Wallace, though, isn’t a typical 19-year-old NASCAR prospect trying to climb the ladder, and he’s less interested in a budding photography career. He is a pioneer of sorts as only the fourth black driver with a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.
When Wallace takes the wheel for the Truck Series race Friday at Daytona International Speedway, he’ll become a slice of NASCAR history in a race that ignites his goal of serving as a role model for a generation of potential future black drivers.
“It’s kind of up to me,” Wallace said. “It’s kind of a huge weight.”
Busting down racial barriers in a sport long reserved for whites is pretty heavy stuff for a teenager and all eyes are on him. Yet Wallace, the son of a white father and black mother, openly talks of becoming the Tiger Woods of NASCAR — the great black star who can transcend the sport and prove people of all colors can race.
“You don’t have a role model. That’s why you don’t see anybody in it,” Wallace said. “They can’t look up and be like, ‘I want to be like him because he’s the same color as me.’ There’s no one there to do that. I’m the top one right now and I’m only 19.”
Wallace joins Wendell Scott, Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester as the only full-time black drivers in the 65-year history of NASCAR. Scott is the only black driver to win a race, way back in 1964.
Wallace is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing and will drive the No. 54 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports on Friday. Gibbs knows as well as anyone what it’s like to work with black athletes under the microscope. He coached the Washington Redskins when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl in 1988. Gibbs said Wallace has the talent and the mental toughness to break through in NASCAR.
“I think he’s the right kid,” Gibbs said.
Wallace, raised in Concord, N.C., has the full support of the black drivers before him. Lester has sent him encouraging tweets. Wallace met some of Scott’s children at a race in Virginia.
“They’re just happy to see someone following in their dad’s footsteps,” he said. “I’m hoping that I can carry that torch a little farther.”
He’s in a better position to succeed than many other minorities over the years. He has sponsorship, a top-flight team in JGR and is a graduate of NASCAR’s diversity program. Even in NASCAR, the climate has changed where drivers of all sexes and colors are openly accepted, in the garage, and hopefully in the stands.
Wallace, who goes by Bubba, spent the last three seasons driving in a low-level NASCAR developmental series and said racism in all forms was nonexistent.
At lower levels of racing, though, Wallace would hear racial insults or encounter ignorant views.
“We used to take it from fans,” his father, Darrell, said. “We’ve had it from other drivers. We’ve had it from officials. We’ve had it from promoters. We’ve had it from track owners. We’ve pretty much had it from everybody.”
Wallace said the heckles and hurtful words from his formative years in the sport have been left on the side of the road and he can continue to focus on racing — just this time on his biggest stage so far.
“I’d show up the next week and wear ‘em out again,” he said, smiling. “I really didn’t understand it. My dad got more fired up than anything.”
His father sparked a love of the sport when he was 9, putting him in go-karts, and always scouting out the next series. Darrell Wallace even bought a Legends car from Mark Martin. He attends every race and will be in the stands Friday night. His mother, Desiree, ran track at Tennessee and stays home to watch on TV (“She likes hearing what they say about me.”).
Mom did offer a piece of advice that has stuck with Wallace. Avoid confrontations with other drivers who used slurs. Just go win.
Wallace’s love and talent for the sport will mean nothing if he can’t find the right sponsor willing to fund his career. Sponsorship cash is the lifeblood of the sport.
His father has owned an industrial cleaning business since 1999 and pumped at least $1 million into his son’s fledgling career. He spent as much $250,000 in 2008. The elder Wallace paid bills late and borrowed money to keep his son’s career alive.
“He tried to do everything he could to keep me racing,” Wallace said.
It’s a path he expects to land him in the Sprint Cup series.
“I’m not ready for it next year. I’m not ready for it in two years,” he said. “It’s all about the timing. It’s all about how well I do this year.”
NASCAR has initiated several pushes toward boosting the number of minorities in the sport. There’s a Drive for Diversity program that may pay some dividends with Wallace and Kyle Larson after struggling to find racers for the top series. The program is 10 years old and was designed to attract minorities and women to the sport in all fields, from the track to the front office. Wallace participated in a short-lived reality show in 2010 called “Changing Lanes,” that featured 10 young female and minority racers competing for a spot on a developmental team.
Not even showbiz helped Wallace land the big-bucks sponsor needed to race in the second-tier series. Wallace ideally would have run in the Nationwide Series this season, but was unable to land enough sponsorship. He had three top-10 finishes and a pole in four Nationwide races in 2012.
Gibbs said Wallace is still slated for some Nationwide races.
“We’ve had a lot of other African-American drivers get in the sport, but they got in late,” Gibbs said. “It’s hard to get in late. You’ve got to start when you’re young and race your way up. I think Darrell’s got it.”
Wallace was busy balancing Daytona duties with media requests this week and was set to hold a press conference with Gibbs on Wednesday at the track.
“Darrell’s equipped to handle the attention,” said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR’s vice president for public affairs and multicultural development. “Most importantly, he’s equipped to handle the competition on the race track.”
He can win. But can he lead? The next generation of black golfers never followed Woods for much of the same reasons it’s hard to crack NASCAR. The sport is expensive and opportunities are few. And, it’s unfair to place the burden of a revolution on one athlete.
But it’s time for a change.
“It’s not about the color of your skin or your gender, it’s about your abilities,” four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon said after Danica Patrick won the Daytona 500 pole.
For now, at least he has the name for a NASCAR star. Darrell, Wallace, Junior. That’s a tripleheader of iconic NASCAR names that have deep roots in the sport. His team came up with a slogan: “Darrell not Waltrip. Wallace not Rusty. Junior not Dale.”
Funny stuff for an easygoing teen who just wants to race while the hype of his achievement swirls around him.
“If you think about it much, you’ll end up messing up,” he said.
He thought about it for a second, then added:
“I won’t mess up.”