The Moment That Turned Bubba Wallace from NASCAR Driver to Activist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes you have to make a stand, even your job is to drive.
By Joshua Eferighe
Whether you followed the drivers, cared about the sport or even knew what NASCAR was, odds are good you looked up the name Bubba Wallace and all things professional racing in June when NASCAR announced it would ban the Confederate flag at its events — and the 26-year-old Black driver was the catalyst. Then, in July, a media hailstorm struck when a member of Wallace’s racing team alerted NASCAR officials that a noose had been found in his parking garage.
Wallace had to defend himself when authorities concluded that no federal crimes were committed, even though the Department of Justice called the rope a “noose.” In the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show, the only full-time African American NASCAR Cup Series driver discussed his journey and the impact of this summer on his trajectory. Here are some excerpts from their full conversation.
‘I Almost Killed My Dad’
Carlos Watson: What did you love about racing, Bubba? What grabbed you in those early days? Because I think someone told me you started racing as early as 9.
Bubba Wallace: We were exposed to it. My dad had bought a Harley-Davidson — the guy who fixed it up for him took it to the bike shop. He raced go-karts out of the back of that shop and he invited us to come out. And it was one thing, we were just sitting there in the stands and we got hooked to go out and compete, and went out and bought a go-kart that next weekend and had fun. So it was a definitely a lot of fun, and it still is to this day.
Watson: What makes you better than so many others who love this sport and want to be good at it?
Wallace: Yeah, Carlos. It’s a good question. As much as I want to brag on myself, this is very much a team sport and you have to have all the right resources around you, the right people and the right equipment to know what to do, what setup to put in the race car and how to be competitive. I spent a lot of time practicing and learning my craft, learning how to race. It was me, my dad and Chris, the guy who owned the bike shop. We were always at the racetrack together learning.
There’s one crazy practice, a test session that we had that I don’t really talk about and it’s so bizarre and funny. It’s funny now, but I almost killed my dad. I run over him in the go-kart when I first started. Run over him. He went flying 30 feet in the air. Yeah. We had cones set up on the racetrack, this is where I need to run, and I didn’t turn. I ran right into the cone and he was standing behind the cone, hit him, and I thought I had killed my dad.
But yeah. I have probably shared that story four or five times just simply because I forget about it. But it just goes back to all the practicing and stuff. I haven’t hit my dad since then, so I learned my lesson that day. I think he learned his lesson too, to not stand behind the cone. But we just kept practicing and trying to get better and better.
Watson: I feel like your name started to bump for me last year, maybe it was a year before and that strong finish at Daytona. But clearly it feels like you as a human being made a powerful, if you don’t mind me saying, courageous set of decisions. Talk a little bit about that.
Wallace: My mother has called me an activist and I’m like, wow, wow. I don’t know if I’ll take that title, but hey, it’s there, I guess.
I’ve said this in the many interviews that I’ve done; I’ve maybe done one or two of these in the last three or four months. That’s an understatement I’ve been super busy, but I’ve said this in almost every single one of them. It was the Ahmaud Arbery video that I had seen, and I’m sure the whole world has seen by now, that really sparked something inside of me. And I didn’t really know what it was. I mean, I was devastated to watch that and to witness that and what went on and I still feel the pain from that video. And then it was Breonna Taylor here in the news, and then it was the George Floyd video, that was like, “OK, enough is enough.”
And also I would say pressure from fans of being like, “I wonder what Bubba Wallace has to say about this. Is he going to step up or is NASCAR going to continue to be silent on these matters?” And so I took kind of the initiative of standing up for myself, the sport, my sport of NASCAR and my African American community that looks up to me.
And maybe I haven’t paid attention to that side as much as I should have in the past. But we in the side of motor sports, it is so financially driven. And we have so many brands that we represent. Right now I got Coca-Cola and some of the biggest brands in the world. Coca-Cola, Beats, Columbia, DoorDash, Cash App, McDonald’s, those are top brands and they all wanted to be associated with me. So while that’s humbling, I have to think about what I say, how I say it and how that’s going to portray to companies that are associated with me. Because I keep telling people, no matter what you have in your bio, opinions are of your own, they do not reflect my employer. Once you sign that dotted line, you represent yourself and that company.
