Esports, NASCAR

How Wallace’s intervention shifts NASCAR’s racism debate

Apr 17 2020
By Jack Benyon

In the wake of Kyle Larson losing his Chip Ganassi Racing NASCAR Cup Series drive over his use of a racial slur during an iRacing event, the championship’s only current African-American driver Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr issued a remarkably open statement about his feelings over the controversy.

Wallace addressed NASCAR’s reputation among some as a ‘racist’ part of motorsport and his own conversations with Larson about his actions this week.

Wallace on NASCAR as ‘racist’

Darrell Bubba Wallace Jr NASCAR 2020

NASCAR is often judged by outsiders on its past, not present. Historically speaking some of the most militant opposition to African Americans came from the ‘Deep South’, where many of NASCAR’s drivers and fans used to originate.

The truth is since the 1990s NASCAR is fairly split in terms of the birthplace of its drivers across the states, and its fanbase has become much more diverse, too. That has distanced the championship from its roots.

“As the person that arguably has the biggest voice on this topic in our sport, it’s tough for me to speak because I didn’t imagine us being here” :: Bubba Wallace

Wallace defended NASCAR’s work in recent years and said “NASCAR has been, and will be way better than how we’ve been represented in the last couple of weeks”.

“The word [Larson used] brings terrible memories for people and families and brings them back to a time that WE as a community and human race have tried our hardest to get away from,” he continued.

“The sport has made combating this stereotype one of their top priorities. NASCAR has been doing what it can to get away from the ‘racist and redneck’ sports labels. Diversity and inclusion is a main priority for the sport across every team, every car, every crew member and every employee.

Darrell Bubba Wallace Jr

“With that said, it hurts to see the African American community immediately throw NASCAR under the bus with ‘I’m not shocked, it’s NASCAR’. NASCAR has been, and will be way better than how we’ve been represented in the last couple of weeks.

“As the person that arguably has the biggest voice on this topic in our sport, it’s tough for me to speak because I didn’t imagine us being here. Can we all do a better job with inclusion? Absolutely, it’s a worldwide problem, not just in our sport. We as a human can always do better.”

Wallace on his call with Larson

Wallace admitted that he has spoken to Larson since the incident, and said “he has to do better”, but also rallied for the driver to be given a second chance – although he didn’t specifically say if that should be with a return to the Cup Series.

“What Larson said was wrong, whether in private or in public,” Wallace continued. “There is no grey area. I saw the incident that night it happened and within five minutes Kyle texted me. He called me the next morning as well.

“Finally I called him back with a FaceTime to talk ‘face to face’, and we had a good conversation, his apology was sincere.

“His emotions and pride were shattered. We discussed why he chose to use that language and I shared my thoughts. I told him, it was too easy for him to use that word and that he has to do better and get it out of his vocabulary.

“There is no place for that word in this world.

“I am not mad at him, and I believe that he, along with most people, deserve second chances, and deserve space to improve. I do wish him and his family nothing but the best. And I am more than willing to work with him to address diversity and inclusion in our sport.”

Kyle Larson

Wallace on the social media outcry

Larson’s comment obviously drew interest from hoards of fans and non-NASCAR fans on Twitter. Some used the slur to attack NASCAR and link it back to the dark days of segregation in the ‘Deep South’. Others declared using the word a mistake, but not that big a deal because people use it in music videos and in common culture.

Some even claimed that if Wallace himself had said the word, he wouldn’t have got into any trouble or controversy over it. Wallace addressed that abrasively.

“Since Sunday I’ve constantly been reading my mentions and Twitter feed. Some comments I can agree with but most leave me baffled.

“Have I been the best ambassador at times? Absolutely not” :: Bubba Wallace

“As an athlete, we immediately become representative of something bigger than ourselves. This is something most people may not understand. We are ambassadors for our partners, our race teams, crews, families, and the sanctioning body. Every single person is affected.

“One question I get often is ‘what’s the worst part of being an athlete?’ I always reply with how we’re put on a pedestal. Everything we do, eat and say is under a microscope. But a ‘normal’ person can mostly do whatever they want. Some call it unfair? Sure, but that’s what we sign up for from day one.”

Wallace has himself been in the news in recent weeks after he ‘rage quit’ a NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race after Clint Bowyer crashed into him. In the aftermath, he lost a sponsor due to the incident.

“Have I been the best ambassador at times? Absolutely not,” Wallace added. “We’re not perfect, I am not perfect. We’re all human we make mistakes. Often given many chances. The part that irks me the most are the people that say ‘but if Bubba said it, nothing would happen’.

