Less than three months ago, Darrell Wallace, Jr., carved a place in NASCAR history when he won the pole for the Lucas Oil 200 at Dover International Speedway.
Wallace, 19, became the youngest pole winner in the Camping World Truck Series history, and he enters the Michigan National Guard 200 trucks race Saturday at Michigan International Speedway eighth in the points standings with three top-10 finishes in his last three races.
But age isn’t the only thing that distinguishes Wallace. He’s one of a handful of minorities competing in NASCAR’s top-three series, and he’s the fourth African-American driver to compete regularly on one of NASCAR’s three national circuits.
Born in Alabama and raised in Concord, N.C. — less than 30 miles from Charlotte, the epicenter of stock-car racing — Wallace began racing when he was 9 years old, and in October, 2009, was named to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. The nine-year-old program supports drivers in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, and is designed to give minority and female drivers the opportunity to compete with a NASCAR team.
“It helped me further my career, more than anything, in 2010 and 2011,” said Wallace, who is half white and half African-American. “The whole program is about bringing new faces and a new perspective into the sport.”
In 2004, NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France helped develop the Drive for Diversity program. A year later, France took a stance that went against stock-car racing’s Southern roots — he voiced his displeasure at the Confederate flag being flown at NASCAR events during an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes.
Eight years later, he still looks to increase the visibility of minorities and women in stock-car racing.
“That’s going to be another chance for us to have some breakthroughs,” France told Bloomberg Businessweek last week. “If we get a Hispanic driver, an African-American driver, more crew members, which we’re working on — we have a robust diversity plan that’s produced some really talented drivers. We haven’t had a breakthrough yet at the national level, but we’re close.”
NASCAR as a whole still remains a homogeneous sport. Of its current drivers, only three on the Sprint Cup Series are minorities or women: Aric Almirola, who is of Cuban descent; Juan Pablo Montoya, who is from Colombia; and Danica Patrick, the first female driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole.
Through 2012, 50 drivers have taken part in Drive for Diversity, and this year four Drive for Diversity drivers have made starts in NASCAR’s three national series: Wallace, Kyle Larson, and Ryan Gifford in the Nationwide series, and Paulie Harraka in the Sprint Cup series.
Marcus Jadotte, the vice president of public affairs and multicultural development for NASCAR, became first black officer in NASCAR history in 2011 and told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in November of 2012 that NASCAR “is very serious about becoming more reflective of the American population.”
“We certainly are moving as quickly as we can at this point,” Jadotte said. “The progress is undeniable. We’re not looking for a shortcut. We’re looking to do it correctly and, ultimately, have drivers who have sustained careers in the sport.”
But, Wallace explained, earning opportunities and carving out a career in NASCAR aren’t about black or white. It’s about green — as in money.
“It’s hard,” Wallace said. “These days, it’s all about sponsorship and money. If you have a big paycheck, you have a ride, and that’s tough for guy who are trying to break into the sport. It’s up to the performance level and what you bring to the table.”
Two days before Wallace won the pole at Dover, Camping World and Good Sam announced that its travel club agreed to sponsor Wallace in 11 of the final 18 truck races this season. Outside of finances, Wallace acknowledged that competitively, there’s a difficult path and that consistency is key in driving.
“You just can’t show up, race, and race to a win,” Wallace said. “The big thing is momentum [in driving]. If you keep that up and have good finishes, it helps. I’ve been happy with the top-10 finished we’ve had, but our trucks are capable of finishing higher.
“I think it’s going to happen soon. If we keep working hard and keep our heads on straight, we can end up on victory lane.”