He was just a teenager, only 14 years old, when it first happened.
Darrell "Bubba" Wallace had won a race at Franklin County Speedway in Callaway, Virginia, on a tiny ⅜-mile asphalt track. On the cool-down lap after taking the checkered flag, Wallace, whose father is white and mother is black, gazed into the grandstand. An older man stared back at him, his eyes afire with anger, and held up his middle finger. Wallace flashed him a thumbs-up sign.
Even now, it still happens. On social media, faceless racists will tell Wallace that there are "no blacks allowed in NASCAR" and that he should "go back to where you belong." Wallace reads every hateful word, devouring them like nourishment. Why? Because it gives him that extra gear of motivation to become the fastest and most fearless stock car driver of his generation.
Wallace is sharing these stories as he's cruising through the North Carolina countryside on a blue-sky afternoon in his white Ford F-150 truck. It's mid-October, and he's a few days away from being named the driver of No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports for the 2018 season, days away from becoming the first full-time African-American driver at NASCAR's top level in 46 years. He is, he understands, days away from history.
"I've never had any issues with racism or racist people at the track for as long as I've been racing in NASCAR," Wallace says from behind the wheel. "All of that stuff that has happened to my face took place when I was coming up. And a lot of what I get now on social media is 13- and 14-year-old kids just trying to act tough. Well, I'll call them out. I'll confront them and tell them that they messed with the wrong person."
Indeed, never underestimate this 24-year-old driver. And even if you're not a fan of NASCAR, it's time for you to know Bubba Wallace. Because in 2018, in a sport watched by many fans who proudly fly the Confederate flag from the back of their pickup trucks, Wallace will represent something much larger than being the driver of the iconic No. 43 car Richard Petty made famous in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, a car which Petty piloted to Victory Lane a record 200 times.
Bubba will be the face of change in NASCAR.
Even before he was born, they called him Bubba. His older sister, Brittany, asked her pregnant mother if she was going to have a boy and to give her a baby "Bubba." The name stuck.
Bubba was nine when his father, Darrell Sr., took him to a go-kart race at a local track near their home in Concord, North Carolina. Sitting in the grandstand, little Bubba was mesmerized by it all: the thump of horsepower on his chest, the smell of burnt rubber and the raw speed of the machines.
"Would you like to do that?" Darrell Sr. asked his son as they watched the race. Little Bubba nodded his head. So it began.
His father, who owns an industrial cleaning company, bought him a go-kart, and Bubba would tear around the family's circular driveway in Concord, which sat in the heart of NASCAR country, only 15 miles from the house of Dale Earnhardt Sr. Bubba also roared across the family's four acres of property, imagining he was charging to a checkered flag.
At his first race in Jasper, Florida, Bubba was running in last place and was so out of control that he drove off the track, went over a dirt barrier and took flight.
"I thought I was going to die when I went off the track," Bubba says. "It looked to me like I was going to hit a Tahoe that was on the other side of the fence. But I had a soft landing. I did mangle my kart pretty good. So I took a hammer to it and fixed it."
Even though he wrecked, Bubba became hooked on racing. He quit playing AAU basketball to focus on his new love.
"My African-American friends thought it was cool that I was racing," he says. "It's not like we had any role models out there to look up to, so everyone understood I was doing something very different."
Desiree Wallace first saw her son race a few months later at a track in Virginia. Before Bubba's heat, she spotted a young driver tumble out of his go-kart and roll across the track. He was unhurt, but it unnerved her. (Bubba went on to win his heat.)
"After that race, I asked Bubba if he was afraid to go fast," Desiree says. "And he just looked at me and said, 'Mom, you can't be afraid to go fast. You have to have no fear.' And that's when I knew that Bubba had a chance to go far in racing. He was just fearless out there and really aggressive."
But Desiree also heard the N-word tossed around at the track by fans.
"Bubba had never heard that word until he got into racing," Desiree says. "I told him what it meant, and that there will be people who will be against him just because of his skin color. But I emphasized that he needed to prove he belonged by getting out there and kicking some butt. I've told him repeatedly that he's going to have to outwork everyone else because this is a white man's sport. I never sugarcoated anything to Bubba."
Darrell Sr. spent as much as $250,000 a year to finance his son's burgeoning racing career. At 16, Bubba won his first race in NASCAR's K&N Pro Series. At 18, he competed in four races in the Xfinity Series—the Triple-A of NASCAR—and notched three top-10 finishes. By then, it was clear he possessed the racing smarts, the hand-eye-foot coordination, the sense of anticipation and the aggressiveness to race at NASCAR's top level.
"What makes Darrell so good is that he always gets the most out of his car and makes really good decisions on the track," says Ryan Blaney, a Cup driver who has been racing against Wallace since they were both 10. "He overachieves with his equipment, and that's really the best thing a driver can do."
