‘Surreal’ moment for Bubba Wallace at Diversity Awards after first win

Bubba Wallace Steve Phelps
Blair Brown
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bubba Wallace’s back hurt from kickball the night before, but his heart swelled with pride at Thursday’s 2021 NASCAR Diversity Awards ceremony at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

It’s been a whirlwind week for Wallace. After coming off his maiden NASCAR Cup Series victory Talladega Superspeedway on Monday, also the first for 23XI Racing, he had a late Monday night celebration, made virtual appearances on “CBS This Morning” and “Today” and played pitcher on the winning celebrity team in Corey LaJoie’s first annual Kickball Klassic Wednesday evening.

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Upon receiving the National Series Driver Award on behalf of the Drive for Diversity program, the 28-year-old driver was able to take some time to reflect. Seeming as though the victory was still sinking in, Wallace stopped short of tearing up during his acceptance speech. As the ceremony concluded, even NASCAR President Steve Phelps took a moment to hold back emotion while talking about what Wallace had achieved, sparking Wallace to yell out, “I’ll cry with you,” from the crowd.

“It’s kind of surreal sitting there being a part of the awards today,” Wallace told NASCAR.com. “I appreciate the award that I received. But I remember when I was a kid, sitting there watching other drivers come through. Crazy how life can chew you up, spit you out, but also mature you in the same way and make you appreciate these types of things.”

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Wallace had even more to be proud of as young protégé Rajah Caruth was also honored, joining Toni Breidinger in receiving the Development Series Driver Award. Wallace has gone from a kid hoping to make it to the top through the diversity initiative to being on top of the world this week. Caruth is now that same kid hoping for a similar chance.

“Man, I’m proud of Rajah,” Wallace said. “He had a hell of a run. It’s funny … I was sitting there after they called the race Sunday night (at Talladega). The ARCA (Menards Series) race from Salem (Speedway) was on. It was a re-run and I knew he finished third, but I was sitting there watching the race and I thought he did a really good job. It was kinda cool watching that going into our win on Monday.”

Caruth was the first Drive for Diversity driver to successfully transition from iRacing to real-life stock-car racing. Caruth has also done his fair share of winning, earning his first career late-model win last season at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. This year, Caruth won three additional races in the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series and progressed to full-time racing in the ARCA Menards Series East.

Next season, Caruth will compete in select NASCAR Xfinity Series races for Alpha Prime Racing. In doing so, he’ll become the first Drive for Diversity driver since Wallace to compete on the national series level.

Wallace has served as a mentor for Caruth in his rise up the ranks, handing down advice and some funding to further the progress. Earlier this year, Caruth shared that Wallace helped him during his first start at Dover International Speedway and even called him before a practice session at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Caruth doesn’t take for granted the time Wallace has taken out of his schedule to offer support.

“He’s been great to me” Caruth told NASCAR.com. “He paid for my helmet to get painted last year, helped me my first summer of legends cars. Really has paid dividends in helping me out in my development progress so far. … He’s been a great help to me and I’m really appreciative of him being there for me.”

While it took time, hard work, determination, mistakes and big breaks for Wallace along the way, he’s hoping the path he’s paved will speed up the process for the next generation.

“Takes a lot of hard work,” Wallace said. “It was 11 years ago when I was in his shoes, so I told them in there if they do things a little bit better, it might not be that long for them. Just gotta stick with it.”