ABOVE PHOTO: Bubba Wallace stands with the trophy after winning a NASCAR Cup series auto race Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Russell Norris)
By Jenna Fryar
TALLADEGA, Ala. — The hard part wasn’t dodging his way around a crash and then driving to the front of the field at Talladega Superspeedway. That was just instinct for Bubba Wallace.
The challenge was the 45 minutes after Wallace took the lead, when the sky opened and he anxiously sat in the rain — hoping, wishing, praying — that NASCAR would call off Monday’s rescheduled race and declare him the winner.
With a crowd gathered behind his pit stand chanting its support — one man told his 6-year-old son, clad in a Wallace shirt and jumping up and down along the fence, that he was “witnessing history” — NASCAR pulled the plug and Wallace became just the second Black driver to win a race at the Cup Series level.
“Got some credibility to my name now,” said Wallace, a first-time Cup winner in his 143 starts. “I’m just like, ‘Finally, I’m a winner and I’m a winner in the Cup level,’ and it’s just like ‘Hell yeah!’ It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
This was so much more than just a first win.
Wallace is the first Black driver to win at the top level of the elite stock car series since Wendell Scott in 1963, a race where he wasn’t declared the victor for several months. NASCAR at last presented Scott’s family with his trophy from that race two months ago.
“You can’t swim standing on the Bank!!,” tweeted Warrick Scott Sr., who is Scott’s grandson. “RIP Wendell Scott. Congratulations @bubbawallace!!” A second post showed his grandfather leaning against a car and read: “PaPa was there the whole time chilling in the rain.”
The Wallace victory earned praise from rapper Big Sean, the University of Tennessee football team and Bill Lester, a Black driver who raced intermittently in NASCAR from 1999 through a Trucks Series start this season, among others.
“Finally, it’s official, you’ve done it!” Lester posted. “So proud of you and what you’ve accomplished. Your win moves the @NASCAR needle forward on so many fronts. Glad I was a witness.”
The race was spotlighted on NBC’s “Nightly News” at the top of Monday’s broadcast, illustrating how culturally important Wallace’s win was for NASCAR, a predominantly white sport with deep Southern roots and a longtime embrace of Confederate symbols.
As much as Wallace wanted the moment to be solely about his first career win, he couldn’t ignore the significance.
“It’s definitely been tough going to some of the tracks this year, we get some of the most boos now,” Wallace said. “Everybody says as long as they’re making noise that’s fine, but you know, I get booed for different reasons and that’s the tough thing to swallow. I appreciate all those who were there doing the rain dance with us, pulling for us, supporting me my whole career, but especially those who have supported me with everything that’s gone on the last 15-16 months.”
In June 2020 at Talladega, NASCAR discovered a noose in the garage stall assigned to Wallace. The finding came just a week after NASCAR had banned the Confederate flag at its events at Wallace’s urging.
The FBI investigated and found that the noose was tied at the end of the garage door pull and had been there for months, meaning Wallace was not a victim of a hate crime. Still, the series rallied around him and stood in solidarity with Wallace at the front of the grid before the race.
The flag ban continues to be an issue at Talladega, where a convoy of vehicles has paraded up and down Speedway Boulevard outside the main entrance of the speedway during all four race weekends since NASCAR announced the ban. The convoy was back this weekend and included one car pulling a trailer that contained a Civil War-era cannon.
Wallace has called the noose incident a low point and he’s been subjected to online harassment that last year even included a tweet from then-President Donald Trump that falsely accused Wallace of making up the noose. Although Wallace never saw the noose and was only told about it by NASCAR President Steve Phelps after the FBI had been summoned to investigate, he’s been accused by many in the public of orchestrating a hoax.
When Monday’s race was halted with Wallace as the leader, social media was ablaze with comments attacking the 27-year-old Alabama native whose birthday is later this week.
“They just are haters. That’s all you can really say about it,” said Denny Hamlin, Wallace’s team co-owner and a fellow driver. “I try to say to him, ‘Don’t get your motivation trying to prove haters wrong. Instead get your motivation from trying to do the people that support you proud.’
“That’s where the motivation is going to come from, is the people that are going to support you through the good times and the bad times,” Hamlin said.
Wallace had driven through a crash and to the front of the field five laps before the second rain stoppage of the race. When he surged to the front, and with the entire field realizing that rain could halt the race at any time, runner-up Brad Keselowski recognized Wallace had likely just won the race with his pass.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, geez. I wish I would have made that move,’” Keselowski said. “(His) was the right move at the right time.”
NASCAR tried to dry the track for nearly 45 minutes but called things off as sunset approached and the rain showed no sign of ceasing.
Wallace had been waiting atop his pit stand and celebrated wildly with his crew when the decision came. Wallace is in his first season driving for 23X1 Racing, a team owned by both Hamlin and Michael Jordan.