My Brain on NASCAR: ‘Bubba’ brings diversity

col-cathyelliottOne of the most exciting things to happen in NASCAR in a very long time didn’t happen during a race. Rather, it happened when someone in Richard Petty Motorsports’ PR department hit “Send.”

NASCAR team press releases are a dime a dozen. It is not uncommon for every team in each of NASCAR’s top racing series to send out two or three of them each week. There’s one recapping the previous week’s race, and yet another one previewing the next event. There are qualifying reports, and updates on current sponsor promotions, and releases on what Dale Earnhardt Jr. ate for breakfast.

But not this one. Short and very matter-of-fact, an RPM release on June 5 contained the following information:

Richard Petty Motorsports announced today that NASCAR XFINITY Series regular Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will pilot the No. 43 Ford while Aric Almirola recovers from his injuries. Wallace brings five years of NASCAR experience in both the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series and has been a member of the Ford Performance team since 2015. Wallace, a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and inaugural member of NASCAR Next, will make his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Pocono Raceway this weekend.

The 23-year-old Mobile, Ala., native has five years of experience in the NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series, where he’s tallied five wins, 20 Top Fives, 60 Top 10s and five Pole awards.

There is news … and then there is NEWS.

There is so little diversity in the sport of stock car that I’m surprised no one has started a #NASCARsowhite Twitter campaign yet. So it will be a very big deal when Wallace makes his Monster Energy Cup Series debut on June 11 at Pocono Raceway, becoming the first black driver since Bill Lester in June of 2006 to compete at NASCAR’s premier level.

NASCAR history was made in 1961, when Wendell Scott became the first black driver to race at the sport’s top level. That was a promising moment for NASCAR, but unfortunately it never really got up to speed. Since then, only two other black drivers — Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 and Lester off-and-on between 1999 and 2006 — have competed at that level.

There’s no denying that NASCAR is weak in the diversity department, but there’s a practical element to be considered, too. It’s easy and cheap to buy a pair of sneakers, put a ball or a bat or a tennis racquet in a kid’s hand, and send him or her off to practice. Putting them behind the wheel of a race car or even one of today’s fancy go-karts is a different matter entirely. Despite its redneck reputation, from a fiscal standpoint NASCAR is actually rather elitist.

But to its credit, it is trying. The Drive for Diversity program, established in 2004, targets marketable minority and female drivers with grassroots, local and regional racing experience. The academy-style program is designed to develop and train drivers both on and off the track. Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson are former participants.

Wallace will be driving what many folks feel is the most iconic car in NASCAR: Richard Petty’s No. 43. He’s only 23 years old, but he realizes the significance of this moment in his life.

“It’s an exciting opportunity not only for myself but for my family, first of all, my fans, everybody that’s helped me get to this level ever since I started racing when I was nine years old and had dreams of running in a Cup race, making my name present in the sport.  So this is the perfect opportunity. I’m very thankful for that,” he said.

“This is a huge step for NASCAR, the whole sport in general, for bringing diversity to its top‑tier level. I’m glad to be leading the forefront of that right now,” he said in a national teleconference earlier this week. “It just shows that we’re trying to bring in a new demographic. We’re trying to bring in a new face, get a younger generation, no matter what color, what age. We’re trying to get everybody involved to bring NASCAR back.”

That’s the spirit. With their talent, positive attitudes, and work ethics that are not only strong, but downright intense, today’s young drivers – including Wallace, Larson, Suarez and Chase Elliott — have not only the ability, but the desire, to move NASCAR forward … in more ways than one.

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