Bubba Wallace bears weight of leading NASCAR through this moment in history

Bubba Wallace (43) wears a "I Can't Breath, Black Lives Matter" shirt before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Hampton, Ga. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

There’s an undue burden that falls on the shoulders of those trying to steer the world towards a better future. Their lives do not stop. The pursuit of change is added to the dreams, passions and responsibilities that were there before.

In the days since Bubba Wallace called on NASCAR to ban confederate flags from its events — a call which NASCAR heard on Wednesday, outlawing the flag — the gravity of being a torch-bearer for change has pressed down on him.

“It’s definitely been a lot, it’s mentally taxing,” Wallace told reporters during a Zoom interview on Friday. “It’s that part of the pedestal that you sign up for. It doesn’t say that on the front page of the book of being an athlete or an icon in the sport. …It’s in the fine print and the underlying print there that you have to go through and you know, when you sign up to become something, you’re signing up to become something larger than yourself.

“…I’m learning how to manage that along with the racing side of things. So on-track things, I have to manage that, as well as manage what’s going on off the track. And then I would say off the track is a lot more busy, a lot more hectic. …You definitely got to do a quick shift, a mind shift going into the race. So it’s challenging, but I’m learning every step of the way.”

Though he may still be learning how to balance advocating for change with professional racing, it’s no small feat that Wallace’s call for the Confederate flag to be banned is already going into effect.

The first time NASCAR attempted to dissuade its fans from hoisting the Confederate flag at events was in July 2015. Back then, America was mourning the senseless death of Black people. A white gunman had opened fire at a historic Black church in downtown Charleston, S.C., leaving nine people dead. Photos of that gunman posing with the Confederate flag later circulated online. By December 2016 he was convicted of 33 federal hate crime and murder charges, by January 2017 he was sentenced to death.

“We are asking our fans and partners to join us in a renewed effort to create an all-inclusive, even more welcoming atmosphere for all who attend our events,” a joint statement from NASCAR officials said at the time. “This will include the request to refrain from displaying the Confederate flag at our facilities and NASCAR events.”

Many fans within NASCAR’s predominantly white Southern fan base ignored the request, with some on record calling it part of their “heritage” and others describing it as a “Southern thing that we can rally around.” The heritage refrain is one Wallace has heard before.

“Yeah, to you, it may see seem like it’s heritage but others see hate,” he said. “And I don’t understand why it’s so hard for us. We’re selfish. We are a selfish nation. But we need to come together and meet in the middle and be like, you know what, if this bothers you, I don’t mind taking it down. I’m not saying go to your house and get rid of everything you have. It’s just at a sporting event, a public event where all walks of life are welcome. Let’s just get rid of it.”

Driver "Bubba" Wallace waits for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series auto race
Driver “Bubba” Wallace waits for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Martinsville, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

Wallace acknowledged last week during a conversation with CNN’s Don Lemon that he himself was not bothered by the Confederate flags he would see in the stands — before he fully understood the breadth of history and symbolism coursing through that emblem. He was concerned with chasing checkered flags, not what waved in the wind outside the track.

So, history. Recognizing the Confederate flag as having ties to racism belies how intertwined it is with slavery. When South Carolina seceded from the United States in 1860 to join the Confederate Union before the civil war, it issued a declaration justifying the decision. The reasons, it explained, were due to the “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery,” and the election of a president, Abraham Lincoln, who believed “that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

These ideas are what that flag was a banner for.

The flag’s presence at NASCAR races was especially challenging given the sport’s own history, too. In its 72 years of competition, only one Black driver, Wendell Scott, has won a race at NASCAR’s top level. To the sport’s credit, NASCAR made efforts to make the sport itself more inclusive in 2004 with a Drive for Diversity program that sought to develop non-white and female drivers and crew members. Wallace himself is a product of that program.

But only now, amid worldwide protests calling for racial justice and Wallace’s advocacy for change, has NASCAR adopted a firm stance on trying to make the sport inclusive from the stands down to the track. It is surely possible that some Confederate flag-waving NASCAR fans can trace their family lineage to its moment in American history. Two things can be true at once, though. The Confederate flag can be a symbol of heritage, and that heritage can be unforgivably hateful and have no place at public events.

“It’s not something that we’re trying to take out of your daily life,” Wallace said. “What I want is people to not feel uncomfortable. The first thing they talk about is feeling uncomfortable because of something that reminds them of a negative past and has so much negative history behind it.”

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

History may not repeat, but it often rhymes. Sometimes in hideous ways. Five years after the tragedy in Charleston, America is mourning the senseless death of Black people once more.

This time it is the death of George Floyd, who was killed after a white police officer pinned him down and knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes; of Breonna Taylor, who died in her apartment after police — executing a “no-knock” search warrant — used a battering ram to enter her apartment and, following a brief confrontation, fired several shots, striking her at least eight times; of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot by armed white residents of a South Georgia neighborhood; of the countless others whose final moments were not captured on video.

Their names have become rallying cries at protests across the United States, demanding justice, demanding change, demanding that the world recognize that black lives matter. Wallace has seen how often that phrase is misconstrued and met with an “all lives matter” rebuke. He’s reminded of a sign he saw a little girl holding once that added three simple letters to the end of the phrase, “Black Lives Matter too.”

“We know that all lives matter,” Wallace said. “But we are trying to make y’all understand that Black lives matter too. Too, t-o-o, it’s three letters that were left off that people don’t understand. Black lives matter too. You know, families are worried about their kids going out driving for the first time getting pulled over being killed. …We shouldn’t live like that, and the African-American community should not live like that. And so we’re trying to get other people to understand just how tough it is to live in this world.”

As for where NASCAR goes from here, Wallace isn’t sure. After a global pandemic, financial collapse, the brief appearance of murder hornets in North America and now a long overdue racial justice movement, who among us can say with absolute confidence they know where 2020 is headed next?

What Wallace does know is he wants to see some semblance of normal return to NASCAR events. That day may be coming soon. Earlier this week, NASCAR decided a limited number of fans will be able to attend races this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, with health-focused precautions in place.

Accompanying that possibility for Wallace is the hope that “normal” for NASCAR may now mean more diversity in the stands. But Wallace also knows that his old personal normal is likely gone. No longer will he be able to spend carefree time in the infield with fans as he did in the past. That is the price of being a change-maker.

“I got to be careful what I do,” Wallace said. “That’s kind of the sad world we live in. My dad texted me and he was proud of what I was doing off the racetrack but he was worried about my safety, you know going out in public and whatnot, so just crazy you have to think about that side of things.”

If that’s the price that comes for constructing a different future, Wallace can accept it because change is needed. The racial transgressions he remembers suffering were often verbal, people insinuating that there is no way for him, a Black man, to be driving a nice car legally, for example. But they left a mark all the same. So too did the times his fame and his name got him out of a situation where a lesser-known man may have faced a different outcome.

“We should all be treated equally,” Wallace said. “No matter who you are, what profession you have …But that’s just not how the system works, and the system is so broken …there’s a lot we have to do to change that, you know, that’s not going to change overnight. We’ve been trying to change that for many, many years. So taking it one step, you know, one step at a time, step by step, brick by brick, and building up a new image for the world.”

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