See more from GQ’s Change Is Good issue.
Bubba Wallace crashed in his very first race. He was just nine years old and driving feverishly in last place. As he pushed his machine to its limit, his little hands lost control of the wheel and his go-kart was sent careening over a dirt barrier. “I thought I was going to die,” he would say later.
A wreck like that runs most kids out of racing. But not Bubba. He simply took his crumpled kart home and hammered it back into shape.
It’s something of a challenge to get to Wallace these days. The 26-year-old race car driver is inundated with media requests and business meetings and surrounded by a close-knit crew of friends and associates. All eyes have been on him since June, when the racer-the only Black driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series-decided to speak out against racial injustice. Like many people who discovered him as he made headlines this summer, I was captivated by the very idea of Wallace taking a stand from inside a historically white institution. That’s the stuff of biopics, of Black History Month book reports, of 30 for 30 s.
When we meet, Wallace looks scruffy and casual in a plain gray T-shirt. Even through a small box on a computer screen, he comes off as pleasant, energetic, and eager to get started. He gives me a tour of his man cave, the space over his garage where he spends a lot of his free time. His home’s previous owner went all out, installing air-conditioning and building a bathroom to make it a proper suite. Wallace has added his own touches: a large television, a racing simulator, beanbag chairs, gaming systems (he’s big on Call of Duty and F1). It is also where he keeps a cardboard cutout of himself that his elder sister had made as a joke. “He’s watching over me,” Wallace says of the cutout. “He goes after my ass when I say the wrong thing.”
Wallace is affable, chill, and something of a bro, perhaps the last person you’d imagine waging a social justice campaign to upend the culture of NASCAR. “Everything’s been super serious lately, but he’s such a kid,” his girlfriend, Amanda Carter, tells me. For that reason, he’s a compelling case study in what can happen when a remarkable but mostly ordinary guy dares to say that Black lives matter.
“I was surprised when I heard about him speaking up on racial equality at the racetrack, inclusion and all of that,” his mother, Desiree Wallace, says. “I was like, ‘My son? Are we talking about the same Bubba?’ “
The story of how Bubba became an unlikely activist goes something like this: Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as he and the rest of NASCAR were figuring out how to continue racing, one of his cousins shared a video on Instagram of a young Black man named Ahmaud Arbery being chased and then killed by white men in pickup trucks. Wallace says he watched the video over and over again into the early hours of the morning. Like many, he was devastated by what he saw.
“I was sitting right here in this chair,” he tells me. “I was playing Call of Duty, and I immediately shut off my game and I was shaking. I felt like I was going to throw up after I’d seen it. I just could not believe what I saw.” Weeks later Wallace saw a video of another Black man being killed. This time it was George Floyd, killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Wallace had had enough. He decided to speak out publicly.
“This is the first time where I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a damn about-not in a negative way-a team. I don’t give a damn about my sponsors. This is what’s going on in the world, and this stuff’s got to stop.’ “
Wallace showed up to a pre-race on June 7, shortly after the Floyd video surfaced, wearing a McDonald’s cap, an American flag face mask, and a T-shirt that read “I can’t breathe.” The very next day, he called on NASCAR to ban displays of Confederate flags at its races. (It banned the flag at all events and properties within 48 hours.) Then, later that week, he hit the track with #BlackLivesMatter painted on the side of his car.
“Do I think that I expected this from him? No,” says Kyle Hall, his manager and close friend. “I knew he felt a certain way, but I never thought he’d be as vocal as he is. If you would have told me that we’re in the position we are now six months ago, I probably would have said, ‘I doubt that’ll ever happen.’ “
“I was surprised when I heard about him speaking up on racial equality at the racetrack, inclusion and all of that,” his mother, Desiree Wallace, says. “I was like, ‘My son? Are we talking about the same Bubba?’ Not that he didn’t have an opinion one way or the other, but he really didn’t, as far as I knew, because all he wanted to do was eat, sleep, drink, race. That’s it. That’s all he does.”
