This semester, I’m taking a college course in computers from a guy who just loves the things. He’s an awesome educator, and his kindness, humility, and enthusiasm are contagious, but he can’t seem to wrap his head around the lack of people chasing the computer business in recent years.
“Look!” he’s said on occasion, motioning to a chart that shows the (lucrative) earnings of most computer science grads. “There’s good money to be made in computers. Besides,” he’ll continue, going over everything we’ve learned about technology’s features and functionality, “computers are a lot of fun to work with, if you know where to look!” He — and his class — have given us absolutely no reason to doubt him on either point. (Like I said, he’s a really good teacher.) But money and fun haven’t been enough to change his students’ minds en masse. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that we’re looking for something else entirely.
American sports earn money the way most professions recruit workers: They convince us, by spectacle or scope, that we’re not wasting our time. Every two our three hours we spend on couches or in stadia, the story goes, matters. It doesn’t make us much money — actually, it costs most of us us money — and we probably can’t point to a tangible way our lives got better when our team won. But something is happening when our favorite teams play, something more than just entertainment. We feel a link between their fates and our own, and that’s somehow enough to keep us tuned in.
NASCAR, the governing body of stock car racing in the United States, hasn’t been able to make Americans care on a mass scale in quite some time. In 2006, they peaked as America’s 2nd-favorite sport, at a time when their lineups were rife with names like Gordon and Earnhardt and America’s carbon concerns still sat on the backburner. Today, they’re hardly considered a major sport at all: The stars of that era — Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson — have almost all retired, and Americans aren’t as wedded to the car business as they were in the days before our nation’s economy started to crumble. Add to that NASCAR’s reputation as a backwater pastime, reserved for working-class-on-down white viewers in the rural South, and you’ve got the recipe for a steep decline that never really slowed or reversed itself. People needed reasons to care about what was happening on their screens when NASCAR was on the air; America’s leader in auto racing couldn’t deliver.
But, 16 years after NASCAR’s lightning trip to the mountaintop, they might have a chance to start their climb once again.
Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver at NASCAR’s top level, the Cup Series, since 1973. He’s twice finished second in the Daytona 500, a race so prestigious that it draws nearly three times as many viewers as NASCAR’s championship event in November, and he became the second Black winner in the history of stock car racing’s proverbial penthouse when rain sawed the last 71 laps off a race at Talladega.
But Wallace isn’t just good. Ever since 2020, he’s also used his platform to illuminate issues that NASCAR has never talked about before — not because they didn’t have to, mind you, but because no one would have told them even they did. When Amaud Arbury’s death hit the headlines in the spring, it was Wallace who called on NASCAR to finally ban the Confederate battle flag from trackside campgrounds. His request was controversial, maybe even more controversial than he’d thought it would be, but the league — er, “sanctioning body” — granted it, nonetheless. The controversy continued when one of Wallace’s crew members noticed that the rope used for opening the team’s garage door at the Talladega track had been tied in the fashion of a noose. But an FBI investigation revealed that, for a number of complicated reasons, it was impossible for this to have been done with Bubba Wallace in mind.
It seemed like everyone had something to say about Bubba Wallace in the weeks after the “noose incident,” from then-president Donald Trump to New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara. Yet, what must have been one of the most stressful times of Wallace’s life was a golden opportunity for his sport.
See, NASCAR hasn’t just cratered in popularity with American audiences. It’s tanked, at a time when the Formula One World Championship is making whale eyes at America’s shores. Thanks to F1’s Netflix docuseries, Drive to Survive, and their decision to let ESPN air Grands Prix at bargain-basement royalty rates, NASCAR might not even be the most popular racing in America by this time next year.
When Drive to Survive premiered in 2019, the only Grand Prix superstar with a claim to fame in the U.S. was Lewis Hamilton, the then-five-time champion who had dated Lindsey Vonn and forged friendships with the likes of Justin Bieber and Serena Williams. Now, walking the streets of my native Philadelphia, it’s not uncommon to see the cool kids decked out in Max Verstappen’s trademark orange sweatshirts, or the also-orange attire of the McLaren team that employs Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo. Formula One’s already taken over the world, with 443 million race-watching fans across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and South America. Now, thanks to the access they’re willing to grant to American media, they have the power to displace NASCAR from sea to shining sea.
None of this is to say that NASCAR can stave off Formula One forever. F1’s fanbase is absolutely younger and more diverse, spanning the globe and cutting across the lineae tribus; its races are in more exotic locales, from Monte Carlo to Abu Dhabi; its cars are made by Mercedes, Ferrari, and more, for the express purpose of going as fast as they can as efficiently as they can; and the powers that be in Grand Prix racing are interested in doing something about climate change. Those are trends that reach into the future as much as the present, and NASCAR lags behind on all of them. To say the least, they’re nothing like my science instructor.
But Bubba Wallace represents something new in the Cup Series — not just the chance that Black drivers might be tolerated at racing’s highest rungs, but respected, admired, and even welcomed into the larger community of racers. That possibility was on proud display when every driver in Cup rallied around Wallace during the noose scare; it remains whenever the tip of his tongue tastes sweet success of any kind.
For a Black man to be publicly welcomed at all into the NASCAR community might not be something most of its observers thought they’d ever see. What would happen if that same guy started winning several races a year, or contending for championships? Better yet, what if Bubba Wallace started winning championships? Maybe the lift it could give the sport’s lowly estate would be modest. Maybe. But the truth is, we don’t know, since we’ve never seen it before. There’s only one way to find out.
When the gatekeepers throw open the doors to new corridors of the American experience, they’re not just doing a favor to the people who come in. They’re involving themselves in a communal exercise, where new people bring new things to the table that wouldn’t have been discovered if the seating had stayed the same. If Bubba Wallace becomes the driver he’s shown flashes of in the past, there’ll be a reason to care about racing for nearly 40 million people who previously had no reason to think that NASCAR was “for them.” Unlike my — I assure you, great — professor’s bewilderment at our ambivalence, stock car racing might find that a salve to its wounds was sitting here all along.
Who knows where NASCAR might go then?