cool, my family wasn't attacked.'"

Phelps explained that a garage pull rope in the stall occupied by Wallace's No. 43 Chevy had been fashioned into a noose, and he showed Wallace the photo that at the time had been seen only by NASCAR officials and the crew member who discovered it.

"I was emotional, for sure," Phelps recalls of the talk with Wallace. "We are on this journey with this young man, and he's doing his part right. To be courageous and be out there and put himself out there, and you're trying to support him while he's out there. And then this happens, and it's just hard. You want to put yourself in someone else's shoes. I was trying to listen. The hard part wasn't me. This is my job. The hard part was him and how I felt about him -- how he was going to react to this and how more difficult it just got for him in our sport broadly."

Wallace was taken aback by Phelps' emotion. He says he wasn't fully aware of the historic significance and racial symbolism of a noose. But the more they talked, the clearer the situation became and the angrier they both became.

Due to the pandemic restrictions, the number of people with access to the Cup Series garage was under 1,000. Phelps pledged to find the person who left the noose, and Wallace offered help if need be. By the time the NASCAR president departed to begin the investigation, Wallace had texted Blaney and Elliott and told them to go eat without him.

He called his family and told them what happened. Then he got beers from his fridge and sat alone in his motor coach, crying.

"I was just like, 'Damn, somebody could really do that?'" he says.

He was awakened the next morning by a call from NASCAR security with a heads-up that 14 FBI investigators were en route to Talladega. Then, Johnson called. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion was worried and angry. He said he wanted to make sure Wallace was OK. Earnhardt called to say the same. One of them suggested Wallace hang up and check his text messages. When he did, he found nearly 200. Some were from family and friends, but the most active corner of his contacts was the drivers' group text.

"I lost it when I pulled up that group, the chat with the drivers, the same one that was so silent before. Same one, same group," he says. "First, Jimmie said, 'I plan on standing with Bubba Wallace today.' Kyle Busch said, 'Me, too.' Kevin Harvick, 'Me, too.' Everybody. 'Yep. Yep. Yep. I'll be there.' And then it was like, 'It looks like we're going to need more room.' And so, I didn't know what that meant, what to expect."

It is customary for crews to push each race car down pit road to take its place in line, with cars parked in the same starting order they will be in when the field takes the green flag to start the race. Only later do drivers walk to the cars, climbing into the cockpit after the national anthem, invocation and handshakes with their crews. When Wallace walked out to his car, it was surrounded by the other 39 drivers. They told him to climb in because they were going to push his car to the front of the grid as a show of support. For a few minutes, they would be his crew.

"I got out of the car, and I said, 'I might not like most of you guys, but I do appreciate this a lot,'" he recalls. "I was just trying to have some fun in a very intense situation. And I don't know what made me look ... [but I saw] a lot of shoulders and heads behind the two rows of drivers. So, the picture of me standing up on top of the car, I was just like, who, who else is ...? And I was like, 'Holy s---! It's the whole garage! The whole garage!'"

Wallace slumped over the roof of the car and wept before he was approached by his car owner, Petty. The then-82-year-old had avoided the track since NASCAR had returned from the pandemic shutdown but insisted on being there now. The King touched his fingers to the back of Wallace's head and flicked like he was hitting a light switch. It was a reminder of a conversation Wallace and Petty have had many times before.

"You flick that switch and get into racing mode. Because racing, that ain't your job. That's the fun part," Petty says now. "The job is everything else you have to do to get to the racing. His job is being Bubba Wallace, and he has to put up with a lot to do that job. But when he gets into that race car, he doesn't have to think. He doesn't have to answer those questions. He doesn't have to put up with idiots. He can flick that switch, turn off his brain, and just go racing. That race car doesn't care who you are, what your skin color is, or if you're Bubba or Richard. It just knows you're a race car driver."

Wallace ran very well that day at Talladega, leading in the closing stanza before finishing 14th in a wild scramble won by Blaney. Afterward, Wallace ran to the frontstretch fence to greet a group of young Black fans who were attending their first race, having driven over from Atlanta to support their new favorite driver.

"I heard my name being chanted. I looked back, did a glance and I'm like, 'Oh, thanks.' And then I was like, 'Damn! That's a group of Black people!'" he says.

That Monday night, Wallace's phone was vibrating with messages of support ranging from NBA and NFL players to actors Gabrielle Union and Anthony Anderson. On Tuesday afternoon, it was the FBI calling. They informed Wallace of what they were about to announce to the world -- their investigation had determined he was not the victim of a hate crime. Yes, the garage pull had been tied into a noose, but video evidence showed that same rope in that same configuration at the previous Talladega race eight months earlier. Garage stalls are assigned on a weekly basis, determined by the championship points standings. There was no way someone could have known Wallace's team would be in that garage stall in late June 2020.

