It’s no secret that Bubba Wallace has not had the 2019 season he had hoped for in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He currently sits 270 points below the cutoff line with five races remaining before the playoffs and unless he gets a win, a playoff berth seems unlikely.
However, the 25 year old driver is making all the right moves in another area of the sport – the hearts of race fans.
Following Dale Earnhardt Jr’s retirement in 2017, NASCAR found itself with a fresh new face of the sport when Chase Elliott claimed the title of ‘Most Popular Driver’ last season. This newfound accolade may not be so easy to come by for the racing prodigy at the conclusion of the 2019 season, though, as Wallace seems to be making headlines almost every race weekend, not for on-track success, but his ability to connect with fans.
Wallace made his debut in the Cup Series in 2017 after powering his way through NASCAR’s Home Tracks program. Since then, he remains the only African-American driver competing in the premier series. As a result, he has become an ambassador for the sanctioning body’s Drive for Diversity program in which young developmental drivers of different nationalities show off their skills through the Home Tracks program.
This is an incredibly large responsibility for any athlete to carry on their shoulders, but the driver from Mobile, Alabama seems to be doing it with ease. As he continues to pave the way for young, hopeful drivers, he also bring along a new legion of race fans accumulated from his outgoing and interactive personality. It also helps that he is driving the famed No. 43 made famous by ‘The King,’ Richard Petty.
In Wallace’s most recent interaction with fans, he took to Twitter sharing a photo of himself in his Petty Blue Chevy Camaro with Petty’s autograph on his arm.
Minding my bidness and The King comes in with a surprise signature attack!
43000 RTs and I'll get it tattooed. pic.twitter.com/fpcvlRbeti
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) July 23, 2019
The tweet went viral in many aspects, garnering comments and support from fellow competitors. In just two day, the impressive feat of 43,000 retweets was achieved and the seven-time champion approved of his young driver’s request. Wallace revealed his car owner had been laughing about the idea and further elaborated that Petty would NOT be getting his driver’s autograph tattooed as well, but he would join him when he went for his new ink.
Also, who says rain delays have to be boring? The driver of the No. 43 has revolutionized these boring times with a new unofficial tradition. At the first race at Michigan International Speedway this season, instead of waiting out the weather in his trailer like a majority of his competitors, Wallace grabbed a football and began passing it back and forth to race fans braving the weather in the grandstands.
Since this interactive element was implemented by Wallace in Michigan, he replicated this connection with fans once more at Daytona International Speedway in July. Both times the driver broke out the pigskin, he was joined by special guests such as Corey LaJoie and Daniel Hemric. This is not only a positive way to connect with fans on a personal level when there is a halt in action on the track, but this is a powerful way to boost ratings for the sport when it needs it the most.
While Wallace has established a relationship with fans through social media and events at the track, his outreach to fans extends on an even deeper level. More than 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression and amidst the competition and fame, it’s sometimes easy to forget that athletes suffer from the same disease; Wallace is no exception.
In a recent interview with USA Today, the 25 year old driver opened up about his battles with depression even while competing in stock car racing. In conjunction with serving as an ambassador for Drive for Diversity, Wallace also bravely admits to struggling with this disease that most everyone can relate to. In a time and head space where you feel isolated in the world, it’s important to note that you are not alone and even athletes competing in NASCAR’s most prestigious series are struggling with the same battles.
Wallace is an easy driver for fans to both sympathize and empathize with. Most athletes elect to mask their emotions, whereas Wallace chooses to embrace a more natural reaction – whatever that may be. In 2018, Wallace finished runner-up in the Daytona 500, earning him the record of highest finishing African-American driver in NASCAR. In a post-race press conference, the African-American driver, understandably broke down in front of reporters after accomplishing the historic feat.
Tears are no stranger for the Alabama-native as he’s even broken down in tougher times. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one on a race weekend, or continued on-track struggles it’s something race fans have seen. While times are tough for Wallace, it’s important for everyone to see that athletes are human and it’s tremendously brave for Wallace to wear his heart on his sleeve and fans see that.
Most recently, at the conclusion of the Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway, Wallace turned heads following a heated altercation on pit road with Daniel Suarez. Both drivers wouldn’t comment on the matter, saying there was no issue, but the video says otherwise. Regardless, it’s nice to once again to see some emotion from drivers in a time where the sport is lacking identity.
The 2019 season has not been a total bust for Wallace. In one of the more popular finishes of the year, the driver of the No. 43 successfully muscled his way into the Monster Energy All Star race after a thrilling battle with Suarez in the Monster Energy Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Following the race, a choked up Wallace was all smiles after feeling like he finally caught a break he deserved. After seeing the sheer joy from the 25-year-old driver, you get the sense that a win is coming in the not-so distant future and that once it comes, there will be unfathomable roars from the grandstands.
As Wallace nears his third complete season in the Cup Series, he has clearly cemented himself as one of the sport’s fan favorites between fan interactions and his display of raw emotion. He has opened himself up to fans in a way that not many athletes opt to do and as a result has reached a broader audience into what many call a dying sport.
Could Bubba Wallace be NASCAR’s saving grace? One thing is certain, he has already amassed a persona which is bound to ensure a career of longevity in the sport for years to come.
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