Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer
Bubba Wallace is now a NASCAR Cup Series race winner. Deal with it.
He did it Monday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, the crapshoot of all racetracks. He did it in a rain-shortened event, the crapshoot of all race strategies. He did it driving for a new team co-owned by the greatest basketball player who has ever lived, albeit backed by the technical juggernauts of Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Wallace celebrated the victory by crying, by jumping up and down like a kid and by dropping a big ol’ loud cuss word on live national television. And nary a hater weighed heavy on his mind, no matter how hard they tried.
“This is for all those kids out there that want to have an opportunity, whatever they want to achieve and be the best at what they want to do,” Wallace said while standing on a rain-saturated pit road moments after NASCAR called the race with 71 laps remaining and darkness looming. “You’re going to go through a lot of bulls—. But you’ve always got to stay true to your path and not let the nonsense get to you. Stay strong, stay humble, stay hungry. There were plenty of times I wanted to give up. But you surround yourself with the right people and it’s moments like this that you appreciate.”
For every congratulatory tweet posted Monday after-noon and throughout the evening, there was an equal number of brave-from-the-couch responses. The latter tried to discount what had just happened by bringing up all of what is listed above as detriments, trying to cheapen the moment. They also threw in the so-easily-predictable added extra bonus of debating what is or is not a noose, digging up social media-pen-ned conspiracy theories and whatever other digital cave drawings they could scribble out.
The thing is, William Darrell Wallace Jr. doesn’t care what you think. He has no interest in your un-derhanded hot takes on the motorsports history that he and his team made at the end of a weather-delayed and weather-abbreviated Monday afternoon Talladega throw-down. No matter how much you might tweet and post and scream, you might as well have your smartphone bullhorns pointed into an empty closet.
Wallace isn’t listening to it. He certainly isn’t reading it. Not unless he’s looking for a late-night laugh as he’s still embracing the race trophy he now owns.
Wallace used to read it all, not with chuckles and shoulder shrugs but with disbelief and heartbreak. However, that was a while ago. Before he became the grown man he is now, newly engaged and only four days shy of his 28th birthday. Before he, at the very place where he won Monday, was unwittingly dragged through an embarrassing July 2020 controversy involving what the FBI repeatedly referred to as a noose, found in his garage stall. Before he was left stranded by NASCAR’s poor handling of the situation.
Before he became a race winner at stock car racing’s highest level.
Bubba Wallace shares a victory hug with 23XI team co-owner Denny Hamlin at Talladega on Monday.
History aside, what he did on Monday was impressive by any measure. He skirted the disaster of the Big One. He raced his wheels off during what became the final green-flag laps of the race. He won in just his fourth full-time Cup season, driving for Team 23XI, a team started by a current title contender, Denny Hamlin, along with six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan, and a team that didn’t have a crew or a race shop less than a year ago. Wallace’s win also capped the first-ever NASCAR race weekend to have first-time winners sweep all three national events.
But you can’t put the history aside. You can’t forget that Wallace became the first Black racer to win at NASCAR’s highest level since December 1963, a span of 2,040 races, and the second ever. Nor can you dismiss the fact that in 73 years of Cup Series racing, over 2,673 races, only 198 drivers have taken a checkered flag. On Monday, Bubba Wallace became that 198th race winner.
That’s one more Cup Series race victory than the combined career total of every social media Cro-Magnon who has ever tried to come after Wallace.
“This is not the time for those folks. This is Bubba’s time. This is the time for dreamers who love NASCAR racing. This is our time.” The man speaking on the phone was Warrick Scott, less than an hour after Wallace’s Talladega win. His grandfather was Wendell Scott, the man who won that race in ‘63 and until Wallace came along had been the only full-time Black racer in NASCAR Cup Series history.
Today, Warrick works alongside his father, Frank, running the Wendell Scott Foundation in seeking to create better opportunities for at-risk youth. The organization is powered by passion and the promise of a better life. The Scott family, which has been close to Wallace since he was a teenager breaking into NASCAR, is always looking for real-world examples they can use to prove to those at-risk youth that hoping and dreaming isn’t something limited to fairy tales. It can actually happen.
There were 2,040 Cup Series races between Wendell Scott’s 1963 win and Bubba Wallace’s victory on Monday. ISC Images & Archives/Getty Images
On Monday afternoon, Bubba Wallace handed them their best example yet.
“To us, it wasn’t a question of, is Bubba going to win, but where was he going to win first,” Warrick said from his home, where the noise of his family’s celebration could still be heard in the background. “Talladega is the racetrack where my grandfather almost died [in a wreck] in 1973, the place that really took Papa out of the game. Talladega is the place where Bubba had already endured so much. And Talladega, that place, you don’t win there by accident. You have to drive it at Talladega. You have to kick butt. And anyone who saw those last laps before the rain came knows that Bubba Wallace was up on that wheel. He was the maestro.”
Warrick watched those laps with his sons — the great-grandsons of Wendell Scott — Warrick Jr., 11, and Wendell, 5. Warrick had raced through the Monday afternoon school carpool line and then raced home so they could all see the finish together. As they watched Wallace celebrate the victory, they jumped up and down in their den, and then the phone started ringing. It was Frank. Then it was everyone else in the family. Then it seemed like it was everyone else in the world.
“Every conversation has been the same,” Warrick said. “And it will be this way for a while now. Excitement. Inspiration. African American kids, from my boys to the foundation to kids I’ll never meet, and Bubba will never meet, young Black racers, they will all believe a little more tonight. And that’s just beautiful for this sport that my grandfather truly loved and Bubba truly loves.”
Warrick Scott couldn’t stop laughing. That giddy giggle that happens when your face doesn’t know what to do.
“This is just joy,” he said. “There’s no hate here. And even if there was, we can’t hear them. We’re too busy celebrating.”