"[I was like], thank God. Awesome, great news," Wallace says. "But as soon as they announced it, I went from Bubba Wallace, the somewhat favorite driver, to the worst-hated driver in the sport. And from there it was Jussie Smollett, a fake news hoax, all that stuff. That I planted it, [that] I was in the garage and I did it."

"I know it's going to happen, and when we do win and become a household name on the racetrack, you'll be quiet." Bubba Wallace, on social media critics

To try to lessen that perception, NASCAR rolled out more details of the investigation. It said there were 1,684 garage stalls investigated at 29 different racetracks and this was the only one with a garage pull fashioned as a noose. It reminded everyone that the FBI specifically described it as a noose three times in its seven-sentence statement.

"Look at the picture. What's it look like to you?" Wallace says. "Is that a noose to you, or is that just another fisherman's knot? You tie that knot every day? You tie your shoestrings like that? No. No. That took time to do. It's a noose. So, there you go. Yeah, you can't hang somebody with that size. Don't matter, no matter if it's this big or life-size, whatever it is, it's still a noose."

Phelps says now that his only regret about the entire situation is not including the word "alleged" when NASCAR released its initial statement saying a hate crime had been committed. The emotions of a long, tense day fueled the omission, but the correction likely wouldn't have erased the asterisk that will forever be pinned to Wallace's name.

"You want to defend yourself, but you've got to look at who you represent, too," Wallace says. "It's ongoing every day I click. If you tweet something about me, I'll click on it and just not even read the article, but I'll just go in there and look at the replies. It's 'Great article, noose boy' or, 'Here we go with Bubba again, shoving it down our throats.' I just read the replies and I shouldn't, but it motivates me. [And I just think], 'Damn, one day, one day.' ... I know it's going to happen, and when we do win and become a household name on the racetrack, you'll be quiet. And don't come to the party when the doors are open, though, 'cause your ass ain't getting in."

THE BUBBA BANDWAGON will undoubtedly get crowded in 2021, when he moves into his new ride, the No. 23 Toyota co-owned by Hamlin and Jordan. The six-time NBA champion finally relented to his friend Hamlin's pleas to invest in stock car racing only because Wallace was available. Longtime NASCAR team owner and former NBA All-Star Brad Daugherty had also leaned on Jordan, his old college teammate at North Carolina, convinced the basketball great could attract corporations that were reluctant to pour cash into a sport they viewed as not racially diverse.

"I have believed that a Black driver could do that and that Michael could do that," the co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing says. "Those two things together? That's a lot of potential."

Jordan has recently become more publicly involved in social activism. After infamously saying "Republicans buy sneakers, too" 30 years ago, he spoke up this past summer on social injustice and pledged millions of dollars to Black Lives Matter, as well as the Institute for Community-Police Relations and NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The new race team -- 23XI Racing -- continues to add sponsors to a roster that already includes DoorDash, McDonald's, Columbia Sportswear, Dr Pepper and Root Inc. The companies have all assured Wallace and Jordan that they have their support.

But Wallace will need no permission or help when it comes to speaking out in this new chapter of his career. His mind will never be able to erase the images of Arbery's death. His heart will never allow him to squander the momentum for change that carried him through 2020. And the memory bank where the roster of those who refused to stand with him before Talladega remains permanently etched.

While Wallace is genuinely thankful for their support that day, he has since been disappointed at some of their side-eye glances toward him; some believe he somehow wasted their time and willingness to finally put themselves out there, as he had asked them to do earlier. They don't go as far as the internet trolls who claim Wallace was behind the noose incident, but they certainly connect his name to the embarrassment they felt when it was revealed the noose hadn't been tied that weekend.

No, their asses won't be allowed in the victory party, either.

"If the roles were reversed and Ryan Blaney was in my shoes and I was there to support him, I have to be there to support him for the facts. That's how we are," Wallace says. "Somebody hurt you, so I'll be there to stand with you. It ended up not being that? 'All right, bro. I still love you.' That's it. But now, to some people, that was a hoax for publicity and you can't win a race. So, I've got to deal with that stuff.

"I still don't forget. The moment [at Talladega] was still important, but you can let down your guard a little bit, I don't forget the ones that were silent. Talladega didn't change that fact."

Wallace holds up his face mask, the same mask he has worn at the racetrack since NASCAR mandated its use. Now, he also wears it at the grocery store, everywhere he goes. It's the Stars and Stripes.

"We're all Americans. We're all people. Doesn't matter what country you're from. We're all people," he says. "We're all brought here for a purpose, and it's not to hate each other because of the way you look. It's to figure how to make this place better, how to make your lives better, how to make your children's lives better. I don't know if my purpose is to drive race cars. It feels like it is, but who knows?"