Bubba Wallace enjoyed his best statistical season in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020; the previous two seasons, Wallace finished 28th in the final standings, but he made gains to finish 22nd this year.
If those gains seem modest, it is because they are. Wallace may have improved slightly but the real notice for the 26-year-old driver came through his influence regarding social justice and awareness.
As the only full-time Black driver in the sport, Wallace can easily be singled out, and he had frequently been a target for frequent and constant taunts and criticism. He already was a lightning rod for attention, but this year he became something bigger.
For years NASCAR has struggled with reconciling its roots in conjunction with appealing to a nationwide audience. The images of the Confederate flag and the character named Johnny Reb who used to ride on the hood of the race-winning car at Darlington Raceway lasted well into the sport becoming an established entity, with everyone involved seemingly turning a blind eye to the meanings behind these symbols. As the sport became more corporate and sought to utilize a sanitized version of itself, these symbols became less prevalent.
While Johnny Reb may have vanished, the Confederate flag held its place but with a narrative that shifted away from the unfortunate reason for its existence in the first place. The concept of heritage overtook the reality of fighting a war to ensure that slavery would remain. And thus the flag continued its presence as a trackside accompaniment.
In 2015, Brian France attempted to push the flag out of the sport and even had the support of 15-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. In an ESPN The Magazine story, Earnhardt stated that the flag “is offensive to an entire race. It belongs in the history books, and that’s about it.” But even without Earnhardt’s backing, little changed.
This year, as Wallace became a figure that earned the spotlight for his outspoken comments about racism, the flag underwent more scrutiny.
With President Donald Trump advocating for the continued celebration of the Confederacy, many people around the country felt encouraged to show allegiance with the flag and its conscripted sense of rebelliousness.
At the same time, however, parts of the country raged against police brutality that has surrounded Black lives. The killing of George Floyd set off a shockwave that lasted through the end of spring and throughout much of the summer. The killing of Breonna Taylor and the ensuing Keystone Cops version of justice did little to simmer the racial tensions that had enveloped so much of the country.
And that’s where Wallace comes in. When he spoke out against the flag in May, requesting that it be banned, his voice was heard and NASCAR instituted a hard ban.
The original effort to remove the Confederate flag from the sport had been weak, encouraging people not to wave the flag and offering fans the opportunity to trade in theirs for a driver flag should they want. As you may expect, the results were marginal, and the flag could still be found on race days.
Yet when Wallace criticized its presence, the sport ensured the flag would be banned for the next race at Martinsville Speedway. What made the move all the more significant came with the paint scheme Wallace showcased on his car for the race. While the No. 43 he piloted in 2020 is iconographic and associated with Richard Petty in such a way that Petty has parlayed his driving career into one of being marketable character, the car asserted Wallace’s own branding.
Painted black, the car featured two hands clasped together, one white and one Black. Under the image, the words compassion, love, understanding. Along the rear quarter panels read #BlackLivesMatter.
With the No. 43 on the roof and the doors, the car stood as a marker of the combination of two distinct eras, one of the sport’s history and the other an ushering of a new era.
If anything, Wallace understood that social media is the most important tool for advocacy. With such a positive message emblazoned on the car, Wallace found himself the center of retweets, likes and reposts. His comments began to circulate on numerous news stories. If he had been dismissed previously for his race results, he was embraced for his stance in challenging a sport long associated with whiteness.
Though Wallace finished a frustrating 11th at Martinsville, his outspokenness became more important than his results, especially during and after the Talladega Superspeedway noose incident.
With one of his crew members finding a garage pull-down rope fashioned in a noose, the sport made the discovery public and attempted to find out the details surrounding the find. The FBI took over the investigation and found that the garage rope noose had been present since that last race at the track.
The conspiracies may have come out in full force afterward, but the sport rallied behind Wallace. In a beautiful moment of cooperation, the drivers for the Cup race got together to push his car to the front of pit road and then stood behind Wallace in solidarity.
Even though the President may have tried to kill the moment later by calling the noose story a hoax, Wallace would not be changed.
In fact, Wallace used the spat with the President to elevate his position, finding himself on talk shows and in magazine cover stories. Rather than get into a war of words with Trump, he sought to deliver his message on his own terms, finding ways to challenge racism and to hope for a better world.
His season may not have been a remarkable race season, but his year was an amazing one. He ascended to a place of taking the swings and punches like Jackie Robinson had in 1945 and maintaining his calm, keeping his message of love and compassion.
As the racing season has begun to fade and the protests with chants of black lives matter have mostly passed by, Wallace is standing as a marker to remember what he has done and how much there is to be done.