Mark Story: Wallace Jr. gives NASCAR a chance to look more like America

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 23, 2014 

  • THIS WEEK

    NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway

    Thursday — Truck Series UNOH 225, 8 p.m.

    Friday — Nationwide Series John R. Elliott HERO Campaign 300, 7:30 p.m.

    Saturday — Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m.

He's not even 21, but Darrell Wallace Jr. has already etched his name into the NASCAR history books.

Since NASCAR's founding in 1948, exactly two black drivers have won races in a national touring series. Wendell Scott claimed victory in what is now the Sprint Cup Series on Dec. 1, 1963, at Speedway Park near Jacksonville, Fla.

Last October 26, Wallace Jr. became the second when he scored a Camping World Truck Series win at Martinsville Speedway. Just two weekends ago, Wallace Jr., who goes by the nickname "Bubba," scored a second trucks win at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis.

Following Wallace Jr.'s victory at Gateway, Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose late father was Wallace Jr.'s racing hero, gave him a shout-out on Twitter. "Congrats to @BubbaWallace. Solid driver. Gives a great interview," Earnhardt Jr. wrote.

"That was sweet," Wallace Jr. said last week. "We were on the plane flying home and my Dad said, 'Did you see Dale Jr. was tweeting about you?'"

Wallace Jr., 20, will arrive at Kentucky Speedway for Thursday night's NCWTS UNOH 225 looking to go back-to-back. For a variety of reasons, there may be more hope invested in him than any other young driver currently climbing the NASCAR ladder.

NASCAR's geographic origins are in the South. Its demographic base has historically been the white working class. Now, however, the organization is desperate to look more like the multi-cultural face of America in the 21st Century.

Wallace Jr.'s father, Darrell Sr., the owner of an industrial cleaning company, is white. His mom, Desiree, a social worker who ran track at the University of Tennessee, is black.

For reasons both of background and his early racing success, some have referred to Wallace Jr. as potentially "the Tiger Woods of NASCAR."

While that is a ridiculously unfair bar to set for one who has yet to even run a Sprint Cup race, there does appear to be every reason to think that Wallace Jr., with the right breaks, has what it takes to become a race-winning Cup Series driver.

"Bubba Wallace is fast," said Michael Waltrip, the two-time Daytona 500 winning driver who now works as a color analyst on FOX Sports 1 telecasts of trucks races. "Bubba's still got improvements he needs to make, sure, but I think he has the ability to not only get to Cup, I think he has the ability to win in Cup."

Wallace Jr. got the nickname "Bubba" at birth when his then-5-year-old sister, Brittany, started calling him that. "It stuck," Wallace Jr. said. "I kind of like (having a nickname). At the racetrack, I don't get confused with my Dad. People just say 'Hey, Bubba.'"

The driver was born in Mobile, Ala., but his family moved to North Carolina when he was two. When he was nine, his Dad bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The man who sold it to him invited the elder Wallace to a go-kart race.

"We went," Wallace Jr. recalls. "We were sitting there watching, and I still remember this, my Dad turns to me and said 'Is this something you think you would like to try?'"

Of course, Wallace Jr. said yes. He soon stamped himself as a racing prodigy. In 2005, he won 35 of 48 Bandolero Series (an entry-level form of car racing) events at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

As he worked his way up toward NASCAR, Wallace Jr. said not everyone he encountered in racing was welcoming. "There was some racist language, and there were times when people would just flat out say I didn't belong there," he said. "Now, there's not any of that at all, not any more."

Wallace Jr.'s success caught the eye of NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program. Joe Gibbs Racing signed the driver to a development deal. That helped him into his current gig driving in the trucks series for owner Kyle Busch.

A year ago at Kentucky Speedway, Wallace Jr. started second in the truck race, but finished 28th.

With a laugh, he compares the roughness of Turns 3 and 4 of the Sparta racetrack to "a washing board." The large bump in the front straightaway "is like going off a ski jump," he says.

Still, "I love Kentucky," Wallace Jr. said. "I used to race there in Bandoleros and Legends (not on the main track) all the time when I was young."

Wherever he goes in NASCAR, Wallace Jr. knows eyes are on him.

"I'm aware of that, and, yeah, there is some pressure," he said. "But I just need to have my focus on winning races. If I do that, everything else will be good."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leadercom. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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