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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Wallace shows he’s more than just a race car driver

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I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to a number of NASCAR drivers over the years, yet never had the opportunity to meet Darrell Wallace Jr.

The talented and affable 26-year-old from Mobile, Alabama, has established himself as a tough competitor as the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top-tier series. Wallace served notice of his racing prowess as he piloted the Richard Petty Motor Sports entry to an impressive second-place finish in the 2018 Daytona 500, which he followed up with a rock solid third-place result at the 2019 Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A racer since his childhood days, there can be absolutely no debate in terms of his ability to compete at the elite level of motor sports.

Yes, NASCAR is big business and as with any similar entity, minorities must always work harder to distinguish themselves, and Wallace has done a solid job in that department. He’s handsome, articulate and has grown significantly in the last three years in terms of his professional endeavors as the driver of the No. 43 car, which is synonymous with his iconic owner, Richard Petty.

However, Wallace has been in the headlines for far more substantial reasons recently, as he’s taken an important stance against systemic racism in this country. Just two weeks ago he denounced one of the most blatant symbols of racism in the history of the United States when speaking of his disdain for the Confederate flag, which had been a staple for ages as it flew from the rooftops of the many recreational vehicles in the infields of race tracks in the South. 

“NASCAR’s next step in demonstrating its commitment to fighting racism needs to be banning the Confederate flag,” Wallace stated in an appearance on “CNN Tonight” with Don Lemon.

The powers that be in the sport agreed with him and quickly adopted a ban of the flag at all tracks effective immediately. The outspoken driver also conveyed his feelings by wearing a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” on it, as well as running a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme on his Chevrolet entry at the Martinsville Speedway event recently. He continues to conduct numerous interviews about his passion for change, not just in his sport, but in America.

Wallace learned personally just how ugly things can get in the state of Alabama when it was discovered that the rope used to close the door in the garage his team was assigned had been configured into the shape of a noose. Both NASCAR and the FBI investigated the matter and, while they determined the closing rope had been in that configuration for months prior and wasn’t directly aimed at Wallace, the question as to why that ever occurred remains unanswered.

In light of the matter, Wallace’s fellow drivers also rallied around him in a pre-race sign of solidarity. Wallace proceeded to drive the wheels off his race car, running as high as third place before a late pit stop for fuel jettisoned him to a 14th-place finish.

Afterwards, in a post-race interview on Fox Sports, he addressed those responsible for the incident by saying he wanted them to know his resolve was strong and the sport will change despite its objections to equality for all. Pretty solid stuff for a young man under an intense spotlight, but he handled it with grace and dignity as millions of people looked in ready to dissect his every word.

Long after the checkered flag dropped and the adrenaline that flows with auto racing had subsided, Wallace undoubtedly reflected on a turbulent week and had to wonder what the road ahead will hold in terms of the volatility surrounding the path he is now upon.

It’s clear he will not be deterred from speaking out for change in a sport in which he is the only Black competitor, but it’s also obvious that the despicable element that placed a symbol of oppression in his garage will always be out there. Handling a race car at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour is one thing, dealing with lunatic bigots is quite another.

Wallace’s talent has shown he belongs in NASCAR, and by what he’s demonstrating off the track, there is no doubt he will ultimately win in his quest for change, which he has been attacking in the same wide-open style in which he drives a race car.

Keep your eye on this exceptional young man as he navigates through the pressure cooker he has gladly hopped into. If you think he can’t win the most important race of his life, you better think again.

Danny Bridges, who hopes to live long enough to see equality for all in this crazy world we’re living in, can be reached at (317) 370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

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