He was done keeping his head down, it seemed, and Wallace’s efforts were largely well received. At least until June 21, when a mechanic for Wallace’s team reported the presence of a noose in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway. That changed everything.
Bubba was born William Darrell Wallace Jr. in Mobile, Alabama, in 1993. His dad, who goes by Darrell, owned an industrial cleaning company, loved motorcycles, and was white. His mother was a social worker who ran track at the University of Tennessee and was Black. His elder sister, Brittany, who was just five at the time, took one look at her baby brother and christened him “Bubba.” The nickname stuck.
“He was always one of those kids who was trying to figure out how things worked,” Desiree tells me. “He had one of those kind of minds. He could put stuff together at a very early age.”
Wallace describes a race-neutral upbringing in Concord, North Carolina, where the family moved when he was just two years old. He had a multiracial family and was biracial, sure, but it wasn’t a topic of conversation at home. The Wallaces were more focused on the family business and Brittany’s basketball games.
“From the day I was born, I never had seen color,” Wallace tells me. “I had all sorts of friends growing up. My schools were 50-50, whatever the demographics were. I don’t even know. I didn’t care. If I was at an all-white school, I wouldn’t care. Like, I wouldn’t see it as ‘Man, there’s no one that looks like me.’ Just never had that feeling in my body.”
His mother paints a similar picture. “It never was ‘I got my Black-kid friends over here, I got my white friends over there.’ It’s just everybody was friends, no matter what the color,” she says.
Wallace still has a forgiving attitude when it comes to racial politics. In April, when a NASCAR driver named Kyle Larson was suspended indefinitely by the organization for muttering “n-gger” during the livestream of a virtual racing event, it was Bubba who argued that Larson should get a second chance. “There is no place for that word in this world,” Wallace wrote in an April 16 statement. “I am not mad at him, and I believe he, along with most people, deserve second chances, and deserve space to improve.”
As a kid, Wallace tried his hand at a few sports, including basketball, but nothing stuck until one of his dad’s friends introduced him to racing. He describes the track as another neutral space, where racers were more focused on winning than on the color of the next guy’s skin. It was perfect for Wallace, who loved the feeling of going fast alone.
“There’s no greater thing,” he says about racing. “Racing is not work. The work is this stuff, the interviews. That’s the work. On-track stuff? That’s all fun.”
It’s understandable, then, that his sudden turn in the spotlight has felt like a burden. He’s had “a lot of shitty sleeps at night,” Wallace says. “I try to make everybody happy, and as much as I know that’s not going to work, I still find myself doing that and wanting to defend myself, but it just ain’t going to happen.”
Despite that crash in his first race, Wallace turned out to be a natural. He had a racer’s calm temperament and a mechanical mind. Bubba didn’t scare easily, and he wasn’t afraid to mix it up with other drivers. I see it in our interview, the way his eyes narrow and he stares directly into the camera when answering a difficult question. Ryan Blaney, his friend and a fellow NASCAR driver, describes Wallace as “wisely aggressive” and not scared to put himself in some spots that maybe some people wouldn’t. “I think that’s really carried him throughout his career and throughout his life,” Blaney says.
Darrell senior recognized his son’s talent immediately and invested everything he could (as much as $250,000 a year) into Bubba’s new passion. Darrell junior managed to go from go-karts all the way up to NASCAR in the years that followed, but the road was long and winding and he found himself dogged by questions of race all along the way.
Desiree remembers once, at a Virginia speedway, when her son was 13 or 14, some men hurled a slur at Wallace after he made an error that knocked another kid out of the race. “Those are ignorant people,” she recalled telling him. “You don’t use violence, and you don’t fight them when they say that to you. You get them back by winning. You earn their respect by winning.”
