‘He could become iconic’

By Joe Menzer (NASCAR.COM, May 24, 2012).

CONCORD, N.C. — The day after Darrell Wallace had finished a respectable ninth in his Nationwide Series debut at Iowa Speedway, the young driver’s cell phone rang.

On the other end was a familiar voice. It belonged to Joe Gibbs, who was considerably more upbeat on his end of the call than Wallace was on the other.

“He was a little bit down,” said Gibbs of Joe Gibbs Racing. “He said, ‘Gosh, I’m sorry. I finished ninth and I thought I could have done better than that.’ I told him for the rest of all of us, ‘Uh, if we could have laid out a game plan, that was pretty much it.’ We were thrilled.”

Wallace, sitting in the dining area of the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday, admitted he wasn’t.

“I’ll take it for my debut,” said Wallace, who won’t turn 19 years old until October. “But for me, I really lacked a lot in the race. It took me forever to get comfortable in the car, and to get the right line working for me.

“Joe was all pumped up when he called me. I was like, ‘Thank you. It was good, I guess.’ I definitely had a lot of fun. It was a blast. I just thought I could have gotten more in terms of a better finish.”

What Wallace really would like is to be back on the race track this weekend. The Nationwide Series is running at CMS — and even though Gibbs also insists that Wallace is primed to be the next big deal in NASCAR, Wallace is sitting this one out.

He’ll race at Dover, but not next week when the Nationwide Series runs there. He won’t get to run at Dover until the series cruises through for a second time in the fall on Sept. 29. In fact, despite Wallace’s highly-anticipated debut at Iowa, he isn’t scheduled to participate in a Nationwide race again until Aug. 4 — when the series makes a return trip to Iowa Speedway.

And to Gibbs, that’s stunning. He believes because Wallace is talented — and because he’s also black — it’s time for some company in America to step up and come up with the sponsorship dollars to put Wallace in a Nationwide car on a more regular basis.

Gibbs, a former championship-winning head coach in the National Football League, thinks Wallace is poised to become the first black driver to experience true NASCAR success.

“I gotta tell you, we like Darrell. I think what we keep looking for is a sponsor — and I’ve kind of been discouraged,” Gibbs said. “For as many people out there who understand what this could mean for the sport, there’s got to be a sponsor out there. This is going to be a huge ride. If he can do this, this is going to be something big.

“Prior to him running his first Nationwide race last week, it was hit on by just about every major media outlet. I think, for us, it would be big for our sport and obviously we as a race team have been heavily involved in [NASCAR’s diversity efforts] for a long time. I think it’s a big deal and I’d like to be part of it with the breakthrough. We started out with Reggie White years ago and we’ve had several guys go through [diversity programs]. … I’m hoping we’re about to hit a home run here.”

High praise

Gibbs is not alone in believing Wallace is on the verge of breaking through in one of NASCAR’s top national touring series.

“He’d be successful if he can get there,” said Brad Daugherty, a co-owner of JTG/Daugherty Racing who is black. “You’ve seen what this sport is. The sport has tried to become more inclusive, but at the end of the day the barrier becomes the money — as opposed to your sex or the color of your skin. There are still some old bastions of fans opposed to [diversity efforts]. It’s still there, but it’s gotten a lot better. It’s infinitesimal compared to what it used to be.

“But this young man, if he were to step into the spotlight and succeed, he could bring a whole generation of fans from a different culture along with him — because in Darrell Wallace, they would see someone like themselves that they could pull for. He could become iconic. In my opinion, it would be bigger than Danica Patrick.”

That’s saying something, since Patrick, an attractive female driver who came over from IndyCar racing, has generated a great deal of interest while competing in her first full-time Nationwide season. She also has deep-pocketed sponsors and race teams backing her.

Daugherty said he has no doubt Wallace possesses the talent to succeed as a driver not only at the Nationwide level, but eventually at the Sprint Cup level as well.

“I’m excited about Darrell,” Daugherty said. “I’ve watched him a long time, known him a long time. I think he should be in the Nationwide Series. If this series had been where it was 15 years ago where you were looking for talent and then would pull in a sponsor, he’d already be in one of those race cars. He’s that talented. He’s a guy who will be at the Cup level soon.

“It’s a matter of the sponsorship dollars being in the bank before you can do these deals now. But he is talented. He’s got all the talent in the world, and I think he’s Cup material. I really do.”

