Bubba did it.
Last week, Bubba Wallace became the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race in a staggering 57 years. Not since Wendell Scott won in Jacksonville—a race that he was only declared the winner of hours after the crowd had left the track—has a Black driver stood on Victory Lane in NASCAR’s top series.
Much has already been written in praise of Bubba’s achievement. All of it is well deserved. And as a fellow Black professional driver (one of very few on the planet) I can relate to much of what Bubba has had to go through to get this win. Most of you will recognize this monumental achievement and celebrate it along with me.
This post is not for you.
This post is for anyone who doesn’t get what this achievement means or why we need to celebrate it. It’s for those whose first response to any post whose headline mentions Wallace’s race is, “Why does a driver’s race matter?” It matters. Quite a lot actually.
It matters when, in the 73-year history of NASCAR, there have only been two Black drivers to have ever won a race.
It matters when, during that same time period, there has been less than a handful of Black drivers to compete at the Cup level and only slightly more at any level in any NASCAR series.
It matters when a portion of the crowd boos whenever the only Black driver currently competing takes the lead in a race.
It matters when his critics said that the only reason Wallace had a seat in NASCAR was that he was Black.
That’s why I’m writing this. I would love nothing more than to not have to write this because a minority driver winning in NASCAR is such a common occurrence that it’s a nonevent. But it’s not. In fact, it’s so uncommon that the last time a Black driver won in NASCAR, Neil Armstrong still hadn’t strolled on the moon.
Last summer, and pushed by the tragic killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the wider conversations that ensued about race in America, I wrote that I wanted to push harder for diversity in all of motorsports and car culture. Though Black people in America make up about 13 percent of the population, 80 percent of Black households own a car, and Black car culture is a rich and fascinating thing, we’re still sorely underrepresented in racing, media, high-profile positions at car companies, and more. It’s not just puzzling—it’s full of so many missed opportunities for talented people to make an impact on racing and wider car culture. Plus, article after article has been published over the past few years on NASCAR’s decline in ratings. This decline means that its current market is saturated and with no real room for growth. Expanding diversity within the sport potentially gives the series a whole new market (with associated sponsors) to tap into. More money is never a bad thing, is it?
And it’s not as if this lack of diversity is limited to the “good ol’ boys” in NASCAR. Formula One, Indy Car, SCCA, IMSA, SRO, and pretty much every FIA Championship series have this exact same issue with diversity as well. Lewis Hamilton may be the greatest racing driver in the world, but he’s also one guy. Few, if any, of these series have any significant level of minority participation in any aspect of the sport. Drivers, engineers, mechanics, and crew are all positions mainly filled by white men. (And yes, this problem isn’t any better for women.)
Now here comes the tricky part. The next mental jump most people who want to debate this subject with me make is that I am saying that these sports—and by extension, the people in them—are somehow racist because of the lack of diversity. It’s a worn-out argument that completely hijacks the conversation. And is also completely false. It is entirely possible to have a lack of diversity with entirely non-racist, well-meaning people.
Motorsports is very much a generational sport. When you ask most drivers or crew how they got involved in racing, chances are they’ll tell you that their dad or uncle raced. And as minorities and women have been historically excluded from racing, it makes it difficult to pass down the interest (and access and money) for the sport to the next generation.
The paddock today is actually a very welcoming place. However, because a lot of minorities don’t have enough role models in the sport, they don’t have anything to tether their interests to. Which makes it seem as if minorities only really have an interest in ball sports.
But think about it: Jackie Robinson broke into the majors in 1947, less than 20 years prior to the year Wendell Scott won his only NASCAR race. In the interim years between the two events, dozens of Black players were accepted into MLB, giving a whole generation of Black kids role models to aspire to emulate. Baseball players, not racecar drivers, were what Black kids of the day wanted to grow up to be. Fast forward to today and see the numbers of Black MLB players versus Black NASCAR drivers.
Cause and effect.
Now for the good news. Wallace won, and now young kids of all races have a great role model to look up to and be inspired by. Combine that with the big push by almost every motorsports series on the planet to increase minority participation, and you’ve got something. In fact, you’re onto something big now.
In F1, Hamilton is not only leading the push for diversity on a global scale but he’s putting his money where his mouth is by funding a push to hire Black teachers to teach STEM subjects. FIA has its Women in Motorsports foundation that is helping to place women in key positions in motorsports as drivers, engineers, and team owners. On the home front, I have spent this season working directly with Greg Gill, CEO of the SRO World Challenge Championship, on a diversity program to help minority engineers, mechanics, and crew get opportunities in the SRO paddock (more news on the 2022 program coming soon.) And finally, IMSA just announced the 10 finalists for its diversity driver program, with an incredibly talented field of drivers—most of whom you likely haven’t heard of. You will very soon. Motorsports are legitimately better when everyone can get involved.
And this. This is the reason why Wallace’s win matters. He is, and will continue to be, a role model for a generation of kids that never knew that they to could be a part of the motorsports paddock. So realize that while Wallace’s race might not be a big deal to you, it is a big deal to millions of kids around the world—one of whom may be the next Bubba Wallace or Lewis Hamilton themselves.
Robb Holland is an American race car driver and automotive journalist. He has competed in the British Touring Car Championship, Pikes Peak, the World Touring Car Championships and more.
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