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Feature
Third Place
Kris Johnson, NASCAR Illustrated

Black In NASCAR
Darrell Wallace Jr. And Other African-Americans In NASCAR Are Racing Against History

 

Darrell Wallace Jr. looks less like a pioneer for social progress and more like a typical teenager lounging in the No. 54 Kyle Busch Motorsports transporter. But the 19-year-old’s race is as much a focal point as his racing in the Truck Series.

Wallace is only the fourth black driver in NASCAR’s 65-year history to compete full time in one of its three major touring series. Has the time come for an African-American driver to succeed in stock-car racing?
Maybe. But there are other questions accompanying Wallace’s rise. What’s the experience like for contemporary black participants in this historically white sport? Will urban business leaders take the sponsorship plunge in the future? How pervasive is racism in modern-day NASCAR?

Wallace’s father, Darrell Sr., who is white, told him years ago he would hear the N-word until the day he dies.

“It’s OK. I’ve had 10 years of practice,” the younger Wallace reflected nearly a decade later. “I’ll be all right. More practice, I’ll be even better.”

Wallace’s mother, Desiree, who is black, told him the best way to combat bigotry is simply to win.

“That’s the only thing you can do. If I go over there and confront them, who’s gonna look like the jackass? Me or him? So it’s better just to go out there and beat them again and maybe again and again,” Wallace said.

Has he encountered that in NASCAR so far?  

“Not unless they’re saying it behind my back,” he said. “I haven’t experienced it yet this year.”

One thing seems sure: If it does happen, Wallace won’t be engaging in anything other than falling back on his mother’s advice: Just win.

“You won’t see me retaliate, it’ll be other people that will do it,” Wallace said. “Not that I’m telling them [to], just because they’re taking up for me. It could be crew members. I trust in them and they trust in me. It takes a lot to get me excited and worked up. That is a lot, but like I said, if I confront them I’m gonna be the bigger jackass because I’m gonna have more cameras on me. Because they’re gonna wonder, ‘What’s he gonna do?’

“And when I do something,” Wallace said with a snap of his fingers, “I’m done.”

While Wallace hasn’t experienced overt displays of racism competing in a major NASCAR touring series, the same cannot be said for Anwar Parrish.

Parrish, currently working for BK Racing in the Cup Series, has heard slurs on multiple occasions during his time in the sport. A graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity pit crew athlete program, he started working at the Cup level in 2008 and has had stints at Furniture Row Racing and Front Row Motorsports. Parrish said he came into the sport with his eyes wide open.

“It’s just like somebody who moves to Florida, they’re gonna get hurricane insurance,” Parrish said. “When it does happen, and it doesn’t happen all the time, but when they do it’s in the garage or when I’m walking to the van. I might be in somebody’s way coming through traffic, somebody might scream out the window.”

So, just to be sure, we’re talking about the N-word?

“Yes,” Parrish said. “Even just in common conversations with my peers. Like I said, I came into this sport knowing that. I was prepared for it, but sometimes it shocks me when certain people do certain things because I have certain expectations of them. I don’t put anything above anybody because we’re humans. That’s just the way it is. I know racist black people. It’s all around us.”

Racial barriers may be receding, but they are far from gone. That was the lesson Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements learned earlier this year when his off-handed use of the N-word spurred a national story the sport didn’t want and earned Clements a two-week suspension from NASCAR. His use of the epithet — uttered in earshot of an MTV reporter — wasn’t directed toward anyone in particular but everyone learned of it in due time.  

NASCAR required Clements to meet with Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports and the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, before he was reinstated.

“He was here for four hours of intense conversation, about an hour with me and then three hours with our team,” Lapchick said. “I think that NASCAR is really the only league that has done that type of training as well for an individual.”

It wasn’t the first time that Lapchick had provided that type of counsel (for more on his work with NASCAR, see sidebar on page 70).

“There was a crew chief who I’m not at liberty to name because of his confidentiality [agreement] who had an issue a couple years before that.”