Impressive background

Wallace has paid his racing dues. A native of Concord, N.C., he started racing go-karts at age 9 and by 2005, he won a remarkable 35 of 48 Bandolero races he entered. A year later he won 11 of 38 Legends races he entered, and then it was onto late models before he participated in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. He was first signed by JGR in 2009.

He advanced to the K&N Pro Series East in 2010 and won not only two races, becoming the first black driver do so in that series, but also captured Rookie of the Year honors by one point over Cole Whitt — who now has a full-time Nationwide ride with JR Motorsports. Wallace won three more K&N races in 2011 and has won one of three K&N starts this season.

“Drivers just have to keep going out there and showcasing their skills,” Wallace said. “It’s all about having patience on and off the track.”

He’s been forced to have loads of it while waiting for his chances at the higher levels of racing.

Wallace is competing in the K&N Series again in between his Nationwide opportunities this year. He said he is determined to make the most of it, and actually likes to downplay the fact that as a black driver he could be on the verge of making racing history.

“I don’t really like to think of it like I’m going to be that guy, the guy leading the pack one day,” Wallace said. “I don’t want to boost myself up and get a big head. I’ve seen some guys who have gone that route, and now you can’t even say hey to them. I just kind of like to keep things cool, calm and collected and approach every race like it’s just another race.”

Gibbs said Wallace takes the same sort of approach when the young driver goes with him to court potential sponsors.

“I can tell you this: I’ve had him sitting in front of big-time sponsors in boardrooms with four or five leaders from a company, and there’s no panic to him. He talks and he shares stories. It all comes easy to him,” Gibbs said. “He’s not awestruck by anything. He’s got some athletic arrogance to him where he thinks he belongs, and that’s good — because you want that. You don’t want a guy who you have to pump up all the time. He feels good about where he’s at, and he’s earned his way. You’re talking about a guy who has won at Greenville-Pickens and some of these places. He’s fought his guts out to get here.”

Wallace said he’s as comfortable in front of a corporate crowd as he is behind the wheel of a race car.

“My parents told me to be positive about everything, listen to everything [potential sponsors] have to say, and then give them feedback. So that’s what I try to do,” Wallace said.

“I met with Kevin Liles, the [former] head of Def Jam Records, in Richmond and he was asking, ‘Well, what kind of things do you like, sponsor-wise, so I can start working on some stuff?’ I said, ‘Kevin, I like anybody who’s going to sponsor my race car. If I didn’t like chocolate, and MARS said they wanted to sponsor my car, then I will start eating chocolate. Vegetables? I’m not a big vegetable-eater. But if someone who puts vegetables out there wants to sponsor my race car, I’ll start eating my vegetables every day.’ ”

For now, Wallace spends some of his off time playing pickup basketball with JGR Cup driver Denny Hamlin and waiting for the next big racing opportunity. When it comes, he believes he will be ready to take full advantage.

But on Thursday, as the Nationwide cars pulled onto the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway for a practice session, Wallace sat at a table in the media center, vowing to plow ahead. The ninth-place finish in Iowa only whetted his appetite.

“When my crew chief came over the radio and said, ‘Well, you’re 30 laps in,’ I felt like it was more like 60 laps in,” Wallace said. “But then when he came on later and said, ‘There are only 30 laps left,’ I was like, ‘Whoa. Dang. It’s almost over then.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was something I really enjoyed doing. I wish the race could have been like 400 laps.

“I exceeded expectations, I guess, but I just didn’t feel complete.”

To gain that feeling, it seems, will take time — and sponsorship dollars that have yet to appear despite the seemingly solid investment that awaits.

“That’s kind of been the frustration with me, because I feel like we’ve made a lot of contacts with a lot of people — and I keep waiting for someone to step out there,” Gibbs said. “Toyota and Coke have both helped. Dollar General, which we had on the car last week, has helped.

“We’re just hoping somebody steps up and wants to take that next big step with us. Because you guys [in the media] are going to be writing about this. It’s going to be written and talked about. … I think we’re going to see a whole another part of our society step up and support our sport. I think it could be a huge deal for racing — and it should be. All cross-sections of America need to be involved in NASCAR. … Darrell Wallace would give them someone to cheer for.”

Story at NASCAR.com.


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