So just remember that. And in that moment, let’s get back to what you asked. In that moment, I simply, I don’t mean this in a negative way, I did not care what sponsors thought. It’s not like I don’t care about McDonald’s, I don’t care about Coca-Cola, I don’t care about Beats. It wasn’t that. It was like, you know what, if they have a problem with what I’m saying right now, then I don’t want to be associated with them, because I’m standing up for what I believe is what’s right.
And trying to create change in the world and make this a more positive place for us right now and also our future generation coming up through. Educate them, help our local communities, empower them to get out and do better and be better in the world. And this is where it kind of elevated me to a different level of like, “OK, taking on a new role here, let’s make sure we’re doing this right.” And it’s been great to see how much change has gone into our sport. How much is attempting to go on in our nation to fight social injustice and racial inequality. All that stuff to try to make it better. And so I felt like it was time for me to say something. One was because of pressure and the other was because I needed to.
Watson: So what have you learned going through that? Because, Bubba, I feel like you have a special bit of insight and access. I mean, being a successful driver in an overwhelmingly white sport, an overwhelmingly red sport, you probably get to know things about how people think about race, how they think about race relations, what are possibilities for positive change, what are the things that hold things back. But what would you tell other people who also want the world to get better and also want the world to change? Like what have you learned about race and race relations and how we can bring about change given what you’ve been involved in the last couple of months?
Wallace: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think for me it’s about patience and everything that I say now is a 50-50. It’s 50 percent going to make people happy and then it’s 50 percent going to piss people off, and that’s OK. Because everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. So when I say patience, 50 percent of the people are going to be like, “You know, that’s true. I could take a step back and look at things differently and give the benefit of the doubt.” But then the other 50 percent are going to be like, “Well, why didn’t you practice more patience on the whole Talladega noose incident and look into that?”
And so that’s where it’s like, “OK, I hear what you’re saying, but let’s all be patient in this matter and listen and understand and let’s read through the facts and figure out, let’s educate ourselves.” There was a lot to where I didn’t educate myself and so I didn’t feel comfortable speaking out because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and make it come off the wrong way when I intended it for something else. Now, no matter if I read it script from script from whoever gave it to me and it’s straight facts, people are still going to make it something negative. And that’s just like, why is there so much negative in the world? And we kept saying, and I still believe it, hate is taught. We don’t know why, it just is. You come into this world loving, you come into this world googly eyes, drooling out of your mouth, loving on your mom and daddy at the hospital, wherever it may be.
Getting Real on Mental Health
Watson: Hey, you know, Bubba, one of the things I admired about you, and maybe even the first time I really started paying attention was when you talked about depression. Because I feel like for so many of us, that’s a tough thing to talk about, and a tough thing to talk about out loud. What made you comfortable doing that, and tell me a little bit about where you come from or where you are in terms of depression.
Wallace: Yeah. I think there’s not a lot of things that make me uncomfortable. I did have to do, I don’t know if you follow me on social media, but we just announced an underwear line with PSD Underwear, and they wanted to do just me in underwear only, and I was like, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.” So I think that’s the only thing I’m uncomfortable with. Everything else, man, you ask me, I’m going to tell you. It’s not like, I don’t know if I can talk about that, I don’t know if I can do it. I’m an open book.
And the whole depression thing, my girlfriend and I were going through a breakup at that time. The on-track performance was not there. Trying to do everything I could, holding everything in like I talked about earlier. It just finally got to a peak to where somebody asked, “How is Bubba Wallace doing today?” Broke it. It all came out at once, and it was just like, “Yeah, I’m not good. I’m depressed. I’m not happy about anything. Nothing’s going right,” and people all of a sudden, that opened up a floodgate of people thanking me and talking about depression. And I’m just like, “Oh.” I didn’t even know. I didn’t know it was that bad. Not necessarily bad to talk about, but that hard to talk about. Because I’m just a person, “Hey, how are you feeling today?” “I’m X, Y and Z. How are you feeling?” That’s it. I don’t hold anything back. I’m straight up, I’m 100 percent real and raw. And I think that’s why a lot of fans latched onto what we have going on, because of how just raw I am. What you see on the racetrack is what you see here at my house.
And I still have days of depression and being down and out, and we go through that. And I just always told myself that … one, music has helped me a lot, get through that. But you wake up the next day and it’s like, “All right, I feel good today.” So you’re like, hopefully this keeps going. So it tells you there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
- Joshua Eferighe