Bubba Wallace has sights on blazing more trails in NASCAR

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Bubba Wallace does not care about the way things used to be done in NASCAR, and he is not interested in how veterans believe he is supposed to drive.

The rookie behind the wheel of Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 has already defied odds by becoming the only black driver at NASCAR’s top level. Reaching the pinnacle of the sport is just the start of what Wallace hopes to accomplish.

“I’m different, I’m not like anybody in this sport, and that’s not based on skin color,” Wallace said. “I have an I-don’t-give-a-damn filter, and there are a lot of guys still stuck to an old system that’s been the same thing for them the last 20 years. Well, that’s boring. That’s super boring.

“I do my own thing and think, ‘Why are we doing it this old way still?’ Throw the old system out the window. People are afraid of change, but I want to change everything.”

Wallace has two races remaining in a rookie season with a storybook beginning at the Daytona 500. He finished second, the highest ever for a minority in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, and it launched Wallace into the national spotlight.

But Daytona is unlike the bulk of NASCAR’s schedule so when the high of Daytona subsided, Wallace found himself trying to keep his head above water. His Richard Petty Motorsports team switched from Ford to Chevrolet during the offseason, aligned with a new team partner and hired a new driver in Wallace. The seat was open because Aric Almirola moved to Stewart-Haas Racing, and primary sponsor Smithfield left with him.

A mid-level team undergoing so much change could not avoid struggling and it’s been that way all year for RPM and its eager young driver. The loss of funding has made it feel as if the team is sometimes running uphill.

Wallace heads into Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway near Phoenix ranked 28th in the Cup standings. He has led 19 laps and had two top-10 finishes, but hasn’t been close to a strong finish since Daytona back in February. It’s a slow climb and securing funding remains a top priority for Wallace, who was born in Alabama and grew up in suburban Charlotte, the North Carolina home of most NASCAR teams.

“We are still trying to do the best we can, the goal is still to try to get more sponsorship for the next two years, at least,” Wallace said. “I don’t know CEOs or company mindsets in how they go about sponsoring, but I’m super competitive and if you only see the results sheet and see how we are running, it’s hard for me to show that there is more to it than that. It becomes a challenge to showcase why we are a better fit for some sponsors and a better fit than other teams.”

The Air Force is Wallace’s sponsor at Phoenix in honor of Veteran’s Day. The Air Force has partnered with RPM for 10 consecutive seasons and is typically on the car around patriotic holidays.

Wallace has made bonding with his sponsors a priority and has visited four different Air Force bases this year. He has participated in various drills and allowed The Associated Press to accompany him to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where he flew in an F-16 with the 77th Fighter Squadron, known as the “Gamblers.” He went through flight training before Maj. Gen. Scott Zobrist led him into the air. Captain Jack Howard, a rookie pilot, flew Wallace’s jet, reaching over 9Gs.

It was an adrenaline rush, even for a driver who has had more than his share of hard crashes this season. Wallace was even disappointed to learn the G forces he and Howard pulled ranked only second on the squadron board for guests.

Pushing for the most he can get is the same way Wallace races, and he pointed to a recent race in Dover, Delaware, as an example of how he is an anomaly in NASCAR. Wallace figured he was four laps down in his version of the Dover story during a late restart that put him near the front of the field. Because he wasn’t on the lead lap, Wallace said other drivers believed he should move out of their way.

He refused.

“After the race you hear all these guys complaining, ‘There goes Bubba racing again,’” Wallace said. “You are damn right. I am not going to roll over. … Go race. We aren’t here to ride around and put on a dog and pony show. I am not going to layover for you. If you think I was tough to pass, well, sorry bro, drive harder. I’m going as fast as I can.”

Celebrated for being the rare minority to make it to NASCAR’s big leagues, Wallace recognizes that his race will always be as important to some as the way he races. He has seen Twitter engagement turn nasty because he is black, but is adamant he does not let it bother him. Nor will he use it as a way to differentiate himself from the rest of the field.

“Until we get more drivers of color, the color of my skin is going to be an issue for a long time,” he said. “I know I am Bubba Wallace. I don’t pull the race card. I’ve had some haters on Twitter and I will respond back, and then fans quickly go to the race side. I didn’t mention that — this was about me running 30th — you mentioned race. I’m here to win races and be me. If someone doesn’t like me, that’s not my problem.”

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