Darrell Wallace Jr. finding his way
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's 2015, and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is about to begin. There's Danica Patrick on the front row beside Darrell Wallace Jr., the first time a female and black driver have taken the top two spots of a Sprint Cup race.
But nobody is referring to them as female or black.
They're just drivers on this day.
We can dream, can't we?
The day of diversity becoming reality is growing closer in NASCAR. Patrick is expected to run her first full-time Cup season in 2013, a first for a woman in the sport.
But the bigger news may be Wallace. He is a year from running his first full Nationwide Series schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing if sponsorship can be found, and if former CMS president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler is correct, Wallace is "three years from a Cup ride."
So there really could be a female and black driver on the front row of a Cup event in three years.
The idea of nobody making a big deal about it isn't realistic. Firsts always have been a big deal, and this one would be huge for a sport that has been predominantly male and white since Bill France Sr. started it more than 50 years ago.
But maybe one day NASCAR's top series will look like the rest of America.
We can dream, can't we?
"Our game plan is one day this won't be a topic because it's all seamless," NASCAR president Mike Helton said of diversity in the sport. "It'll seem natural."
He's got game
Wallace leans back in a chair around a conference room table at JGR, the rip in the knee of his blue jeans standing out in this world of khaki pants and pristinely pressed golf shirts. He's talking about his ninth-place finish in his Nationwide Series debut at Iowa Speedway and how he wishes he could have carried that momentum into the Charlotte weekend instead of having to wait almost three months for another try.
When you talk about natural, he personifies it.
"Here, you've got to be able to drive and talk well in front of a camera to get a sponsor," Wallace said. "In basketball, you get Nike and Under Armour and all this other stuff, personal sponsors, but you don't need that to keep putting you out on the court.
"For us, you need sponsors to keep putting you on the track."
Wallace is as comfortable in a boardroom full of top executives from Fortune 500 companies as he is behind the wheel of a stock car. All he wants is a chance, one no black driver truly has had in the way that Patrick has gotten as a woman in terms of a big-time organization with big-time sponsors.
It boggles the mind of team owner Joe Gibbs why a sponsor hasn't latched on to this 18-year-old who came out of NASCAR's diversity program.
"That's where I've kind of been discouraged from the standpoint we have so many people that understand what this means for our sport," Gibbs said. "There's got to be somebody out there as a sponsor.
"This is going to be talked about. If he can do this, it's going to be a real breakthrough for the sport. We're going to see a whole other part of our society step up and come into our sport. It could be a huge deal for racing, and it should be."
NASCAR hasn't had a black driver compete in the top series since Bill Lester made two starts in 2006. There hasn't been a black driver compete in Cup on a regular basis since Wendell Scott, who drove in 495 races from 1961 to 1973.
There's a sense that if Wallace doesn't succeed, who knows how long it will be before another black driver gets this chance.
"First and foremost, it was a huge run and a great day for Darrell," said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's vice president of public affairs and multicultural development, of Wallace's Nationwide debut. "Clearly, based on his performance, he belonged in the field.
"I believe Darrell is in good shape. He has a great team backing him. He's just got to continue to have an opportunity to develop. It's not going to happen overnight. It hasn't happened overnight."
Again, sponsorship is the key. Dollar General and Coca-Cola stepped up for Wallace's debut, but at a much lower price than if established JGR Cup drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin or Joey Logano had been behind the wheel.
Unlike other sports, where talent alone can get you to the top level, NASCAR requires a huge financial commitment to that talent. Most companies are more willing to put their money on a proven commodity than risk it on potential talent.
"Regardless of what color you are, you just have to be good," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "For Darrell, he has a great history. He's got a gift.
"Hopefully, next year we can fill up his [Nationwide] schedule. It'll be neat from a NASCAR standpoint. He can be the face of a new fan that may not pay attention otherwise."
A patient young man
AJ Allmendinger doesn't know Wallace personally, but he's followed the up-and-comer's career through the K&N Pro Series East.
"He's fast as he can be in all the cars he gets into," the Penske Racing driver said. "He wins and is competitive. NASCAR needs it."
NASCAR needs Wallace to succeed like the PGA Tour needed Tiger Woods in 1997. It's time. It's been time for a long time.
Wallace, to his credit, is patient. He learned that from his father, Darrell Wallace Sr., who moved to Concord, N.C., to lay the foundation for racing six months ahead of his family. The elder Wallace lived in the race shop, took showers with a garden hose and used a Coke machine as a refrigerator.
"The first thing my parents said to me is you need to be humble and remember where you came from and remember the fans, because that's what made you," Wallace Jr. said of the responsibility he carries in the diversity effort.
Wallace has been breaking barriers longer than most think. Wheeler has followed him since the mid-2000s, when he started racing in the Bandolero and Legends series at CMS, winning 35 of 48 Bandolero Series events in 2005.
In 2007, Wallace moved to Late Models, where he became the youngest winner -- as well as the first black driver to win -- at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. In 2009, the year JGR made him a developmental driver, he had three wins and 11 top-5s in 23 Late Model races.
In 2010, he was the K&N Pro East Series rookie of the year. In 2011, he won three times and finished second in points.
"Watching him grow up in the K&N Series, it was evident the talent is there," Helton said. "The performance in Iowa was indicative of the confidence Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR, everybody has that he is a race car driver.
"In 2012 and going forward, his success is very significant."
Wallace feels that pressure, particularly when there are 20 photographers surrounding his car, as there were at Iowa. In many ways, he embraces it.
He already sees a difference in the way he is perceived in NASCAR circles. Racial remarks from spectators are almost nonexistent. He is looked at by many as just another driver, not a black driver.
And that is the dream, to be treated like everyone else. It's no different than what Patrick has been preaching on the women's side.
"I'm sure that there are all kinds of different genders and ethnicities out there trying racing, and it just takes time," Patrick said. "In general, as a culture in this country we are very open to new and different things. It is just going to take time.”"
What it's going to take is an organization, such as JGR and a top sponsor getting behind Wallace as GoDaddy.com and JR Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing have for Patrick.
"Because it's a female or black, everybody thinks the sponsorship route is going to be easy," said Wheeler, who now runs a consulting management firm. "It's just as tough. I don't think there is any prejudice involved in it. It's just like Jordan Anderson trying to get a sponsor. He's a white driver and has won over a hundred races, and he can't get a sponsor."
Wallace understands the future is in his hands. He understands he needs to make the most of his three remaining Nationwide races this year and continue to succeed in the K&N Series.
He wants to be able to live the dream of his childhood hero Dale Earnhardt and current hero Kyle Busch. He wants to knock down the doors that Scott cracked.
The good news is that Wallace has the talent and confidence to do it.
"He's the best black driver we've ever had, no question about it," Wheeler said.
Maybe we are getting close to that day when a female and black driver start on the front row, close to that day when gender and race are an afterthought.
"I hope so," Wallace said. "Danica is definitely trying to bring in the female side of it. I'm trying to bring in the African-American minority side of it.
"I hope it will show in the future -- hopefully in the near future."
We can dream, can't we?