NASCAR’s chase to find the next Bubba Wallace


BEFORE BUBBA WALLACE became the only Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, before he became a symbol of the national movement against racial injustice, he was a reality TV star. Sort of.

In 2010, Wallace competed on BET's "Changing Lanes," where he was one of 30 young drivers living together and vying for a spot with Rev Racing, the competitive wing of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. "I found a new hate for reality TV," he says now, laughing. Jokes aside, it was a breakthrough for the 16-year-old. He finished second, then started racing for Rev in a developmental NASCAR circuit. "I am not sure I'd be here without it," he says.

Wallace has since emerged as one of the sport's most recognizable drivers, a high-profile graduate of a program that is trying to overturn NASCAR's image as a majority white male sport that allowed the Confederate flag at races until June -- when Wallace called for its removal. "With the flag being removed, with the actions Bubba has taken, you can see progress being made. My recruiting just got easier," says Phil Horton, Rev Racing's director of athletic performance and a Black man who has worked in NASCAR for 22 years.

This summer, Horton worked with the latest class of Rev Racing drivers, who gathered in North Carolina to improve their physical fitness, learn about their cars and compete. Ages 15 to 23, these young drivers hope to someday join Wallace on the racetrack and bring more women and people of color into NASCAR.

"Kids see a race and they don't see people who look like them," Wallace says. "We have to do a better job."

Wallace decided to take a stand against the Confederate flag after seeing videos of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Less than two weeks after he spoke out, a noose was found in his garage at Talladega. (The FBI investigated and determined that it was not a hate crime.) Wallace remains at the forefront of the racial justice movement and, most recently, was outraged by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in late August: "There are people trying to justify being shot seven times in the back. There's no way to justify it."

As the national conversation around racial justice continues, we checked in with Wallace and the next generation of drivers trying to change NASCAR forever.

As a teenager, Wallace competed for Rev Racing in NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East, where he was named the 2010 Rookie of the Year. He announced last week that he will be leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, where he has competed since 2017, at the end of the season. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Rev Racing drivers are chosen at an annual combine where they're tested on their physical abilities, media skills and driving. In North Carolina, they wore masks, practiced social distancing as much as possible and had their temperatures checked at the track. Clockwise from left: Rajah Caruth, Isabella Robusto, Lavar Scott, Perry Patino, Blake Lothian, Nick Sanchez, Regina Sirvent and Chase Cabre (dark hat). Not pictured: Gracie Trotter.
Wallace is a role model for 18-year-old Rajah Caruth, seen here in 2019. "I'm glad Bubba spoke up," Caruth says. "It's been good to lean on him and talk to him, going through similar stuff." Courtesy Rajah Caruth
“There are people trying to justify being shot seven times in the back. There's no way to justify it.”
The drivers often eat lunch with Rev's Horton, who encourages them to discuss diversity and race and learn about NASCAR's history. "I tell my drivers and my pit crew there's racing in their blood," he says. "They don't think so. They believe it's a white man's sport." He sometimes shows them documentaries about early pioneers such as Janet Guthrie, one of the first women to drive in NASCAR.
Isabella Robusto, left, and Regina Sirvent do their morning workout under Horton's direction. Sirvent, a 17-year-old from Mexico City whose role models include Rev graduate Daniel Suarez, says that she "tried a car in Mexico and my arms hurt, but now I feel like I'm stronger."
Drivers work their way up through different classes of cars and are trained to understand the mechanics, like Robusto with her late-model car here. "I'm trying to learn about the car as much as possible, so if I can't end up driving, I can help on the car," she says.
Lavar Scott, a 17-year-old Legend car driver from New Jersey, says he doesn't feel out of place as a Black man in racing, but he does notice "the little things. A lot of people just stare." He remembers being at a dirt race with friends and hearing someone say about them: "Don't worry, they're all gonna be in jail soon." He didn't let it upset him, he says: "I just go on the track and win."
In a sport where money is a key determiner of success, Rev lowers the barrier to entry that keeps many aspiring drivers, especially those of color, from accessing the next level. Nick Sanchez (not shown), who competes in the ARCA series, estimates that a season "with a halfway decent team costs close to a million dollars." Adds Blake Lothian, here with Rev's director of driver development, Mark Green: "I wouldn't have had any other way to break into oval racing. [Without Rev] it would be a lot harder. I'd be covering my own costs."
Caruth, left, and Robusto, right, help Scott push his Legend car out of the garage before the Summer Shootout race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "We're all very close," Scott says. "It's sad when we all go home for the winter."
Graduating from Rev is no guarantee of success. Drivers have to find their own sponsorships and work their way up the ranks. Wallace, for instance, had a difficult time getting sponsored earlier in his career, while other drivers have built-in connections. "I race against a lot of people [whose] granddad owns a Cup team. It's almost handed to them," says 19-year-old Sanchez, a third-year Rev driver of Cuban descent.
Sanchez, Lothian and Perry Patino race go-karts around the track in Mooresville, North Carolina. Lothian fell in love with racing after trying a go-kart at an elementary school fair.
Caruth's parents took advantage of some down time at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina to snap cap-and-gown photos of the high school grad. Caruth plans to study motorsports management at Winston-Salem State University in the fall.
At 15, Robusto is the youngest team member but is already in her fourth year in the program. She enjoys being one of the only girls on the track. "The boys don't want to get beat by a girl; they want to race you harder," she says. "It gives you more practice."
Some of the Rev Racing team have not been able to compete as much as usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the late-model drivers, including Caruth, did race at an empty Hickory Motor Speedway in August.
Lothian and Sirvent watch their teammates compete in a late-model race at Hickory Motor Speedway. Sirvent says she was nervous about the language barrier and had to adjust to slightly different track rules when she arrived from Mexico but that her teammates have made her feel welcome.
Scott gets some advice from Jason Simmons, NASCAR senior manager of racing operations and international strategy, before hitting the track in his Legend car. He appreciates the opportunity to seek guidance from coaches and more established drivers. He and Horton regularly discuss how to navigate being Black in NASCAR: "He says, 'You don't have to put yourself out there and represent all that right now. But know who you are and respect who you are.'"
The Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway gave the Rev drivers key racing experience. Here, the Legend car drivers take the first corner.
Caruth, right, found an unorthodox way into racing: gaming. He started his career by competing in an eNASCAR series and didn't drive a real race car until last year. "It took me 15 minutes to get going because I didn't know how to use a clutch," he remembers.
Written by Elaine Teng