Sports serve as a microcosm of society, but when the sport in question is deeply rooted in the South, things can be skewed more in black and white terms. There’s no denying the history. It’s a question now of whether racial progress has reached a point where it can coexist with Confederate flags that still fly in places such as Talladega and Darlington.

“Man, I’ve been around this sport since I was a little boy,” team owner Brad Daugherty said. “Obviously it being a Southern-based, Southern-bred sport, the sport had a long way to come. I think it’s gotten there incrementally. …

“I think it has become better. I think people are more aware. I hear a lot more people in that garage area use the term ‘African-American’ than I’ve ever heard in my life. It used to be ‘black’. Before that it was ‘colored.’ ”

Daugherty, 47, has a unique perspective because it cuts across three parts of the participant spectrum: team owner, ESPN analyst and part-time driver. For now, the former NBA star remains the most recognizable African-American in NASCAR. 

“I hope to see more prominent faces,” Daugherty said. “I take it very seriously and I try to represent myself in a manner that makes anybody who knew me or knows me proud. I work very hard and have a lot of fun. I don’t take myself too seriously but I do take the mission very seriously.

“I just hope to have some type of impact and maybe pave the way for another guy to give it a shot.”

Former NFL All-Pro wide receiver Terance Mathis has been involved in NASCAR for nearly a decade and (like Daugherty) said that he’d never been directly confronted by racism.

“I have not. I was very shocked by that. I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “That’s the stereotype about NASCAR, that it’s a racist sport. It’s a different era now. I don’t know how we’re going to get that stereotype away from it. It’s not like these guys are getting out of the cars and spitting tobacco.”

Mathis, who formed Victory Motorsports in 2005 and served as vice president of marketing at Leavine Family Racing to begin this season, has noticed a marked change in the hue of NASCAR’s garage area. But he worries about the persistence of that old-school perception.
  
“When I first got into it, I would walk around and count how many black people were in the garage,” Mathis said. “The challenge of getting business leaders in the urban community to overcome old perceptions about NASCAR is still there. What I try to convey to them is NASCAR fans are the most loyal fans in America, period. Come to the track and see how this works and open your eyes to the possibilities.

“At the end of the day, they just won’t pull the trigger.”

Daugherty has also struggled to gain traction in his conversations with black business leaders. One African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company told him in recent years, “I still can’t get past the NASCAR thing.”

“I said, ‘Well, what’s the NASCAR thing?’ It’s still just a bunch of good old boys racing.’ ”

“Because of that conversation,” Daugherty added, “It makes it hard to do business with those people.”

The absence of a leading black driver at the Cup level makes that challenge even greater. Daugherty and Mathis both believe Wallace is poised to fill that void.

“I think we’re very, very close,” Mathis said. “I’d give it the next five years. You have to understand, for me, I would like to see it in the next five years because you know once it does happen, it’s just gonna open doors for the sport. Darrell Wallace Jr. is very close to breaking through.
“I think now it’s time for a fresh face in NASCAR.”

Wallace is the rare black driver with real racing pedigree and proven accomplishments at such a young age. After establishing himself as a repeat winner in Bandolero, Legends and late models, he signed with Joe Gibbs Racing as a development driver in 2009. He joined NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program in 2010 and became the first African-American to win in the K&N Pro Series East. Wallace, who ended that season as series rookie of the year, captured six victories and three poles in his first 24 K&N starts. Last season, he tested the Nationwide Series waters and produced three top-10 finishes and one pole in four starts.

With the funding to complete a full Truck Series schedule this year and with the backing of a major player in Gibbs, all the pieces appear to be falling into place for Wallace’s ascent to Cup. That is contingent, of course, on sponsorship dollars. With the help of Fuel Sports Management Group, Wallace and Joe Gibbs have traveled to New York City to deliver presentations for prospective sponsors that were minority owned. 
 
“I think we’ll wind up with a couple of people in there and a couple of corporations are going to wind up helping us,” Gibbs said. “I thought they were beneficial. Darrell does a great job getting up in front and talking to people. He’s natural, he doesn’t worry about things and I think he represents himself great.”  

