23XI Racing driver Bubba Wallace was made available to media via videoconference prior to the Daytona 500 this Tuesday:
BUBBA WALLACE, No. 23 DoorDash Toyota Camry, 23XI Racing
Can you talk about the importance of minority owners getting involved in NASCAR and how your team at 23XI Racing is helping to change the look of the sport?
“I think it’s really cool. I actually texted with Justin Marks the other day about the partners that they were bringing in. It’s really cool to kind of see some fun brands coming in, but really cool for PitBull to also be joining NASCAR and talked to (Daniel) Suarez about that and said, he’s a big fan. He fell in love with the sport after watching Days of Thunder. So thought that was an interesting connection there and crossover, but I think it’s, it’s big. It shows other minorities like, ‘Hey, you know, if these guys are investing, then why can’t we,’ and then continue to grow our sport. And so that’s what we need. It’s all about exposure, reaching out to the right people because they have ideas of how they want to see success and grow their name, grow their brand. And getting to be a part of NASCAR where a lot of minorities, you know, that’s not really what they go to, which is NASCAR, and we’re changing the game and everything that happened last year. I think we put NASCAR on the map in a lot of new areas with a lot of new fans looking to tune in this year, which is great. It’s important. It’s huge for all of us. We just need to keep the ball rolling.”
What has your interaction been like with Michael Jordan so far?
“It’s been just through text messages, really, as our form of communication. He’s going to get down to the track, I believe the week of the 500. That’ll be my first official meeting with MJ. So we’ve been grinding in the background, getting everything together with the team, spending time on the SIM, just the last minute checklist before we all head South. I’m heading South at the end of the week. Just making sure I get everything done and everything that I needed to do because the season’s here. I tweeted out yesterday, I walked into the bus to throw some clothes on, throw some things on, and I stood there with no one in the pitch black and I said, it’s time to go. So, I’m pumped. I’m excited to get down there.”
Do you feel any pressure with Michael Jordan as one of your team owners?
“Yeah, no, for sure. I think there’s a lot of pressure riding on us, but you know, we’ve been able to get to know him better knowing how he dealt with pressure, having Denny (Hamlin) there, looking at the success he’s had through the years, you know, I think we’ll be just fine.”
What would it mean to win the Daytona 500 with this new race team?
“I think any race is important, but like you said, with the way things have shaped up this year after the year we’ve had last year — Daytona being on Valentine’s Day, Black History Month, such an important month for all of us, especially in the time that we’re in right now. It’s shaping up to be real fairy tale ending.”
What did Sam Belnavis mean to you throughout your career?
“Sam (Belnavis, Chief Diversity Officer, Roush Fenway Racing) was a vital part. I met Sam when I was 11, 12 years old when he was at Roush and he remained a really good family friend to our family for years, even recently, we’ve still been in contact. I’ve really appreciated Sam’s vision on everything and how he’s gone about things. And he wants to see the word ‘minority’ gone because it’s the majority now. And so he’s always pushed for that. And we’re working to get there, so a lot of work to be done, but just an incredible human being for sure.”
What kind of pressure is on you now to carry on the legacy that you mentioned Sam Belnavis helped usher into the sport?
“I think we just keep doing everything that we know how to do, and that’s in our control. And we look at what Wendell Scott did really to kick off the trail that he had blazed. We’ve been trying to carry that torch ever since I’ve been in the sport. And so while I’m carrying the on-track stuff, there’s a lot of people that are carrying the off track. We’re pushing for more, pushing for great success from a minority standpoint, from a diversity standpoint, inclusion from the whole and the sport’s behind it, the fans are behind it. Some of the fans are behind it. We just have to keep pushing and not let anything steer us off the beaten path.”
Are you doing anything differently in preparation for this season? Is Denny Hamlin giving you certain things to do that you haven’t done before?
“I can’t tell you all my secrets there, Bob (Pockrass, Fox Sports). I know you’d like to share that on Twitter. So good try, but no I think this is big for me, like you said. Being able to have Denny (Hamlin) in your back pocket, you know, looking at the year he just came off of. There’s a lot, a lot of positive momentum for us. We have some really crucial meetings coming up this week before we get down there and we’ll continue to have that dialogue of what we expect, how to execute the right way and go about things the right way to put ourselves in a position to contend and compete for wins. I’m excited about it. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity. I don’t know if I’ve said that enough. This has been what I’ve been wanting for so long, to go out and try to prove a point, that, ‘Hey, I belong and we’re going to go out and compete and contend and become a household name on the race track.”
Have there been things that they’ve asked you to do that you haven’t done before and has it been eye opening at all?
