Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. & His Mom Desiree Talk NASCAR, Diversity, and Being An African-American First
Richard Petty Motorsports Ford isn't just any NASCAR team and Wallace isn't your standard NASCAR driver.
Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. will make history in 2018 as the first full-time African-American to drive in a NASCAR Cup Series in nearly half a century. Bubba remembers the moment that he got the call confirming his coveted spot driving the famed No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports. "It was a huge weight lifted off our shoulders," he shared. "I could finally lay my head down that night knowing that I had a job for next year." If there was anxiety, his concerns were valid. After his driving stint with the Roush Fenway Racing team expired in June of 2017, Wallace was a free agent for several months before it was announced in October that he had secured a full-time position for the 2018 racing season.
Richard Petty Motorsports Ford isn't just any NASCAR team and Wallace isn't your standard NASCAR driver. While he is notoriously humble about his accomplishments, the implications of Bubba's placement goes far beyond just having "a job for next year." For context, being hired by Hall of Famer Richard Petty to drive the No. 43 car is like the NASCAR equivalent of being handpicked by Michael Jordan to wear the #23 jersey. EPIC!
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Add to that the fact that Bubba is one of few black contenders in the predominately white, mostly southern sport, and the significance of his placement is clear. "It's been a huge uproar this last couple weeks with me being the first since Wendell Scott," Bubba says. "He's the one who laid the pathway for diversity efforts." While the 24-year-old driver is careful to give credit where credit is due, he also embraces his role.
There is only 1 driver from an African American background at the top level of our sport..I am the 1. You're not gonna stop hearing about "the black driver" for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey..— Darrell Wallace Jr (@BubbaWallace) November 8, 2017'
He has become a rising favorite among younger NASCAR fans.
Proud to watch ya come up through the ranks man! Took this pic with me the day before you want Martinsville in the wendell Scott truck! pic.twitter.com/uomuA3gpEJ— brandon zimmerman (@BZ2448) November 8, 2017'
Born in Mobile, Alabama and raised in Concord, North Carolina, Bubba's African-American background serves as inspiration for some.
As a person of color that’s followed the sport since I️ was 4 years old I’ve never been happier to start a season than I️ am this coming year— Carl Robinson (@Carl18BuschFan) November 8, 2017'
Still, many resent any mention of his race.
I’m so tired of ethnic and gender politics. If you are good enough you should succeed if you’re not then you don’t. Simple as that. Do some people have a tougher road? Of course but if you don’t want to be judged by your difference then don’t make an issue of it yourself.— Tim Tieman (@tieman2010) November 9, 2017'
Born to a white father and a black mother, Bubba's progression through the NASCAR organization has been widely applauded, but when he does encounter racist pushback, it's his mother that he leans on for support and guidance.
As the African-American mother to a biracial son, Desiree Gillespie-Wallace can appreciate the nuance of Bubba's position. With a warm demeanor and a knowing practicality that one might expect from a southern-bred social worker, Desiree shares the number one piece of advice that she has given her son, ”never give the media anything negative to write about.”
She admits that she was a bit leery when her son first expressed interest in racing. "It's not that I didn't like the sport. Being in an interracial marriage all those years, I grew up watching NASCAR," she recalls. "Dale Earnhardt Sr., was our favorite driver before he passed, and my brother-in-law was a driver in Nashville, Tennessee so I went to a couple of races and I knew a little bit about it," she says. "But, I wasn't sure if that was what I wanted for Bubba."
After seeing his dedication to the sport, Desiree got behind her son's decision to pursue a career in racing. "At the end of the day, Bub was committed to it," she says. "So here we are." Bubba is delighted to have his mom in his corner and looks forward to her presence on the track during the upcoming season. "It's great to have her at the racetrack," he said. "When she is there, she is my biggest fan and that's special to have."
While Desiree is very proud of her son's progress, she credits her ex-husband, Darrell Wallace Sr. for grooming Bubba in the sport. "By the time Bub got into racing when he was 9-years-old, my daughter was already established in basketball with AAU," she recalls. "While they were on the racetrack, she and I were traveling all over the United States with basketball." The co-parenting arrangement worked out perfectly as Brittany secured a basketball scholarship, graduating from college Magna Cum Laude and Bubba is now well on his way to making history in NASCAR.
When it comes to leaving his mark on the organization, Bubba contends that his aim was never that grandiose. He fondly remembers his not-so-distant humble beginnings in the sport. "It was just me, my dad, and Chris Rogers-the guy who got us started," Bubba recalls. "We didn't have any dreams or aspirations of being where we are today," he says. "It was just one of those things where we were having fun, we recognized that we were pretty good, we had won a handful of races, and so we decided to just keep going."
As Bubba and his team prepare for the upcoming season, Desiree is there to provide her son with the support he needs off the track. "Bub has a solid foundation. He is going to work hard, stay focused, and continue to prove himself," she says. "In doing that, hopefully, he can inspire other minorities who are interested in NASCAR."