Chances are reading the name of the most recognized NASCAR driver in the country for the last two years elicited some kind of an emotional response for you.
There’s a spectrum to the responses.
There are those who are indifferent to the driver who races for 23XI Racing, a team co-owned by Michael Jordan. But you won’t find a Facebook group or Twitter account called I Have No Strong Opinions on Bubba Wallace.
There are those who really like Wallace. This group helped make his Talladega Superspeedway race win diecast one of the most popular of 2021.
Then there’s the type of person who will go straight to the comments sections of articles like this to share what they strongly think or feel about Wallace. Those impulses are typically fueled by multiple factors: either Wallace forcing NASCAR to finally ban the Confederate battle flag or them not having a clear understanding of the events that transpired at Talladega in June 2020.
But how could I forget the fourth group. These are the people who in March 2021, prior to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, felt compelled to boo Bill Lester, a Black driver making his first NASCAR start in 14 years.
To some we all look the same…probably thought it was me https://t.co/c2VbNug6jf
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) March 20, 2021
All of these reasons, every single one of them, makes a project like ESPN’s E60 documentary, “Fistful of Steel – The Rise of Bubba Wallace,” inevitable.
Debuting Tuesday night (Dec. 14) at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, the roughly 80-minute feature (Fronstretch screened a rough cut) is reported and narrated by longtime NASCAR writer Ryan McGee. It’s the first real longform look at how Wallace got to his current place in the NASCAR landscape. The fact it was produced by ESPN, a network that’s not part of NASCAR’s current TV contract, is a big deal.
It’s not intended for those who are immersed in minutia of the NASCAR world, like the Chase Elliott doc on Peacock earlier this year was. Over the last two years, we’ve become well versed in the broad strokes of Wallace’s life.
“The Rise of Bubba Wallace” is for those outside the bubble playing catchup.
But that’s not to say there isn’t noteworthy information for NASCAR regulars.
During its runtime, the doc explores Wallace’s upbringing with biracial parents and how his relationship with his white father, Darrell Wallace Sr., deteriorated into blows. Wallace says that when he texted his father about landing a ride with Richard Petty Motorsports, the response he received, of which Wallace took a screenshot, wasn’t a happy one.
With help from Wallace’s mother and sister, we’re given additional insight into his family’s history with police, which included the shooting death of a cousin in the early 2000s and its lingering impact on the family.
Maybe most importantly, the documentary shows how one’s personal narrative and viewpoint can evolve. It features a clip of an interview with Wallace from 2018 where he was dismissive of the Confederate flag’s presence at race tracks. It didn’t bother him.
But time and life experiences change a person.
2020 — a year Wallace described visually as a “bald eagle flying over a dumpster fire, it’s raining, but there’s also a rainbow” — happened. The Bubba Wallace that emerged after a year from hell using his voice for change was not the Bubba Wallace of 2018 or 2019.
The same goes for NASCAR and the world at large.
“Fistful of Steel” (a rather odd title) has its blind spots, though.
As the narrative unfolds, it jumps straight from Wallace’s Truck days to the announcement in 2018 that he would drive full time for RPM the following year. No mention is made of his time at Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series, losing that ride due to lack of sponsorship or that he was picked to drive the No. 43 after subbing for an injured Aric Almirola.
Plenty of Wallace’s family members are interviewed. However, the only other current or former competitor of Wallace who is featured is Jimmie Johnson, who orchestrated the NASCAR Cup Series garage’s show of support for Wallace at Talladega.
Who knows which drivers would have wanted to be interviewed. Wallace mentions “I still don’t forget” those who remained silent on a group driver chat in the weeks before the events at Talladega last year.
If you’re looking for any substantive material on 23XI itself, you won’t find it here. You can expect that early next year with the Netflix documentary project on the race team and Wallace.
If you’ve already planted your flag on either side of the debate over Wallace and what he represents to you, “Fistful of Steel” likely won’t change your mind. But I encourage you to hear him out, at least this one time, before coming in hot in the comments section.
From day one to the Daytona 500, it’s family over everything for @BubbaWallace. @E60's Fistful of Steel: The Rise of Bubba Wallace premieres Tuesday at 7:30 PM ET on ESPN and ESPN+. pic.twitter.com/BrY1vp8GIK
— ESPN+ (@ESPNPlus) December 13, 2021
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 7-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He's currently a freelancer and lead reporter and editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR show "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" on YouTube and in podcast form.
You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.