From Michael Jordan to McDonalds, Bubba Wallace’s rise through the NASCAR ranks has attracted endless support. The 23XI driver speaks to Rich Kleiman about his success and the path he hopes to pave for the next generation.
Bubba Wallace began blowing past the competition as soon as he stepped onto a race track. However, his ascent has not always been smooth.
As one of the only African American drivers in the history of a sport that was marked by the omnipresence of Confederate flags, Wallace has confronted racism head-on as he has risen through the sport’s ranks.
On this week’s Out of Office podcast, the NASCAR sensation speaks about his path to success, the team that makes it possible for him to thrive on and off the track, and how he has stayed true to himself in his quest to build a lasting legacy.
Growing Up Wallace
Wallace grew up in Alabama and North Carolina, but his Zoom background reveals that he bleeds orange. His mom went to the University of Tennessee where she ran track, accounting for half of Wallace’s athletic genes.
Unlike most children growing up in Charlotte, the home of NASCAR, the sport wasn’t top of mind for a young Wallace.
“I grew up 15 minutes from the racetrack and didn’t even care for it until I was at the truck level really. [All of the sudden] it was like, ‘holy cow, I’m doing this.’ Yeah, we’re doing it,” he said.
But once he had the bug, Wallace made the most of every opportunity. He found the hard work exhilarating and took satisfaction from the progress in his performance.
“It’s just the thrill of figuring out how to be better,” Wallace said. “The next thing you know you’re here at the cup level and it’s, like, “Well, dang, I didn’t really have that it in mind, but it just, kinda, all happened. And, you know, for me it was always about making the most of every opportunity.”
Quickly, all eyes were on the young Wallace and his seemingly unlimited potential.
As he rose through the ranks, nothing could have prepared Wallace for his first race. It was not lost on him that he had been racing the Saturday event just a few weeks earlier. Suddenly, he was surrounded by the greats.
“That was my first car back at Pocono and knowing all the hype that was around racing against Jimmie Johnson,” he said. “I came on the radio and I was, like, “Dang, I’m racing against the seven-time champ.”
But even before that first race, all eyes were on Wallace. Although he had been the only Black driver in the lower levels of the sport, there were new expectations waiting for him at the top.
He acknowledges the few Black drivers who came before him. He met the son of Wendell Scott in his early days on the circuit, which he credits with expediting his own learning process and exposing the roots of the sport.
“[I took the time to] talk with the family and get to grow with them, and understand what their father’s legacy was, and his passion behind motorsports. I’m so proud to be carrying that torch.”
That torch carried him right into the victory lap. Late last year, Wallace became the first Black driver since Scott in 1963 to win a NASCAR Cup race.
The Business of Bubba
Ascending the ranks proved to be the easier part for Wallace. Despite his early success on the track, he struggled to get the sponsorships that many believed he deserved.
“I was always trying to be different, and just be fun, and not just your average cookie-cutter NASCAR driver, you know?” he said. “I was just always out there, balls to the walls, having fun. I thought that would attract sponsors, and we were producing results. It was frustrating to go through those times…And they always said, you know, You win one, the sponsors will come.’ Well, I won about five or six and the sponsors never came.”
Until they did. These days, Wallace has a deep portfolio, starting with his affiliation with Michael Jordan‘s 23XI Racing.
“Having MJ there is super cool, and I’m just very appreciative of it all,” he said. “You definitely don’t take it for granted. Makes you appreciate those harder years, because you get to enjoy these years right here.”
He also has deals with McDonalds — which is stepping up as his team’s primary sponsor this year — Door Dash, Dr. Pepper, Root Insurance, Columbia, Leidos, Toyota, and DraftKings. Each sponsor aligns with some aspect of Wallace’s life.
As his career took off, Wallace began to assemble a strategy for the business opportunities that came with it. Although he saw some of his peers serve as their own representation, this was never an option that he considered. “Dude, I can’t even read a 10-page book. I get bored. I’m not gonna read through a 100-page contract,” he joked.
Much like his trusted pit crew, he cites the importance of his business team in making things tick, acknowledging that “there’s definitely a lot of moving parts to make the money.”
Collectively, Wallace has gotten to a place in his career where he is excited to truly knit together life on and off the track. He acknowledges that he’s one of the top representatives of NASCAR, and sees a responsibility in creating an image and a legacy that runs parallel to his success.
“It’s the athlete in me coming out and being like, ‘I want to be better and do better,'” he said. “And so it takes a lot of hard work for me and my team, but I’m looking forward to it.”
And as he sees it, he’s doing it for the next generation who will stand on his shoulders of greatness.