“Let me throw the rule book at you first: ‘As a NASCAR member we shall not make or cause a public statement or communication that criticises, ridicules or otherwise disparages another person’s race, coloraturas, creed national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition’.

“I AM A NASCAR MEMBER. I am damn proud too. I would expect and should be held to the same standard as any other members of the sport.

“I think everyone can learn something from what has happened these past few weeks. I am looking forward to getting the season back underway and continue our momentum.”

The Race says

What an ordeal. Two weeks ago if my commissioning editor had asked me to write a feature on how NASCAR has done more for diversity and racial inclusion than any other motorsport – especially given that it is effectively a national championship – I would have jumped at the chance. Ironically, Wallace and Larson – of Japanese-American descent – have both passed through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity programme, which helps support and educate drivers as they move up the ladder.

In recent years, the championship has done much to celebrate Wallace’s achievement in establishing himself as an African-American at the top of NASCAR. The exploits of African-American Wendell Scott (pictured below) have also been much discussed after a fantastic book by Brian Donovan in 2009 charted how Scott became NASCAR’s first black winner and the trials and tribulations he faced, his life often threatened by racists.

Wendell Scott Nascar 1973

And then, last weekend – with one word – Larson managed to undo a lot of that hard work and transport NASCAR back in time.

But NASCAR has come so far with its progress on this issue. Racism is not just a NASCAR issue, it’s a much wider societal one – and flashpoints in the years since the transition from Barack Obama’s presidency to Donald Trump’s have made that situation even more acute.

American politics aside, the ‘n’ word is still constantly being used in music videos and songs. Black soccer players are still constantly the victims of racial abuse in some European countries. As recently as 2014, recordings emerged of NBA team LA Clippers’ former owner Donald Sterling making racist comments despite the fact that the coach of the team and many of its players were black. That caused yet more distress among minority communities.

And coming back to motorsport, Formula 1 has Lewis Hamilton and has long been extremely diverse in terms of the nationalities of its drivers and personnel, but how many of the mechanics and engineers are from minorities? The answer is, not many. Even fewer when you start to move into other championships.

IndyCar for example. How many black drivers, team bosses, team owners, team personnel and journalists can you think of in IndyCar? The recent Uppity documentary on Netflix covered the story of Willy T Ribbs becoming the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in the early 1990s. The progress in three decades since then has been limited.

Willy T Ribbs IndyCar Netflix 2020

I think Wallace is right when he says that NASCAR has done a lot to improve inclusion and I don’t think Larson shouting that word on a live stream is a sign that every driver, fan, and NASCAR member is a racist. It’s very unfortunate that a series with NASCAR’s history – or at least its links to an area that historically has a very problematic record on racism – has been dragged into this whole debacle.

But then, some might argue my thoughts are tainted. Am I institutionalised? Is my approach to this matter tainted by the fact that the government of the country I live in (England) is dominated by white private school graduates? We have a responsibility to think about that.

Plenty of people have said that those who have backed Larson getting a second chance in motorsport are simply racists, who are vindicating the use of the word he used or not taking it seriously enough. Wallace is bang on when he says “I think everyone can learn something from what has happened these past few weeks”, we all have a responsibility to consider how we act affects the wider community and sometimes, the world.

Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500 Practice

NASCAR faces an extremely difficult decision when it comes to sanctioning Larson. If it’s too lenient then it will incur more bad PR and those linking it the racial slur back to stock car racing’s roots will succeed.

It also has to consider that not being lenient enough encourages that behaviour in society, so it has a wider responsibility beyond a sporting perspective.

Soccer’s seemingly insignificant action against racism is extremely frustrating in this regard, as it is one of the most watched sports in the world, influencing young people, and all tiers of society.

Personally, I don’t think Larson ought to get a second chance in the Cup Series. As harsh as it is that one word can end a career, this has massive implications. Unless racist football fans are banned for life from games, they will continue to be racist. Unless rappers stop using the ‘n’ word in music videos – justifying its use to some who listen – the word will continue to be used.

The penalties have to be severe, or the issue will continue to raise its ugly head. If NASCAR bans Larson, it sends out the clearest message possible – even if it is an incredibly harsh punishment for someone who comes from a minority background. But in that case, he of all people should have known better.

This isn’t a NASCAR issue, it’s a worldwide, society issue. Harsh sanctions may not stop this behaviour, but they will go a long way to reducing it. And as a human race we have a responsibility to do that in any way we can.

Darrell Bubba Wallace Jr

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