As he recalled a story, Bubba Wallace struggled to remember what day he received a text message he wanted to share with the group. It came sometime after the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, he knew that for sure. Whether it was Wednesday or Thursday, though, he went back and forth.
The race was Wednesday night. The text was Thursday morning.
“My days are running together,” Wallace said Friday on a Zoom teleconference. “You can see how mentally taxing this is.”
As the only African American driver currently in the NASCAR Cup Series, the 26-year-old is a leader within the racing community amid ongoing discussions about social injustice. He called for the sanctioning body to ban confederate flags at events and properties, which it followed through on within days. He drove a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme this week in Virginia, where he finished a career-best 11th at the Virginia short track. And he wore a “I CAN’T BREATHE” T-shirt in honor of George Floyd on national TV during pre-race ceremonies, paired with an American flag face mask due to COVID-19 precautions.
Wallace put himself in the spotlight and it has admittedly placed a lot of weight on his shoulders – one he’s willing to bear.
“It’s part of the pedestal you sign up for,” Wallace said. “It doesn’t say that on the front page of the book of being an athlete or an icon in the sport. It doesn’t say that on the front page of what you have to go through. It’s just part of it. It’s in the fine print, the underline print there that you have to go through.
“When you sign up to become something, you’re signing up to become something larger than yourself. Represent something more than yourself.”
So now Wallace feels like he is balancing two jobs: race-car driver and social-injustice voice.
“I would say off the track is a lot busier, a lot more hectic,” said Wallace, driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. “Thankful for no practice or the three-day shows we’re used to because I’d be wiped out by practice time. So it’s good to kind of just stay focused on this throughout the week, but you definitely have to do a quick shift – a mind shift – going into the race. It’s challenging, but I’m learning every step of the way.”
Wallace is actually having his best season to date so far.
Through 11 races, Wallace is averaging a 20.1 finish, highlighted by two top-10 finishes. At this point last year, his finishing average was a 26.9. His rookie season saw a 20.6 average finish in the same amount of time, which albeit is close to his current stat line but featured a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 for padding.
Wallace has only had three finishes worse than 21st in 2020. At the same point in the season, he had nine in 2019 and five in 2018.
“As much as we talk about racing, you kind of get lost in the translation of what’s going on today, so it’s nice to talk about it a little bit,” Wallace said. “My guys have done a really good job. Everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports, ever since we were allowed back into the shops, they’ve been busting their tails to get our Camaros competitive and fast. … I’m proud of the efforts we’re doing on the race track, and I’m super thankful for what they’re doing off the race track to support me. From Richard Petty to Andy Murstein, everybody at RPM is standing behind me and believing in me on track and also following me through this journey off track and letting me find my way and find my voice in standing up for what’s right.”
Wallace is exhausted. Physically, the NASCAR Cup Series is facing its most demanding schedule as it makes up the eight races postponed during the COVID-19 outbreak with midweek events. Mentally, he’s speaking out more than ever to anyone who wants to talk about the current real-world issues. It’s, quite frankly, a lot for one person.
All it takes, though, is remembering why he feels the way he does to keep going.
“There’s a poster of a little girl that says, ‘Yes, we said Black Lives Matter. No, we did not say only black lives matter. We know that all lives matter,’ ” Wallace said. “But we’re trying to make (everyone) understand that black lives matter, too. Too. T-O-O. It’s the three letters left off people don’t understand. Black lives matter, too.”