Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

COMMENTARY: Bubba Wallace’s win a sign of looking forward — and back

Not long after Bubba Wallace got the call on his 23XI Racing team pit box that victory in the Talladega rain-soaked NASCAR Cup Series feature was his, the phone rang at Frank Scott’s house in Danville, Virginia. “I really felt like your dad was speaking to me in those final moments of the race,” Wallace told the third of Wendell Scott’s seven children, who was present for much of his father’s trailblazing stock car career.

“Bubba, he was talking to you,” Frank replied. “Do you know what he was saying?”

“No.”

“He was saying, Don’t worry. It’s gonna keep raining.”

In so many ways Wallace’s breakthrough at Talladega was the perfect storm. With it, he not only broke a 142-race winless streak that dates to his June 2017 Cup debut at Pocono, but the 28-year-old Mobile, Alabama, native became the first Black driver to register a Cup victory since Wendell Scott’s triumph at Jacksonville’s Speedway Park in 1963.

RELATED: Wallace dedicates win to kids with racing dreams

2021 Oct04 Bubba Wallace 3 Main Image
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

Frank’s son, Warrick, was at his father’s side for that epic telephone exchange and with him in front of the TV as the last laps of the YellaWood 500 ticked down. And weeks after that staggering result, the phone is still ringing. “It turned into a work responsibility,” Warrick said. “Been doing interviews, reading articles just to try and keep up, tweeting and Facebooking like crazy. You know, trying to run the race.”

Wallace’s historic ride in the No. 23 Toyota is as much a credit to his perseverance as it is to the pioneering efforts of Wendell Scott, whose bittersweet legacy as the Jackie Robinson of motorsports is still underappreciated somehow. He wasn’t just the first Black man to win a Cup Series race; he did it all. He raised the money and built the cars himself. What’s more, he primarily did this in the Jim Crow South. On a fair playing field, he surely would’ve registered more Cup victories than that one he nabbed in Jacksonville — which saw him battle it out with Richard Petty over the final 25 laps. But Scott didn’t get to bask in his accomplishment. While the prize went to second-place finisher Buck Baker in the end, Scott wouldn’t be officially credited with the victory for another two years.

After Scott’s passing in 1990 it took another decade before driver Bill Lester turned up in his wake. Then NASCAR launched Drive for Diversity, the now 17-year-old developmental onramp for young women and people of color. It was there, in 2010, that Wallace met the Scott family, learned of Wendell Scott’s legacy and picked up the torch. Seven years ago while driving in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, he paid tribute to the family by painting his truck in the colors of Scott’s car for the fall race at Martinsville and showed-out in style — grabbing the pole and the checkers as the family cheered him on from the pits.

As Wallace asserted himself as a force in the sport, things began to change. In 2015 Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Ahead of green flag at this year’s August Cup Series feature at Daytona, NASCAR President Steve Phelps presented Frank Scott with a custom trophy commemorating Wendell Scott’s Jacksonville victory, as Wallace joined the family on stage.

Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

When Wallace began his Cup career, it was hard not to seize on the significance of a Black man winning in The King’s Chevy. But the sight of the sport rallying around him and the No. 43 car at Talladega in 2020, in the wake of his brave stand against the Confederate flag, made for its own powerful picture of progress, too. What’s more, it made the bond between Wallace and the Scott family that much stronger.

“Having a connection to the family is awesome,” Wallace told me back in 2014, after that Martinsville win in Scott’s colors. “Wendell Jr. texts me nonstop, just keeping up with the races. The whole family has been very supportive. It’s been an honor to be so close with them and carry Wendell’s banner. To be the second winner since him or the first winner since Wendell Scott is huge. But at the same time it needs to be more than that.”

Yet for as groundbreaking as Wallace’s Cup victory at Talladega was, there remain some who are reluctant to give him due credit because the race was curtailed by rain. And to those skeptics Warrick Scott says simply, man, y’all don’t know racing.

“You gotta give him credit for his intellect, and his crew chief’s positioning,” he says. “It was rather strategic. If you put it in reverse and he finishes third or second or fourth, and another driver is making those steps to advance themselves because of the coming weather, the criticism would be if he had the right crew chief or right racing knowledge, then he would’ve known to bust his butt and get to the front of the pack because he maybe could win it. So you’ve got to give him credit.”

But for Scott, the thing that’s even cooler than Wallace bringing them along for the ride are the young Black drivers in the sport who are following in his wake now.

“I’m excited for Bubba, but I keep thinking about how excited I am for Rajah Caruth and Lavar Scott,” Warrick said of the two Drive for Diversity prospects who are already winning in late models. “In the near future we’ll be seeing a NASCAR race start, and Bubba won’t be the only African-American driver in the field. It could happen as early as next year. What if Bubba jumps down and does an Xfinity race, the same race that Rajah and Jesse Iwuji are in? Just like that. From Wendell Scott being inducted into the Hall of Fame to that watershed moment at Talladega.”

It just goes to show: There’s little moving forward without really taking the time to look back.

Andrew Lawrence is a freelance contributor at Car and Driver, The Guardian, Men’s Health and elsewhere. Formerly, he was the NASCAR beat writer at Sports Illustrated.