There’s no denying the NASCAR community is a safer, more comfortable one for Darrell Wallace Jr. to chase his dreams in than it was even this time last year, let alone what it was like decades ago.
But make no mistake: NASCAR has a long way to go in weeding racism out of the sport, and making it feel unwelcome for those who still harbor hate for people who don’t look like them.
Wallace last season was instrumental in pushing NASCAR up the racial and social justice mountain, eventually getting some assistance. But it wasn’t easy: With then-United States President Donald Trump leading the charge, many NASCAR fans decried the infamous noose controversy as evidence of the sport cowtowing to an illegitimate movement. Obviously, some people just didn’t — and still don’t — want to see a Black guy succeed at venues where, until last summer, Confederate flags could freely wave.
The road ahead remains a perilous, dangerous one for Wallace, who this season faces the added pressure of driving for a team owned by Michael Jordan. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to him speak.
“I know you tend to get a lot of hate on social media or otherwise,” a reporter said to Wallace on Tuesday during pre-Daytona 500 media availability. “I’m wondering if the hate messages have ramped up with the news of this new team, and if it has crossed over into threats at all that make you fear for your safety when we do get fans back at the track?”
Wallace’s answer: “How about I just let you know when it ramps down?”
“It’s gonna be there every day, and it’s part of it.”
Added Wallace, pointing to his flexed bicep: “Makes me stronger.”
When asked again whether he is fearful of his safety this season, Wallace confidently answered, “Nah, I’m good with it.”
Whether Wallace, still the only Black full-time driver in NASCAR’s four national series, is putting on a front is anyone’s guess, and something only he knows. We’ll take his word for it, but dealing with something so offensive and tangibly dangerous must be more difficult than he makes it out to be.
(He acknowledged, in his maybe-joking-maybe-not kind of way, that the stress of the last year caused him to lose around 7 pounds.)
What is abundantly clear, however, is that Wallace — never deterred by nonsense and always with his eyes on the road — is the perfect person to lead NASCAR through a long-overdue reckoning of its own doing.
Understandably, Wallace hopes against hope that the public focus this season will be on his driving, and nothing more. He and 23XI Racing will kick off their inaugural campaign Feb. 14 when the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season begins at Daytona International Speedway.