Grayson Joslin is a second-year journalism and political science major and writes for The Daily News. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
In the wake of the protests following George Floyd’s death in May 2020, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace became an outspoken advocate for racial justice.
Bubba Wallace showed courage when he took a stand in a sport where the drivers and most of the fan base are predominately white and come from the southern region of the United States. Before his breakthrough win at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2021, there was only one Black winner in the NASCAR Cup Series; Wendell Scott; his only triumph came in December 1963.
His rallying cry of “Peace, Love and Understanding” became intertwined with his personal brand.
Which makes what happened at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday, October 16 all the more confusing and contradictory to his values.
After contact between Wallace and the reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Larson on lap 94 of the event, Wallace appeared to wreck Larson on purpose, taking both drivers and championship contender Christopher Bell out of the race. After getting out of his wrecked car, Wallace confronted Larson and showed his frustration by pushing him. In the interview afterwards, Wallace claimed the steering “failed”, causing the wreck.
I was completely aghast, seeing this live; this wreck and confrontation comes as the intersection of driver safety concern in the new Next Gen car, race relations within NASCAR and the fan base, inconsistency within NASCAR’s enforcement of the rules and use of retaliation.
Being the only Black full-time driver in NASCAR’s top series, driving for car owner and all time sports great Michael Jordan, Bubba Wallace has become a target for many. In June 2020, a member of Bubba Wallace’s team reported what was thought to be a noose inside Bubba Wallace’s garage before a race at Talladega Superspeedway; a race with no fans due to COVID restrictions.
The news was shocking and horrifying, with the garage walking and standing with Bubba Wallace on the day of the race in one of the most moving moments I have experienced in sports. A few days after the race, after cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, NASCAR released their findings; it was a part of a garage door that had been there since October 2019, and no hate crime had taken place.
In light of the findings, people began claiming that Wallace and NASCAR had set up the whole situation, with some even calling Wallace “Bubba Smollett” after the disgraced actor who staged a fake hate crime against himself.
Mistakes happen and humans are not perfect; that is a fact of life. Are we going to act this made every single time a mistake is made in our lives?
As NASCAR hopes to increase its appeal, these closed world views of some fans are a detriment to our sport. When I went to the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July of this year. Wallace got the loudest boos and jeers out of any driver in the field.
Yes, NASCAR is a Southern sport, but all things must move forward, and the actions of select fans makes it feel like NASCAR is going backwards.
And then there is the guy who Wallace crashed into; Kyle Larson. Two years ago, at the onset of the pandemic, Larson lost his ride after using a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson’s actions placed NASCAR in a bad light, a light that Wallace worked hard to fix.
The wreck itself was scary and uncomfortable to watch. The angle at which Larson’s car impact looked similar to the angle that caused Kurt Busch, the man who drove the 45 car before Wallace, to retire from full-time competition at Pocono Raceway this July. Larson’s teammate, Alex Bowman, is now on the sidelines with a concussion that he received at Texas Motor Speedway in September.
NASCAR is having trouble with its Next Gen car. From the injuries, to a farce of a race at Texas in September where almost a dozen cars blew a tire, NASCAR has not had smooth sailing in the inaugural season of the Next Gen, and it is clear that the Next Gen car needs to be improved. In the twenty-plus years since Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, there has not been a single fatality in any of NASCAR’s major series. However, I am scared that with the rate of injuries that this car is causing, that may not last for long.
My concern goes tenfold when drivers take out each other, with seemingly no regard for their health or wellbeing. Larson’s crash was hard; despite the constant safety developments that have been made in NASCAR over the previous two decades, motor racing is still dangerous. If something had gone different; if Larson’s car had hit at just a different angle, Larson could have been severely injured.
Wallace will be suspended for one race for his actions. It is fair to say that NASCAR has been spotty with how it has handled drivers who use their cars as missiles. The last time a major instance of intentional wrecking happened in the Cup Series, when Matt Kenseth took out Joey Logano in 2015 (while Logano was still in contention for the championship), Kenseth was suspended three races.
However, there are many times over the course of NASCAR’s history where retaliation has gone unpunished. This is understandable, because if NASCAR polices it with each situation, then most drivers would be suspended. However, by picking and choosing who and who doesn’t get suspended, the governing body presents itself as inconsistent without any definition as to what constitutes a suspension or not.
What Bubba Wallace did on Oct. 18 was reckless and dangerous; there is no way around it. We got lucky, because with how many safety problems there are with this car, there could be a chance a driver could let their emotions get the better of them; and not only cost someone a good day at the track, but their life as well.
What happened on Sunday was not a singular issue, it was a combination of multiple issues in NASCAR coming together and blowing up supernova style. NASCAR is not perfect, however we must learn that in a sport that values that both competition and safety, we must place a premium on common sense and cooler heads prevailing.