In honor of Black History Month, Sports Illustrated is passing the pen to prominent Black voices across sports to reflect, re-examine legacies and share their stories and viewpoints on what lies ahead for the next generation of trailblazers.
“You’ll never be criticized by someone who’s doing more than you. You’ll always be criticized by someone doing less. Remember that.”
I came across these words from Denzel Washington during the week leading up to this year’s Daytona 500. Most people have a mantra in life that they live by, a simple yet profoundly powerful phrase that reminds them to keep moving forward or brings them peace. Right now, these are the words I live by as I move forward. Because you can’t get stuck in the past.
Throughout the last several years, I have battled with self-doubt, and it’s been compounded with the hate that has raged on social media and in our world. A quick flashback to June 21, 2020: A rainstorm forced NASCAR to delay the Geico 500 at Talladega that Sunday, and I was on my bus when I got the call from president Steve Phelps asking to come over. In tears, he recounted how a crew member discovered a noose in my garage.
As NASCAR launched an investigation and notified the FBI, I made some calls, including to my father. We had a strained relationship since my parents’ divorce in 2016. But he was worried about my safety, so he asked whether I owned a gun. When I said no, he said I needed to purchase one.
Jimmie Johnson called to check on me, and in a group message with all the drivers, he said that he planned to stand next to me for the national anthem. Others started echoing the sentiment. But come Monday, it was not just the drivers who walked next to and behind my car, guiding it to the front of the field—it was the entire garage. Even team owner Richard Petty, who had not been to a race since mid-March that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, came that day, showing solidarity.
It was really special for the whole garage and the whole sport of NASCAR to rally behind me because it showed the greatest sign of family and unity.
Despite it all, I felt safe. The next day it was something that, for me, I can kind of just put away now. A lot of people may think that it lives with me each and every day, and it's easy to think about. But it’s not like I sit there and dwell on it.
Since that day, changes have happened—slowly. There’s a full-time Black driver competing in the Xfinity Series, Jesse Iwuji, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, and it’s empowering to watch his journey to this moment. There were four actively involved Black team owners as well as one Latino in the Cup Series who fielded cars during Sunday’s Daytona 500. Jusan Hamilton became the first Black race director in Daytona 500 history.
I am still the only full-time Black NASCAR Cup Series driver. But to me, I am just another driver. I know where I stand. I know where I walk, and I can do those two things proudly and comfortably. It's not really a thing that I tend to talk about much, as I’ve been dealing with it for 19 years now.
It's easy for me to talk about, but at the same time, it’s kind of like a broken record. But then I see the other side of it—there isn’t an influx of African American drivers at the top level. And so it needs to be talked about because representation does matter. A lot of people look up to me so I'm going to carry both roles in a positive light.
We’re changing the face of NASCAR. I’m one of the leaders of that charge, on the forefront of those conversations and seeing what we could do as a sport to be better. When I’m gone and retired, hopefully there will be more minorities that are behind the wheel or on a race team in some capacity.
But there’s more to me and my legacy as an activist than simply being the only one.
I am a 28-year-old kid who was born in Mobile, Ala., and moved to Concord, N.C., when I was 2. I did not grow up racing but was indirectly involved in the sport, eventually participating when I was 9. It was fun, but I didn’t fall in love with it immediately and didn’t consider it as a career path until I was 16. However, I didn’t look at it as: I want to be a Cup champion. No, it was more: Life’s pretty good right now; let’s continue. One door opened, one door closed, another one opened up, and here we are at the Cup level.
I am a driver for 23XI Racing, the team owned by fellow Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan. Although “Bubba Wallace” became a household name for off-the-track success before my on-track triumphs, I now have a single Cup Series win to my name—Talladega in 2021 with this team. It was the start of something big for us.
This season is going to be an interesting one with the Next Gen car and with figuring out who I am as a driver. Everything is so new for the sport now so it’s gonna be a lot of self-training. But, life as a NASCAR driver is not all that it’s cracked up to be—along with the highs and the celebratory moments also comes hardships, ones that many people do not want to face. You are pulled here, there and everywhere, which results in the need to compartmentalize a lot of stuff.
I am an activist, and I know I have a platform with a lot of people following. But I still encourage people who don’t have a platform, who feel like they don’t have a voice, to still speak up and have those tough conversations with your peers or colleagues, your bosses—whoever it may be. Because at the end of the day, they may not agree with you, but they can respect you. And if they don’t respect you, then it’s not the place you need to be.
As I’ve spoken about before, I deal with depression. Music is my coping mechanism, finding something that brings back memories or just kind of is able to take me out of that zone for a little bit. I always tell myself that, Hey, tomorrow, it may not be better, but at least I’m gonna give it a shot and see. And if it’s not, then I tell myself the same thing, and it seems to get better as time goes on. Talking to people and surrounding yourself with the right people will help you get through those dark times.
Ask how someone is doing genuinely on the inside—it’s a question I wish I would be asked more often. Because that’s where people will either take the time to talk to you or not. It just kind of depends on how things are going. My answer would be that right now, I am in a good spot. I’m staying authentic, not changing for anyone. There’s no point changing because you are who you are.
I am Bubba Wallace—a son, a brother, a fiancé and a proud dog parent.
We’re all the same human beings. We’ve just got to understand people a little bit better and give people the benefit of the doubt. I feel like we’re really quick to judge, so the quicker we can let down that side of ourselves and not be so selfish, I think this world will start to look like a better place.