NEWTON, IOWA (AP) - Darrell Wallace Jr. has already crossed off a bunch of boxes on the checklist for a future NASCAR star. He dominated as a kid in karts, blew past the field in bandoleros and late models, and landed a seat for Sunday’s NASCAR Nationwide race in Iowa even though he won’t turn 19 until October.
Heck, Wallace even has the perfect NASCAR nickname: “Bubba.”
But Wallace’s undeniable skills aren’t the only reason he’s getting noticed.
In a sport that’s been almost the exclusive domain of white male drivers, it’s impossible to overlook Wallace. He’s one of the most promising African-American drivers to come along in decades and arguably the best talent to come through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which was started eight years ago to give women and minorities a better chance of landing a NASCAR seat.
Wallace, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, will be the first black driver to run a Nationwide race since Marc Davis started in Nashville in 2011.
“It’s different. I get looked at a lot more and talked about a lot more, but it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s actually cool. I mean, some people see it as, this is given to me because of skin color,” Wallace said. “But others that have raced with me and have known me for a while have seen that I have the talent and skill, what it takes to run in this series.”
There’s little doubt that Wallace has earned his shot in the Nationwide Series by what he’s done on the track.
Wallace grew up in Concord. N.C., just outside of Charlotte, where he got the nickname “Bubba” from his sister. He started running go-karts when he was nine at the urging of his father, and in 2005 jumped to bandolero cars, winning 35 of the 48 races he ran. Wallace won 11 races in 38 starts in a Legends car circuit a year later and was in late models by 2007.
“It’s not just all of a sudden. Everything he’s done, he’s done it well,” Gibbs said. “When you kind of do it as a younger kid, it usually kind of paves the way for a pretty good career.”
Wallace made it to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2010 and was named the Rookie of the Year, beating out fellow hotshot Cole Whitt by one point. He was the youngest and the first African-American driver to win a race in that series, notching a pair of victories. Wallace won three K&N races in 2011 and has a victory in three starts this spring.
Nationwide is the next natural step. Gibbs said that while Wallace would prefer to be looked at simply as a driver, he’s also well aware that his skin color and his promise have put him in a unique position.
“The one thing about NASCAR is, it doesn’t matter if you’re female, male, (your) background _ you have to be really good. But to have someone that’s really good and is African-American in there, it will be real valuable for the sport,” Gibbs said. “I think NASCAR knows it.”
Wallace said he’s gotten a lot of support from the racing community. But he’s also had to deal with some prejudice.
Wallace said that some of his competitors in years past have resented him, assuming he only got his ride because he was black. Wallace said he’s also had racial slurs and taunts thrown his way from the grandstands.