Wallace's big opportunity arrived this season when Cup driver Aric Almirola fractured a vertebra in his back in a harrowing accident on May 13 at Kansas Speedway. Car owner Richard Petty tapped Wallace to replace Almirola for four starts.
"My first start was at Pocono [Raceway], and that's always been my worst track," Wallace says. "I got speeding penalties on pit road and really struggled." He finished 26th and a lap down. He was so exhausted after the race that he passed out on pit road, requiring medical attention.
But over the next three weeks, Wallace steadily improved. In his final race with Petty Motorsports in 2017, he finished 11th at Kentucky Speedway and showed his future boss that he was ready for a full-time ride.
"Darrell was patient when he needed to be at that Kentucky race, and he knew when he needed to charge," Petty says. "The color of his skin is immaterial to me. That didn't influence my decision to hire him at all. I looked at one thing, and that was his talent and the fact that he got better each time he was out on the track. We've been a team that has finished anywhere from 15th to 20th. With Bubba driving this car, I think we can move to the 10th to 15th area and hopefully compete for a few wins.
"And I'm telling you, Bubba can be the next star in our sport. He has as much talent off the track in dealing with the media and sponsors as he does on it. He's going to be a special one."
Bubba Wallace knows the story of Wendell Scott, the details burned into his memory. Once a week, he talks or texts with Wendell Scott Jr., the son of one of NASCAR's first black drivers.
"I've become like a big brother to Darrell," says Scott Jr., whose father made 495 starts in NASCAR's top series between 1961 and '73. "Darrell understands that he's now tied to my father. Every day when Darrell gets up, Wendell Scott will be in his life."
Back in the 1950s and '60s, racing with borrowed equipment and having his two sons act as his pit crew, Scott endured multiple acts of discrimination. At one event, NASCAR officials told Scott—an Army veteran of World War II—that black drivers weren't allowed to compete. At other races, drivers deliberately tried and often were able to wreck him.
Still, Scott won multiple regional races throughout the South, his skill as a driver and mechanic undeniable. He was finally allowed to race in all-white NASCAR in 1954. Then-NASCAR Chairman Bill France promised him that he would always be treated with respect and fairness. France even handed Scott money out of his pocket to help him.
And Scott was treated like a regular driver—most of the time. At a race at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963, Scott passed Richard Petty with 25 laps remaining to seize the lead. Scott then charged to the checkered flag, becoming the first black driver to win a NASCAR race. But the track announcer declared to the crowd that Buck Baker, who had come in second, had actually crossed the finish line first. It took NASCAR two years to officially award the victory to Scott. His family didn’t receive the trophy for the victory until 2010—two decades after Scott's death.
"I definitely feel like I'm carrying on the legacy of the Scott family," Wallace says. "What Wendell had to go through was extremely difficult, but he kept racing, kept fighting. Part of him will be with me when I'm out on the track."
They walked through the infield of Daytona International Speedway, just two best friends looking to mingle with fans.
This was three years ago in July, and Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney approached a group that had a Confederate flag flying above their motorhome. As flames from a nearby fire sparkled in the summer air, the well-lubricated fans played a game called "Redneck Jenga," where oversized pieces of wood are stacked and then pulled apart one at a time.
So what did Wallace do? Avert his eyes and move on? Pretend like he didn't notice the flag?
"We started playing 'Redneck Jenga' with them and the fans were great," he says. "The whole thing fell down when I pulled a piece out. They thought it was the funniest thing ever."
For 30 minutes, Wallace then spoke with the fans, signing autographs and sharing stories under the flag.
Richard Petty recently said he would fire anyone on his team who wouldn't stand for the national anthem. Would Wallace ever consider taking a knee like dozens of NFL players to protest police brutality?
"I would never do that," Wallace says. "I've stood for the national anthem ever since grade school. It's a patriotic thing for me. I understand what Colin Kaepernick and others are doing, but it's not for me. The most important thing to me is just doing my job as a race car driver. That's it."
The race car driver is on the first-hole tee box at Birkdale Golf Club in Huntersville, North Carolina. He closes his eyes to envision his first shot—but his thoughts quickly drift to the matter of history.
"I know I've got a special role to play because of the color of my skin," Wallace continues. "Black kids can relate to the NFL and NBA because those leagues have players in them that look like them. NASCAR doesn't. The No. 1 greatest obstacle to minorities making it in NASCAR is the cost. But I hope to be a face that inspires young black kids."
Wallace steps to his ball, rears back his driver and smacks a thing of beauty down the middle of the fairway. It carries 270 yards.
He smiles, then hops into his golf cart. He challenges a friend in another cart to a race to their golf balls.
It isn't even close: Bubba leaves him in a swirl of dust.
Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of eight books, most recently The Quarterback Whisperer. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.