For his part, Wallace both acknowledged and welcomed the gravity of trying to become NASCAR’s version of Tiger Woods. He’s able to compartmentalize his driving responsibility while embracing the possibility of being a role model and doing something culturally significant.  

“There’s definitely some weight there of carrying the torch further and further. But I try to do my best to kind of set that weight down but still carry it at the same time but focus on what I need to focus on to help pave that way,” Wallace said.

The person to figuratively pass the torch to Wallace was Bill Lester. Two days after becoming just the sixth African-American driver to start a Cup race, in 2006, Lester was asked by phone whether or not he felt like a symbol of social change as someone who was helping to create new acceptance in NASCAR.

“I’ve been thrust into that position but that’s nothing that I signed up for,” he said. “But it’s essentially [something] that goes along with the territory. It’s a responsibility that I understand I now pretty much have to hold, so I accept it.”

Lester, who finished 38th in that historic race at Atlanta, came home 32nd in his only other Cup start at Michigan. He ran a handful of full-time seasons in the Truck Series, never winning a race and posting a best finish of 14th in the standings in 2003. 

Now, a full decade later, it’s Wallace next to attempt what no black driver has managed to do: win championships at the sport’s highest level. (Wendell Scott, of course, won a race in what is now the Cup Series, the 1963 Jacksonville 200.)

Wallace was asked whether he can imagine a world where his story as a black driver won’t be a story at all — and whether we’ll get there in the time frame of his career. After a pause or two from the transporter’s sofa, his soft-spoken voice was made to be heard again.   

“That’d be cool, real cool,” Wallace said. “Kind of turn the tables, you know? There’s a new white kid coming into the sport.”

A Case Study In Determination For Diversity

Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder and director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the Univ. of Central Florida, is often described as the “racial conscience of sport.”

NASCAR has done more than any other entity in diversity training through the Teamwork Leadership Institute, according to Lapchick. That includes spending more than $500,000 on it the last six years.

“When I first met [NASCAR Chairman and CEO] Brian France back in the late 1990s, and he said he wants NASCAR to look more like America, he had much further to go to accomplish that goal than the NBA would have had in 1997 or the NFL, Major League Baseball or Major League Soccer,” Lapchick said. “Both in terms of participants, front office staff and fans, so I think that that type of commitment of doing more than anybody else is a result of Brian France’s commitment to kind of catch up to the other leagues.”

NASCAR ILLUSTRATED: How would you assess NASCAR’s involvement compared to other leagues and college athletic departments? 

RICHARD LAPCHICK: “They have done more diversity training than any other professional sport, league and/or teams. We’ve done the entire NBA, all of Major League Soccer, but in those cases we did it once. … The only one that’s done it six times has been NASCAR.” 

NI: What does the training consist of, and is it an annual thing, something that’s revisited each year?

LAPCHICK: “Yes, and of course they change the format each year but it’s mainly to open a dialogue where we’re getting this with people in the organization who sometimes don’t have a chance to talk about some of these sensitive issues. We try to create a safe environment where the discussions can take place. We do a lot of ice-breaking exercises, use video and we break into smaller groups and try to make it as interactive as possible [for] the biggest impact.”

NI: NASCAR is usually not shy about promoting the good things it does. Why do you think it took a lower-key approach with its diversity efforts?

LAPCHICK: “I think that it’s a statement really of their commitment to it. They have been occasionally stereotyped in media and by people about who their fan base is and who they’re catering to. So it would have been an easy thing for them to do and we would have helped them publicize what they were doing with the diversity training because it would have frankly been good for their image. But I think it’s even better as a statement internally to the organization that Brian France didn’t care about that. He just wanted things to get better.”

NI: How long will it take for us as a society for the story of a black driver not to be a story at all? How far away are we from that being a reality?

LAPCHICK: “There are good, promising young drivers out there. And I think giving them the opportunity that NASCAR has been giving them the past couple of years will hasten the time that we’ll have those types of breakthroughs. But I think we’re decades away from a time when it won’t be noticed that there are a handful or however many people of color driving cars or in the garage. … The vision you’re creating is far down the road.”