“You get them back by winning” isn’t something Desiree Wallace conceived on her own but a concept etched into the Black American work ethic. It exists alongside the notion that Black people, no matter our professions, have to be “twice as good” as our white counterparts.
Her other words of wisdom? “Never give the media anything negative to write about,” she told Dallas Weekly in 2015-and for the most part, Wallace lives by his mother’s advice to stay out of trouble and focus on racing. Ask him how things make him feel, for example, and rather than turning inward, he’ll pivot to an aerial view of what he thinks. He sometimes answers questions with questions or withdraws. It’s clear he’s most comfortable when he’s talking about racing and putting in the work.
“I always told Bubba that because you’re Black, you’re going to have to work harder than everybody else out there,” Desiree tells me. “I don’t think he quite understood what I meant by that until he started progressing along.”
As a teenager, Bubba racked up wins through developmental leagues and progressed from go-karts to Bandoleros and Legend cars before driving a stock car in what was called the K&N Pro Series East, a regional NASCAR series and a training ground for developing racers.
Ironically, Wallace’s way into NASCAR was through the organization’s Drive for Diversity program, an initiative created in 2004 to give drivers from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to race in the industry’s top circuits. The program also promises to align “drivers with a team of executives, athletic directors, crew chiefs, and mentors tasked with helping them achieve career successes,” something of critical importance in an industry fueled by sponsors and where a season of racing at the top level can cost teams as much as $30 million.
“You’ve got to have really good equipment to compete and be good,” Wallace explains. “You can’t run outdated stuff. You can’t run heavy stuff. You got to be within the rule book, but [you need] the nicest of the nice to be competitive. Now, some guys can make it work with less, yes. For sure. But on a consistent weekend, if you see some guy show up with a rusted-out car and just not very well put-together, then it’s like, ‘Okay, well, let’s see if his driving can make up for that.’ “
Sponsors weren’t initially interested in Wallace, regardless of his many successes (he was the K&N Pro Series East Rookie of the Year, for example, and the first Black driver to win a race in a NASCAR national series in 50 years). His inability to land sponsorships quickly became the talk of NASCAR. Even Kyle Busch, the owner of a team Wallace raced for in 2013 and 2014, expressed disbelief over the disparity. “Darrell Wallace, if he’s not the most marketable driver in the truck series, I don’t know who else would be,” said Busch in a 2014 interview with Sporting News. “He loves to do anything you want him to do. He’s a P.R. dream. We were unsuccessful at selling the guy, his agency was unsuccessful in selling him. We have three or four sales forces trying to sell Darrell Wallace, and we can’t.”
What everyone seemed too polite to call out, at least at the time, was the possibility that sponsors weren’t interested because Bubba was Black.
“Was it directed towards me? No. But was it a noose? Yes.”
“We don’t necessarily know if it’s because he’s an African American driver and he’s the only one in the sport, or like I said earlier, if it’s more so because his results haven’t necessarily made him stand out from the crowd,” says Hall today. “We’ve had this conversation. It’s just hard for us to pinpoint which one it is exactly. We’ve never sat down and said, ‘You can’t find funding because you’re Black.’ We’ve never had that conversation.” Music-industry veteran Kevin Liles helps manage Wallace through his company, ProSport Management. He’s a bit more direct but as circumspect as Hall. “He’s a one of one,” Liles says of Wallace’s status as the only Black driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series. “You’re sponsoring everybody else-why not him? Why not him?”
It was an impossible position to be in: Bubba was a good-looking and talented personality who lacked the financial backing his white counterparts were receiving, even some ranked below him. His team questioned whether race was a factor, but that was difficult to articulate without being accused of playing the race card. There was also the counterargument that Wallace lacked sponsorship because he didn’t bring home enough checkered flags, that “If you ain’t first, you’re last! ” mentality. Ultimately, all he could do was drive as fast as his inferior equipment allowed and hope that somebody noticed.
