LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Darrell Wallace Jr. woke up around 2:30 a.m. ready to race. Hours later, he strode across the stage for driver introductions to a nice ovation from thousands of NASCAR fans, his little slice of race history ahead.
Wallace became just the eighth black driver to race in NASCAR's top Cup series when he started the No. 43 Ford at Pocono Raceway. During the week he chatted with team owner and Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty and, like any rookie in his debut, tried to stay calm.
"It's just another race car. That's how I'm treating it," Wallace said Sunday. "I'm trying to prove to everybody that I belong here."
The 23-year-old driver had some issues early in the race — he was too fast on pit road and nearly missed his pit stall because he looked for the number he used in his second-tier Xfinity Series team.
That almost seemed like good news for Wallace, who finished a lap down in 26th, when he fell ill and needed medical attention after he congratulated race winner Ryan Blaney in victory lane.
"Heck of a way to end my weekend, passing out," Wallace said.
Wallace was bombarded this week by interview requests and fans flocked to him around the Pocono garage. More commonly known by his nickname "Bubba," the easygoing Wallace handled the spotlight with ease.
Watching the race on TV 3,000 miles away in California, Bill Lester was rooting for Wallace. Lester made two starts in 2006 and was the last black driver to make a Cup start. Lester met Wallace at a Truck race in Kansas a few years ago and had followed his progression through NASCAR.
"I think he's doing a great job," Lester said. "I'm glad he's getting a chance."
Lester was a sports car driver who had little interest early in his career at chasing a NASCAR ride. He wanted to compete in races like the 24 Hours of Daytona, not necessarily the Daytona 500.
But it was more than stock cars that soured him on NASCAR.
"Whenever I watched it, I saw a bunch of Confederate flags — stars and bars staring back at me," he said. "It was racing I could not identify with. Drivers I could not identify with. For me to wind up in NASCAR, it was a huge anomaly."
Lester made his only start in NASCAR's developmental series in 1999, had 142 career starts in the Truck series and was 45 years old when he made those two Cup starts in 2006.
"I wanted to be where the action was. I wanted to be where I could make a name for myself and compete with the best," he said.
Lester said he tuned out the racism that came his way.
"I was booed during driver introductions for no reasons that I could appreciate," he said. "Did it affect me? No, but I was well aware of it and was conscious of it that not everybody was welcoming of my presence. I can't change what people have been brought up to think and believe."
According to NASCAR, Wallace joined at least seven other black drivers in to reach the Cup level in the 69-year history of the series: Elias Bowie, Charlie Scott, Wendell Scott, George Wiltshire, Randy Bethea, Willy T. Ribbs and Lester.
Scott is the only one to win a Cup race, on Dec. 1, 1963, and the next win at a NASCAR national event by a black driver came in 2013 when Wallace took the Truck Series checkered flag at Martinsville.
Ribbs made 23 starts in Truck in 2001 and three starts in Cup in 1986. He is the subject of an upcoming documentary that will recount the prejudice he faced during a long career. He contends the sport never tried to bring more black drivers to the track or fans to the stands.
"NASCAR is happy with the way it looks," he said. "They're quite comfortable."
NASCAR has made several steps toward boosting minority involvement. There's a "Drive for Diversity" program that has paid few dividends with Wallace, and fellow Cup drivers Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez all graduates of the development system. The program started in 2004 and was designed to attract minorities and women to the sport in all fields, from the track to the front office.
"Bubba's talent, personality and unique story resonates with our fans, but it also helps spark new interest in the sport," said Jill Gregory, chief marketing officer for NASCAR. "He's earned this opportunity in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and we believe his development and success will encourage other young, diverse drivers to pursue careers in NASCAR."
Wallace, one of NASCAR's social media stars, has five years of experience in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, and has five wins and 20 top-five finishes. But his Cup gig — which came when RPM driver Aric Almirola was injured in a fiery wreck at Kansas — come at an opportune time; while NASCAR has pushed Wallace to corporate America, Xfinity sponsorship dried up and he was about to lose his ride.
"I think it's a crying shame that he doesn't have enough support to keep the Xfinity program going," Lester said. "That should tell you all you need to know about the state of affairs."
Wallace just wants to make the most of his time in the 43.
"There's no more climbing," Wallace said. "I've been in the ladder rungs for the last couple years and now I'm at the top. There's nothing else I can do but just to go out there and just get better and better and learn how this sport works and how this series works."
Lester hoped Wallace's career would extend well beyond his run with Petty.
"I'm just glad he's getting the chance and I hope he's able to get more opportunities," Lester said. "I hope it can start to change some things about the way we're appreciated in the sport.
"I'm not betting that it will."
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