NASCAR & Auto Racing

Darrell Wallace Jr. embodies need for speed, steady progress in NASCAR

Think in contrasts when it comes to NASCAR driver Darrell Wallace Jr.

Wallace deals in speed for a living and is into clouds. Not the smoke clouds whipped up by a Pit Road peel-out, but the ones that float overhead. He says if you see clouds, you’ll see him looking up, trying to figure out the best photography angle.

Wallace also shoots time-lapse video. He has done short videos that feature a patient chronicling of things that happen slowly.

Yet, impatience on the track cost him this season, and there’s an impatience surrounding his progress up the NASCAR ranks.

That leads to this last contrast: Wallace fits the stereotypical profile of a NASCAR driver, with his North Carolina upbringing, affinity for Dale Earnhardts living and dead, an early talent behind the wheel, even the nickname “Bubba” . . . except that he’s also the first black driver to win a race in one of NASCAR’s main series in 50 years.

NASCAR’s present runs Sunday, when a champion will be crowned at the season-ending race in Homestead. Jimmie Johnson, winner of five consecutive series titles from 2006 to 2010, needs only to finish 23rd or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his sixth series championship.

But Friday's and Saturday’s races — the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR’s Nationwide Series — feature the sport’s future. While some Sprint Cup series drivers dip into the trucks or Nationwide series, those circuits often function as a proving ground for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup hopefuls. That group includes the 20-year-old Wallace, a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and truck series driver.

“I’ve been in barbershops in my hometown where people of color are always asking me when he’s going to be in the [Sprint] Cup series?” said ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty, also the co-owner of a Cup series team and a former NBA star.

Wallace’s truck series win in the Kroger 200 at the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last month clearly didn’t hurt that prospect.

“That win definitely helped in the exposure level that’s key to racing,” Wallace said.

That’s a reference to a fact that NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity can do only so much about, even as it’s the basic reason NASCAR desires driver diversity in an increasingly multicolored United States: money.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the color of green,” Daugherty said. “You or I can just pick up a basketball. Racing is cost-prohibitive. That’s what Darrell is facing now.”

Whatever the economic indicators say about the economy, NASCAR owners have said that for the past few years sponsorship money hasn’t flowed as freely as it once did to Sprint Cup teams. Most of the Nationwide and truck series teams, never flush in the best of times, are NASCAR’s version of the working poor.

Even in those series, sponsors like getting behind teams with drivers who have some name recognition. That makes it much more likely that photos will be taken of the car with the sponsor’s name and the TV coverage will show the car.

After the driver’s day is done, he or she probably would be interviewed about the race and inevitably would refer to the car by the sponsor’s name, as modern drivers know to do. Even in regular conversation. Wallace, in discussing his photography with the Miami Herald, didn’t speak generically of his camera but said, “Just doing stuff with my Canon 60D .. . I upgraded to a Canon 5D Mark III and started to do time-lapse . . .”

Said Daugherty: “I’m running a business here. I’ve got 60 to 80 employees trying to feed their families. I have to decide, what’s going to be the best for my company? At this time, that’s going with the proven commodity.”

Wallace ran in four Nationwide series races last year for Joe Gibbs Racing, finishing in the top 10 three times and taking the pole in the fourth. That show of promise didn’t earn him a Nationwide ride this year, but he did get into a Toyota Care-sponsored truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports for a full season. That made him the fourth black driver to run a full NASCAR season in one of the top three series.

Conscious of that and all that rode economically on his performances, Wallace said he tried too hard to run in the top five throughout races and lead the most laps, but too often he wound up not finishing.

“I learned this season to just relax and not put so much pressure on myself,” he said. “In the beginning of the season, I cost us a lot of track time and a lot of points, getting caught up in the moment. We’d be the fastest truck and the next thing you know, we were on the wrecker.”

The last time a black driver won a NASCAR race before Wallace, it involved a controversy that embodied where racing and race stood at the time. At the end of the 200-lap race at Jacksonville’s Speedway Park on Dec. 1, 1963, Buck Baker took the checkered flag, the trophy and the kiss from the race queen. Two hours later, officials declared Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first full-time black driver, hadn’t been credited with two laps he had run and was the actual winner (as Scott believed at race’s end).

Was there a legitimate scoring mistake? That’s certainly possible. Confusion over position and laps run were not uncommon in the days before electronic scoring. Just three years later, at the ultra-organized Indianapolis 500, Jimmy Clark drove toward Victory Lane only to find Graham Hill already there.

Or did officials intentionally delay the declaration of Scott as winner for reasons involving his race? The Birmingham, Ala., church bombings, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, lunch counter sit-ins, and civil-rights movement marches were current events. Over the years, a group that includes some of Scott’s children thought race officials didn’t want to see a black man get the glory of winning, including kissing the white race queen, especially in front of 5,000 race fans.

When Wallace won at Martinsville, NASCAR shot out a news release headlined, “Diversity Graduate Wallace Scores First NASCAR Camping World Truck Victory,” and including a statement from NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France:

“We congratulate Darrell Wallace Jr. on his first national series victory, one that will be remembered as a remarkable moment in our sport’s history. Darrell’s success, following fellow NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate Kyle Larson’s win earlier this season, is indicative of a youth and multicultural movement that bodes well for NASCAR’s future growth.”

Of course, where NASCAR concerned itself with little more than a region in Scott’s day, now it’s looking at drawing dollars from across an America with a biracial president and a University of Mississippi that just elected a black female student body president.

Daugherty said he thinks the atmosphere is right for a star driver of color (Larson is Japanese-American) or a female such as Danica Patrick to become favorites of the NASCAR fan base. He said the fans who object to him on ESPN’s NASCAR telecasts do so less because he’s stepping out of the black stereotype box than the fact that he’s stepping out of the basketball player box.

Those fans don’t know or ignore that the North Carolina-raised Daugherty is such a lifelong racing fan, he wore No. 43 as a college All-American and eight-season NBA player as a nod to his father’s favorite driver, NASCAR’s all-time wins leader, Richard Petty.

Like Daugherty, Wallace grew up in North Carolina, home base of many NASCAR operations (Scott was from Danville, Va., just across the state line from North Carolina). Wallace’s father, Darrell Sr., owned an industrial cleaning company. Desiree Wallace was a social worker.

“My dad bought a Harley-Davidson to ride around, I guess having a midlife crisis,” Wallace said. “The guy who fixed it up for him raced go-karts. Soon after, we were racing.”

Success karting and racing late-model stock cars showed Wallace’s potential — and stretched his parents’ funds. The expense of travel baseball or hockey pales in comparison to racing, where the main piece of equipment costs thousands of dollars.

Joe Gibbs Racing and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity, which puts minority or female drivers with potential with teams in some of NASCAR’s developmental series, noticed. The racing team owned by the Hall of Fame NFL coach signed Wallace as a developmental driver before the 2010 season.

Wallace won his first start in the NASCAR K&N Series East as a 16-year-old, becoming the youngest winner ever in the series. He finished second in the series that year, and won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award.

Wallace follows in the groove of Scott, Willy T. Ribbs (the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500) and Bill Lester as black drivers to race a full season in NASCAR.

His youth and talent put him in a position to slingshot not just past them, but also past most of his peers. He knows he’s in a role-model position, possibly attracting others who look like him into the sport.

“I just try to run up front and let everything else settle in place,” Wallace said. He knows that because of his presence, “Maybe the parents will get involved, the kids will want to see it and maybe 10 people will want to know about racing that didn’t before.”