That moment finally came in 2017, when the driver for the Richard Petty Motorsports team, Aric Almirola, was injured in a wreck. That’s when Petty, the winningest driver in NASCAR history, called on Wallace to step in as a midseason replacement.
When Petty brought him back the following season, Wallace became the first Black driver to compete full-time in the Cup Series since Wendell Scott in 1971. The announcement received a lot of attention. Of course, there were those who celebrated Wallace’s entry into the Cup Series while critics insisted he wasn’t worthy of a spot in Petty’s No. 43 car. The backlash prompted what was, at the time, an uncharacteristically candid tweet from Wallace, which is still pinned to this day: “There is only 1 driver from an African American background at the top level of our sport..I am the 1,” he wrote. “You’re not gonna stop hearing about ‘the black driver’ for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey.”
No one wanted it to be a noose. Especially not David Cropps, who has worked in NASCAR for 18 years. Cropps got his start as a tire changer, did that for eight years, then worked his way up the mechanical side. Today he’s a crew member for Richard Petty Motorsports and one of the few Black mechanics in NASCAR. The Petty team is tight. “It’s actually more than a job,” Cropps says. “We are a family.”
He was there at Talladega, in the garage, getting ready for the upcoming race, when he saw something strange. His mind didn’t process it at first. It “just did not feel right,” Cropps says, but it became clear what the object was once he got close to it: The garage pull, a length of rope used to close the garage door, was twisted into a noose. He couldn’t believe it, but the noose, with its foreboding loop and seven coils, was undeniable.
Cropps was reluctant to report it. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t jumping to conclusions,” he says, so he checked nearby stalls to see if other pulls were tied the same way; they weren’t. That’s when he went and got his crew chief, and together they alerted NASCAR. “If I hadn’t have said something, and it had been a threat, and something would’ve happened? That would’ve been on me, and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” Cropps says. Wallace was about to grab pizza with some driver friends when he got a call from the president of NASCAR, Steve Phelps. “It was one of those calls where you knew something was wrong,” Wallace remembers. Phelps wouldn’t say much, but insisted on meeting in person.
“I’m thinking like, Oh shit, I done messed up,” says Wallace. “There were all these interviews I’ve done. I’ve said the wrong thing, talked about somebody’s mama.”
Wallace says the two eventually met in his motor home at Talladega. He remembers Phelps had tears in his eyes and could barely form sentences. “I’m like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ ” says Wallace. “He was like, ‘Man…the way it was worded to me, a hate crime was committed. ‘ I immediately thought of my family, because I’m fine. I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. He said there was a noose found in my garage.’ “
The race that was supposed to be held that day got rained out and postponed. Meanwhile, NASCAR reported the incident to the FBI. Then the organization issued a statement, which read in part: “We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act. We have launched an immediate investigation, and will do everything we can to identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport.”
The following day, before the race, NASCAR crew members, drivers, and officials gathered on the track at Talladega to walk behind Wallace’s car. It was a moving display of solidarity, a company-wide statement against racism in the sport, but the good feels wouldn’t last long. By Tuesday, just a day after NASCAR’s show of unity, FBI and Department of Justice officials announced that no federal crime had been committed. Evidence, including video authenticated by NASCAR, determined that the noose found in the stall had been there since at least October 2019, long before it was assigned to Wallace for the June race.
There was no time to be relieved, as Wallace was now forced to defend himself against accusations that it was either a hoax staged by him or that he and his team were too ignorant to recognize a garage pull. The backlash toward NASCAR got so intense that the company was forced to eventually publish a photo of the noose. “As you can see from the photo, the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba,” Steve Phelps told reporters during a telephone news conference.
Phelps noted that out of 1,684 garage stalls inspected by NASCAR across 29 tracks, only 11 pull-down ropes were found knotted. Of those 11, only one was tied into a noose, and it just so happened to be the one found in the stall of the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top circuit.
