Wallace: Racing has come a long way; Society not so much

Chase Elliott (left) and Bubba Wallace talk on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

A year ago, Bubba Wallace was known only to hard-core NASCAR fans.

But when a noose was found in the garage assigned to NASCAR’s only Black driver at Talladega, every person confined at home by the pandemic learned who he is.

An FBI investigation determined the noose, part of a pull-down rope located on an overhead door, had been there since the previous fall, long before Wallace was assigned that particular garage. Nevertheless, the incident, coming on the heels of the death of George Floyd, was another chapter of the racial unrest which sprang back to life last summer.

Ironically, NASCAR’s return to Nashville Superspeedway will come on the one-year weekend anniversary of the incident at Talladega. Wallace, who was driving Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 last year, will steer the No. 23XI Racing Toyota Camry owned by basketball immortal Michael Jordan and fellow driver Denny Hamlin in the June 20 Ally 400. He was asked how his life has changed in the last year.

“My awareness levels have gone up,” Wallace said during an interview call earlier this week. “You trust very little and keep on moving.”

As for the social issues, Wallace said little has changed.

“As a society, we’ve barely made a dent,” Wallace said. “As a sport, we’ve gone a long way, but we’ve still got some work to do. It’s a never-ending battle until everybody can fell comfortable in their own skin, in their own voice. That’s when I’ll say we’ve made a lot of progress. But we’ve still got a long way to go, so we’ve got to roll the sleeves up and be ready to do the work.”

At the time of the incident, the NASCAR world banded together to support Wallace, going so far as to ban the Confederate flag, long a staple at races, from the tracks. With a couple of exceptions, Wallace said he still feels the love from his competitors.

“I think I (made a couple of them mad) on the racetrack, but I still feel that,” he said.

Wallace has been to Fairgrounds Speedway. His father is from Nashville and he has other relatives in Music City. His previous experience with Nashville Superspeedway was a couple of laps testing a truck in 2013. Drivers will have 55 minutes of practice before qualifying.

“Don’t remember much,” Wallace said. “It’s concrete and it’s fast.”

Nashville Superspeedway and its parent track at Dover are two of the very few concrete tracks on the Cup circuit.

“It feels like you can attack the corners a little bit faster than asphalt,” Wallace said of the differences between the surfaces. “The track variations don’t really change much. You’ll be able to lay down more rubber. That’s really the only thing that’ll really change is how much rubber gets laid down and picked up between green flag and caution. It seems like track temperature isn’t as sensitive as it is on asphalt.

“It’ll be fun trying to figure it all out.”

Wallace currently sits 21st in the standings, 93 points out of being in the top 16 needed to qualify for the playoffs. This weekend’s All-Star races at Texas don’t count for points, so the race here will be the start of the final 10 events leading to the playoffs which begin the first week in September. Wallace said the season has been trending upward for his team.

“We’ve been able to string together some good races the last few weeks,” Wallace said. “We’ve finally started to get over the hump, get into the top 15 a few times and be consistent there. Now, we just got to break into the top 10. Progression is the biggest thing for our new team to get better. It seems like we are better than the spring races, and now that we’re in the summer stretch so that when fall rolls around we got to be better than in the summer. So we got to keep going. These races are long.

“Sonoma (June 6) was quite the day that we had, running around, basically 38th for half the race and ended up 14th. Resilience, never giving up, trying to keep after it.”

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