The historical and social significance of his move to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing is not lost on Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who was announced on Wednesday as the driver of the iconic No. 43 car fielded by Richard Petty Motorsports.
Wallace will be the first African-American driver to compete fulltime at NASCAR’s highest level since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott posted the final four of his 147 career top 10s in 1971.
Does that add pressure to Wallace’s ascendance to the Monster Energy Series level? The simple answer is “Yes.”
“There’ve been a lot of people who’ve come up through the ranks and tried to carry on the legacy that Wendell Scott had laid down for us, and for me to step in that realm and take on that role is a lot of pressure,” acknowledged Wallace, a product of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next programs.
“But we’re going to go out there and continue to do what we do on and off the race track, and that’s to represent the brand of myself and (team co-owner) Richard Petty and his image the best way I can and continue to grow together.”
For Petty, the question of race was of little consequence in his decision to hire Wallace, who got the seven-time champion’s attention when he substituted for injured Aric Almirola for four races this past summer. Wallace improved with each outing, posting a best finish of 11th at Kentucky in July.
“That was the least of my considerations,” Petty said of the social aspect of Wallace’s hiring. “We looked at the talent. We looked at how we thought he handled the fans, how he handled the press, how he handled sponsor deals, all this kind of stuff. I didn’t care what color he was, where he come from, any of that.”
The signing of Wallace is the first step in what Petty promises will be a transformation of RPM. The organization fielded Fords for Almirola this season, but Wednesday’s announcement came without mention of a manufacturer, and Petty indicated that important detail will be addressed later.
Drew Blickensderfer will remain as crew chief of the No. 43, having established an excellent relationship with Wallace during the driver’s fill-in role this year, but sponsorship remains an open question. Smithfield Foods, which backed Almirola this season, has opted to shift its resources to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.
Petty also said potential alliances with other Monster Energy Series teams are still under discussion.
“There’s a bunch of irons in the fire,” Petty said. “There’s going to be a bunch of different things that we’re going to do.
“When you see us at Daytona, when we show up down there, it’s going to be a completely different RPM than what it’s been in the past. We’re looking forward to that.”
In 2013, at age 20, Wallace claimed the first of his six NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victories at Martinsville Speedway, becoming the first African-American driver to win a race in one of NASCAR’s three national series since Scott got his only career win at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1963.
The rise to the top level marks the latest step in a long journey for the 24-year-old Mobile, Ala., native, who credits the Drive for Diversity program as a valuable training ground.
“It definitely shaped who I am today, for sure,” Wallace said. “It’s been one hell of a journey, one hell of a story that we all can sit back on, read through, sit back and say, ‘Those were good times.’
“Going through the diversity levels, seeing how the lower series of NASCAR works, just trying to manage all that, still having fun with it … It’s a big stage, but you have to manage everything that comes at you so you can perform to your best abilities. That’s what I tried to do each and every race back in those days.
“We’re here now to say that. Very thankful for all the opportunities that have been put in front of me and that I’ve been able to capitalize on.”