“Was it directed towards me? No. But was it a noose? Yes. Was it directed towards me? No. But was it a noose?” Wallace says emphatically. “People don’t want to listen to that second part.”
He and his team stop short of offering a theory about how it got there. David Cropps muses that some sort of “perfect storm” led to Wallace being assigned a stall with a noose, and NASCAR concluded its internal investigation on June 25.
We’ll likely never know who put the noose there, why that person felt compelled to tie it, how they learned to do such a thing in the first place. That’s just as well, I suppose, because the incident itself demonstrates something far more critical: that the awful history of that object looms so large in the American subconscious that someone in the very recent past looked at a rope hanging from a garage door, imagined a noose, and couldn’t resist tying it.
Wallace has been in a weird spot since noose-gate. The upside is he’s more recognizable than ever. He has a growing fan base, including many people new to NASCAR. The downside is there’s a target on his back now, and plenty of people are taking shots-including the president of the United States. “Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?” President Trump tweeted in July.
The racer’s official response was short and sweet. It read in part: “Love over hate every day. Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it’s HATE from the POTUS.” This emphasis on love and togetherness is more common from Wallace these days. However, it’s clear in the way he talks about the ordeal-how he says things and what he doesn’t say-that he’s still bothered by it.
What does it feel like to be on the other end of a presidential tweet in a not-positive way? I ask him.
“There are so many other things we could be worrying about in this world or in this country, but he wanted to take the time to send out his regards. And so be it,” Wallace says diplomatically. “I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m not even going to waste my time with this. Move on from it.’ “
He seems eager to put the whole ugly episode in his rearview, if he can. That last part is crucial. We’ve seen, after all, what happened to Colin Kaepernick. Unlike Kaep and the NFL, Wallace seems to have the backing of NASCAR right now. He also has a new personal partnership with Beats by Dre and has picked up a few additional sponsors, including Cash App. Nevertheless, he’s still the only one, the lone Black driver trying with every statement and every race to prove that he deserves to be there.
“When he wins his first race, it’s going to be ‘Darrell Wallace, Black NASCAR driver, wins the race.’ I think it’ll be cool once he is more established and can be just known as being a great race car driver,” says Amanda Carter, his girlfriend. “I think a lot of focus is on what he looks like or what he’s doing right now, which is great-he’s being vocal and using his platform and trying to make change. But I think he just wants to compete, right? Racing is everything to him. He just likes racing.”
Recent events suggest some NASCAR fans just don’t want to see him compete. He was booed loudly at an event in July, the first race with significant attendance since the noose incident. A number of fans made a point to show up in Confederate flag shirts, and cheers erupted when he crashed his car.
Of course Wallace knew that all of this was a possibility when he first decided to wear that “I can’t breathe” shirt in early June and was undeterred. He’s spent most of his life in racing and has seen the best and worst of the culture, including the ways it can be downright vicious to people who look like him. That he dared to speak out in the first place speaks to who he is as both a man and a competitor, and suggests it’ll take more than a few rebel flags to run him out of the sport he loves.
Because Bubba doesn’t scare easily. He’s a remarkable but mostly ordinary guy who did an extraordinary thing and just so happens to drive fast for a living. He’s not afraid to mix it up-even when he draws the ire of a sitting president and his millions of followers on Twitter-and always gets back on the track, no matter how banged up he gets. That’s who he is-who he’s always been.
“I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, not going to change a thing. Run better, that’s what I’m going to change, try to get some wins underneath us,” says Wallace. “Yeah, I think we just keep on digging and never give up.”
Donovan X. Ramsey is an Atlanta-based journalist who profiled Killer Mike in the August issue of GQ. His first book, ‘When Crack Was King: A People’s History of the Crack Epidemic,’ will be published next fall.
A version of this story originally appears in the September 2020 issue with the title “NASCAR’s Steady Hand”. PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Kennedi Carter
Location: Waters Edge Farm, Concord, North Carolina