“There’s just more things to look at. I said earlier, we should have a bigger plate in front of me with a lot more to digest on it from data, from time commitments and just being, being more active and proactive to everything and making sure I’m mentally and physically prepared for the season ahead.”
What is a reasonable expectations for you for this season?
“Just continuing to grow from the seasons that I’ve had. And last year I think we kept getting better and better. Do I expect to jump in and win right off the bat? No, not at all. I know the sport, if it was that easy, a lot of people would be doing it, but it’s not that easy. And I know the competition that we go up against it’s tougher than it’s ever been. So I’m excited to get under way and just see where we stack up. We start to build a resume at Daytona and build off that and continue to get better for our team. It’s going to take a couple of races, just like any new team will to get everything underneath us and make sure like, ‘Oh, we missed that last week.’ Let’s make sure we don’t do that and prepare for the next and build on that. Then once we get going and get a couple of races under our belts, then we can really start to pinpoint our weaknesses or our strong points and build off those and grow from those and learn from everything. So there’s a lot riding on us, you know, I’ve had personal goals of two wins. There’s nothing wrong with having personal goals at all. For personal goal for everybody, everybody in the field to win every race, not really doable. (Kevin) Harvick and Denny (Hamlin) tried to do that last year. I think you just have to go out and be competitive and I’ve felt more competitive and more passion, more drive than I ever have with everything that’s right out in front of me with this opportunity. So we’ll go out and get it.”
How much pressure is on you to win this season or next year?
“There’s been pressure ever since I got into the league to win. So just another year, new car, no different.”
I believe you’re still the only black driver to come through the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, what needs to happen for there to be more diversity going forward in NASCAR?
“We have to show that the program works. I think we have, I mean, look at myself, (Kyle) Larson, (Daniel) Suarez, coming up through the ranks and, you know, all competing against each other on Sunday. It’s been a product of the program. Are there ways that we can get better? Yeah, for sure. You know, those are conversations that we have behind the scenes of what are we doing to help our youth and get them in the right spots where they need to be to showcase what they really have. And so I think going out and being competitive on the race track, showing that, you know, I belong is a big stepping stone for that. We just have to go out and do that.”
What’s the vision that you and Michael Jordan share going forward, and what do you think his presence in this sport will do?
“Well, I think everybody got a chance to watch ‘The Last Dance’ and it was able to show us, who he is and how he is as a person and a competitor. I think that is, you know, what we’re kind of looking at. And at the end of the day he wants winning race cars. He wants a winning race driver and he took an opportunity to invest in me and he has seen something that sparked his interest to make this deal happen and move forward with it along with Denny (Hamlin). And so, you know, I can’t thank them enough for allowing me to pilot their race cars and to utilize everything that I’ve learned in the last three seasons, really at the Cup level, but overall six, seven seasons it’s been since the truck days. So we’re just going to go out and do what I know how to do, not change up anything, not try too hard because of MJ or because of Denny or because of the opportunity, you know, I’ve made that mistake. I’ve made that mistake in the past of trying too hard when the time wasn’t right. And it does more harm than good. So we’ll go out and just give it our all each and every week and continue to get better and better as the weeks go on.”
How different does it feel heading to Daytona this year after all that happened last season?
“I’ve lost seven pounds from everything that happened last year, so much stress and pressure. And now I think everything happens for a reason. I was actually on the phone with Claire (B. Lang, SXM Radio) right before this. And I said, it’d be interesting to see, when it’s your time to go at the end of your lifetime, it’d be interesting to see if you could get a piece of paper handed to you saying that here’s everything that happened and why it happened and what came out of that. We’ll never know, that’s why we just live life. Every day is a new day, a new opportunity to go out and capitalize on. So that’s how I’m looking at it. We look at Daytona and look at the whole perspective of this incredible opportunity, but we can’t let that get too big. We can’t let it supersede our expectations and our mission to go out and compete because once you do that, that’s when the mistakes come, that’s when it’s just like, ‘Oh, I didn’t really expect that,’ we have to be ready. It’s just another season for us. Little things are a little different, different look, different sponsor, different teams. It’s great to have everybody involved from partners, from manufacturers — the partnerships that we have with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. So we’ll just go out and execute. That’s the biggest thing.”
How difficult have the last 12 months been for you since you were last at the Daytona 500?
“It’s funny. I have a goal every year, to not be a part of the headlines. Every year I have that goal and I failed every year because there’s something that’s like, ‘Hey, I wanna, you know, not make any controversy.’ So something always happens whether it’s my doing or not, but it seems like it’s always my doing so.”
What kind of adjustment will it be for you behind the wheel to run up front with drivers that you perhaps haven’t raced with as much in recent seasons?
