Bubba Wallace rebuilds confidence on track, community off it
A slow start to the NASCAR Cup Series season — two crashes and an engine failure through six races — has Bubba Wallace looking internally for the steadiness he needs to pull himself out of this early slump.
It was his mother who encouraged Wallace to do some self-reflection.
“It's day by day, right? Just got to be a better version of myself,” Wallace told The Associated Press this week. “My mom had said to me, ‘You know, if you want things to change, you got to change yourself.’ So I'm just trying to change myself and be more active, working out, eating better, and just trying to have a better mindset so Richmond should be good for us.”
Yes, Wallace and NASCAR head next to Richmond Raceway for a Sunday short track race at a venue that has not been one of Wallace's stronger tracks. His career-best finish at Richmond was 12th in 2019 when he drove for Richard Petty. He was 13th last fall in his new 23XI Racing ride.
But this weekend represents more to Wallace than a chance to show how far 23XI has come since its 2021 launch. The two-car team celebrated its first win of the season last week with Tyler Reddick at Circuit of the Americas and qualified three cars for the season-opening Daytona 500.
Wallace will use Richmond, a rare NASCAR stop at a facility located in a fairly urban area, for his second annual “Bubba's Block Party." The free Friday night event is a community-focused NASCAR initiative aimed at bringing awareness, access and engagement to the sport within the Black community.
The food truck village will feature Black-owned businesses, and there will be live entertainment including iRacing, video games and a live pit stop demonstration by Wallace's Toyota crew. Wallace will host a “fireside chat” to discuss both his career and his attention on promoting diversity and inclusion across the sport.
Wallace, who is from Alabama, in 2020 successfully called on NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events. He is the only full-time Black driver at NASCAR's top level.
“Richmond is in the heart of a minority market, a diverse market, and I feel like a lot of those people don't show up at the racetrack,” Wallace said. "I wanted to provide an environment that’s a Friday night cookout-type style vibes at a racetrack, and get them out and encourage them to come out and cheer on their favorite driver — don’t even have to be me.
“I think just getting them to feel welcome to walk in their own shoe, be comfortable in their own skin and have a great time just like they could go to NBA games, an NFL game, I think that’s important. We have to make our markets feel just as welcoming as others.”
Bubba's Block Party was born after the national social justice reckoning in 2020 that thrust Wallace into the spotlight on issues he was still only just beginning to understand. He's not been shy to use his platform, but it's come with detractors and scrutiny, including a noose found in his Talladega Superspeedway garage stall after his call for the banning of the Confederate flag.
The FBI ruled the garage pull was indeed fashioned as a noose but that it was a coincidence it was in Wallace's stall and he was not the victim of a hate crime. Detractors, including then-President Donald Trump, falsely accused Wallace of orchestrating the event.
But it was that year that sparked an urge in Wallace to demand change in a predominately white, Southern sport.
“Our sport change has changed for the better. We removed the Confederate flag, and I felt like a lot of people from a diverse background, minority background, started tuning in,” Wallace said. "They tune in enough to where they actually come out. And I’ve had numerous people in the last two years now say, ‘Hey, man, I’m here because of what you’ve done.’ And that’s powerful.
“I think being able to show face and give back to the community that have stood up and supported me is super important.”
After the party, it's back to focusing on racing, where Wallace is coming off back-to-back disappointments.
He spun without contact from anyone else two weeks ago at Atlanta on the 10th lap, hit the wall and finished 27th. At COTA, he showed early speed but was involved in an early crash and a 37th-place finish. Wallace seemed defeated in his post-incident interview.
“Trying my hardest not to go down that slippery slope of self-doubt here. Two weeks in a row making rookie mistakes. Six years in Cup, need to be replaced," he said.
His mom gave him encouragement to stop wallowing in self-doubt, and the block party sends him to Richmond with a mission bigger than anything he does on track. Asked by the AP how his confidence was headed to Richmond, Wallace was expressionless: “Find out,” was all he said.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports