By Jerry Bonkowski
It was about time. Or to be more precise, it was nearly 60 years overdue.
Sure, it was a rain-shortened NASCAR Cup event this past Monday at Talladega Superspeedway, when only 117 of the scheduled 188 laps were completed.
And sure, race winner Bubba Wallace may forever carry an asterisk behind his name in the mind of some NASCAR fans because his triumph was actually achieved in an event that didn’t even reach the two-thirds completed mark.
But a win is a win, no matter how you get it and how you take it.
Bubba was in the right place at the right time, crossed the finish line just in time as the rain came again, NASCAR weather forecasters were not optimistic that the rain would stop anytime soon, and with Talladega not having lights, he earned his first-ever Cup win.
That should be the end of the story.
Well, not exactly.
Although many would like to think of it being just another win by just another driver, there was still a distinction that the media had to play up: that Bubba became only the second Black driver in NASCAR history to win a Cup Series race, and the first Black driver to do so since Wendell Scott on December 1, 1963, in Jacksonville, Florida.
Admittedly, it should not have taken nearly 58 years between Scott’s win and Wallace’s win for a Black man to win. But let’s celebrate it for what it was: a great achievement for diversity.
Yes, Wallace’s accomplishment is significant for people of color, especially for Black and Brown fans, particularly those who are new to the sport. It shows that anyone can win, regardless of skin color, faith, creed, belief, sexual identity, etc.
And I’m firmly behind that.
But what I’d like to see going forward from Wallace’s win is less emphasis on his skin color and more emphasis on the fact he won at one of NASCAR’s most difficult tracks. Or that he beat Talladega stalwarts and Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano – who between them have nine ‘Dega wins (Keselowski 6, Logano 3) – to the finish line.
It’s ironic that Wallace won Monday because I recently spoke with a very good friend of mine, a blind man, who once told me, “I don’t care what color somebody is. I can’t see them. I accept them for who they are and the kind of people they are, not what their skin color is.”
That’s the way all sports should be, what all people should be like.
NASCAR has made diversity a major priority and in recent years we have begun to see change with increased fans, drivers and team members from the Black, Brown and other minority communities.
But Wallace’s win – asterisk or not – will go a very long way to further increasing fan awareness and attract even more fans, drivers and team members of color as well. Their new mantra should be, “If Bubba can do it, I can do it.”
Other racing sanctioning bodies – particularly the National Hot Rod Association – have long embraced drivers of color and diverse heritage.
That’s why today, for example, if someone like Top Fuel driver Antron Brown or Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon wins, they are noted for their racing prowess, not their skin color or heritage (Brown is Black and Pedregon is Brown/Hispanic).
It’s very rare that NHRA notes a driver’s color or ethnicity. To drag racing’s largest sanctioning body, a driver is a driver, period.
And that’s the way it should be, just like in other sports such as Major League Baseball, the NFL or NBA, where race is rarely brought up in terms of performance. I mean, what would this world be like if we spoke of Michael Jordan or Lebron James solely as two of the greatest Black players to ever play the game, as opposed to what they really are: two of the greatest players to ever play the game -- regardless of skin color.
NASCAR is moving in the right direction, but obviously it’s hard to not point out Wallace’s unique achievement at Talladega. Still, in the last 15 years or so, we’ve seen the first Colombian driver win in Cup (two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya), the first Cuban-American driver (three-time winner Aric Almirola), the first Mexican-born driver win (Daniel Suarez in the Trucks and Xfinity Series).
And now we’ve seen Wallace as the first Black driver to win in nearly 60 years.
But we should all long for the day when someone wins a race and we DON’T have to focus on his/her skin color or heritage.
Congratulations to Bubba on a great win. You did it not because you were Black, but because you bested the best drivers in the Cup Series for at least one day. You should be very proud of your achievement.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski