Driving the No. 43 Chevy for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2018, Bubba Wallace became the first African-American since Wendell Scott in the early 1970s to drive full time at the Cup level. Wallace finished the season 28th in points, with one top 5 and three top 10s. He spoke with Athlon Sports about a time he thought he was going to die on the track, his love of drums and if anybody calls him by his real name, among other subjects.
I don’t know if you know this or not, but you finished second in the Daytona 500.
I did not know that. Wow.
Are you a guy who goes back and watches the last five laps and says, dang, if I would have done this with three laps left I could have won, or do you say, second in the Daytona 500 is pretty cool?
I replayed that in my head and went back and watched it. Maybe if we could have gotten a little bit better restart, but when you’re lined up fourth with that amount of laps to go — it was a green-white-checkered — your job is to push. Push, push, push. You make your move on the final lap coming out of four. We stayed two wide all the way back around to Turn 4. When Aric [Almirola] and [Austin Dillon] got together, that shot Austin out ahead. If they wouldn’t have wrecked, I don’t know if we would have finished second. Maybe fourth. But there’s not much we could have done.
Do you watch video to figure out how to get around a track you haven’t been to?
Yeah. You listen for the throttle points and braking points. I’ll definitely watch footage of some of the faster cars just to see where your markings are. Things change from car to car. I can’t sit there and watch it for too long. It’s repetitive, and I say, “All right, I’m not going to learn much here.” But the data we have, it’s like a video game. You can go back and watch what every driver is doing. That has been a big help.
How do you think you guys did in your rookie season?
We had a big question mark beside our season. We didn’t know what to expect, with all the changes going in, switching manufacturers, alliances, rookie driver. We just kind of took every race one by one. We went through the ups and downs. I made my mistakes. The biggest thing is getting back to the tracks the second time and saying, okay, I remember this and this and this, put that all together and have a decent race. The first ones we went to it’s like, I don’t know what I’m doing. These Cup cars are such animals. [This] year, it’s all going to change with the rules package. I think we were behind expectations for the season. But we’re already building on the next season. We’re not hanging our heads.
What was the biggest surprise?
How bad I am on road course racing.
How do you get better?
Just more laps, more seat time. I ran 1,000 laps in my head at Sonoma, 1,000 laps at Watkins Glen, the Roval. I’m already thinking, I can do this to be better.
You had a couple gnarly wrecks. That one at Pocono, when you step on the brake and nothing happens, what goes through your head?
There’s a sense of being terrified. Not like watching a scary movie and being scared for a second, jumping out of your skin for a second. This one is, “Am I going to die?” That’s exactly what I asked myself. I was terrified. It’s definitely the hardest and scariest wreck I’ve ever had. It wasn’t fun. But it was good to be able to feel the car rotate a little bit and hit it with the rear end instead of head on. That was big.
How do you get back in the car after that?
Like it never happened. You just go back out. … The schedule doesn’t stop for me just to gather all of my marbles again. These guys aren’t going to stop working. If I said I didn’t want to get back in, they’d get somebody else, and that would probably be the end of my career. I was fighting for my ride still. It was another day in the park. That happens.
When you saw the wall coming, did you jam your legs to brace yourself, or did you lift your legs so they wouldn’t get broken?
I was still pressing the brake pedal, thinking that it was doing something when it wasn’t. There’s nothing you can do. I should have turned right and rode the wall around. Jimmie Johnson texted me afterward and said, “Brah, that happened to me twice, and what do I do? I turn left.” It’s just hard to tell yourself to turn right and hit the wall. When that wall opens up, there’s that huge grass area. You think, “I can make it to the grass area!” Nah!
You went into the season with all kinds of hype. What was that like?
I kind of expected it. First African-American since Wendell Scott to run full time in the Cup series. I knew that was going to be there. It was another deal that I just kind of shrugged it off and stayed focused on the task at hand, which was trying to get our 43 car competitive.
How did you start drumming?
I started when I was 11 years old. My dad got me a drum set. I piddle-paddled around with that a little bit. I played percussion in middle school band. I always had a knack for rhythm and drumming and stuff. When I moved into my house in 2015, I bought a drum kit and tried to learn more about it, get more in tune with it. I started getting better and really enjoying it. Now it’s a matter of if I have time to get on it.
What skills or attributes do both drivers and drummers need?
Rhythm. The biggest thing is you get into a rhythm. It’s like logging off lap times. Songs are three or four minutes. That’s a lot of time on the racetrack. You have to be in tune with that. I can listen to a song and go back and record video and hear that it’s off. Others may not hear it, but I hear that it’s off. Or you’ll start off on point and lose it. Toward the end you lose it, and it’s like, damn. That’s worth seconds on the track.
What tracks require the most rhythm?
I think road course races. There’s so many different corners. It’s a lot of muscle memory, too. Muscle memory for the drums, too.
You’re starting a band. I’ll give you any bassist in the world.
That’s tough. I have to go with Ryan Neff of Miss May I.
That’s tough. That’s super tough. I’d have to go with Ben Bruce of Asking Alexandria.
Now for singer, you need someone with charisma. We’ll pretend he has a good voice. But you have to pick a driver.
Ha. Kyle Petty’s a pretty good singer I hear. [Petty was elsewhere in the hauler when Wallace said this.] I don’t know. In the NASCAR community, who would have a good voice?
Don’t worry about voice. Just someone who would go up there…
And put on a good show?
Clint Bowyer. He’d put on a good show.
If someone started from scratch, would it be easier to become a great driver or a great drummer?
It’d be easier to become a drummer. It’s hard to say, but you can take lessons and what-not for drumming. You can find out in five or six laps if you have it as a driver. If you’re out there timid and shy, or even if it takes you a year, it’s like, yeah, you should have been a drummer.
The Air Force is one of your sponsors. What’s your craziest Air Force story?
Climbing in a fighter jet is pretty crazy. That was sweet, unreal, nothing like it. Hands down the coolest thing I’ve done.
Did you puke?
Didn’t puke, didn’t pass out, nothing.
You win your first Cup race, you get out of the car, who is the first person you thank?
The Lord, for sure, for giving me the opportunity. Then obviously my guys for sticking with me, from running them over on pit road to wadding stuff up, having to bring out backup cars, the whole nine.
Does anybody call you Darrell?
Nobody on the team. They all call me worse.
—by Matt Crossman