“I think I look at the races that we had driving the 43, the races where we were running up front and competing. We were strong. I look at Indy two years ago and even last year, I know how to race against those guys. Do they expect me to be up there? No. And do they race me differently because of it? Yes. And so I think that’s the biggest things that’s going to change for other drivers. It’s going to, hopefully it’s like, ‘Okay, this kid, this guy, whatever, they call me, whatever, knows what he’s doing up here. And so we have to race him a little bit different.’ I’m not expecting it be a cake walk at all. We’re there to race and race hard. And so that’s what I’m looking forward to the most is having more of those runs in the top 10 each and every week, showing that we’re a factor and able to contend for wins and just go out and have fun and do the best that we can.”
In what ways has your relationship with Denny changed from what it was previously? And has he been any sort of influence or helped you in any way?
“We’re having those conversations and now they’re starting to ramp up for sure. Denny’s (Hamlin) been super busy with his own palette of things, driving the 11 and then he has a separate palette for 23XI Racing. So I know he’s been crunching away, but he has been very vocal in our emails and our text chain about getting together and setting expectations and what to expect and how to execute the right way. I’m all ears and got the notebook ready to see what there is to offer. We just have to grow together as drivers and figure out how we can push each other to be better. It’s going to take some time for me to grow with the team and to gel. Denny told me at the beginning of this deal, if there’s something that’s not right, then don’t hesitate to go to them, no matter the circumstances. And I’ll make sure to have that lifeline in my back pocket when things aren’t going necessarily according to plan for whatever reason, but I don’t expect that to happen. I think we have the right people in the right place to make our program successful. From the front office, to our guys in the shop, to our road crew, to our pit crew. Everything’s in front of me right here. It’s just not easy to grab, but it’s doable. So we just have to go out and do it.”
Why do you say that one of your goals each year is to not create any controversy?
“Because it’s tiring. Seems like whatever I do, whenever I rage-quit an iRacing event, I’m the most hated person, so it’s just like, ‘Hey, let’s just stay low key here this year.’ Nope, didn’t happen. The more controversy I cause, the more media calls I have to do.”
How do you handle controversies like last year that weren’t of your own doing?
“Go be a part of something where you’re the minority for 18 years and you learn how to handle it. So it’s just another day in the life of Bubba Wallace here, it’s all right. I’m good with it. It’s as simple as that.”
Is your biggest challenge in 2021 going to be on the race track or off?
“On the race track for sure. It’s just delivering results. This, for me, is the one and potentially last opportunity for me. We have a solid foundation underneath us to make this program better and to grow this team and make this a household name in the sport and make it a pinnacle name of our sport. I think the on track stuff, you just have to go out and execute and not get lazy and not get sidetracked — not get too frustrated and throw away some really good races. And when we do have bad races we try to grow and get better throughout and capitalize and just make every opportunity count, that’s the biggest thing.”
What do you feel are appropriate goals to set for yourself and this race team?
“Like I said, our goals, every driver’s goal is to win every race. So that’s the loftiest of lofty. That’s like a 60 degree right there next to the green, that’s a ton of loft, not doable, but hey, we have those personal goals. For us in our team, we have a lot of pressure already without the wins or without whatever, we’re just going out and making sure we have everything underneath us that we need to compete and perform. As long as we get better each and every week, we’re going to have some races where we have a shot and then it’s going to be like, eh, we fall off, but we have to be able to bounce back from that fall off. And we have to show that, you know, we can face adversity and perseverance and show progress throughout the whole year.”
What was it like being a black driver growing up in the short track, late model system?
“I was just another driver there. You know, everybody was super competitive and I didn’t necessarily feel the race card in those scenarios. And I never really have. Obviously it’s been brought out more and more in the recent months, in the last year, but it wasn’t like Wendell Scott had it back in the day, I’ll say that. I was treated fairly for the most part. When they couldn’t find out why we were so successful, then that’s when they would protest and do everything they could to stop us, but we just show back up the next week and compete and win. That was it.”
With Denny looking at maybe doing some Super Late Model racing this year, is there still an opportunity with 23XI Racing to help diversify and bring awareness to short-track racing because there’s been great progress, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done?
“Yeah, there’s a lot that needs to be done really. And that’s on NASCAR’s hands, that’s on our hands and every team — we can all play a huge part in pushing for diversity and inclusion inside our four walls. Those conversations are going to be had, and we’ll see what the outcome is. But, where is Denny (Hamlin) racing Super Lates at?”
You mention the goal of winning two races, but have you even been able to sit in one of the race cars at the shop yet with things still so new for the team?
“Yeah, I’ve sat in the car. I actually sat in it earlier today just to get last minute things going. I feel like people are writing 23XI Racing, two wins. If we don’t get that, then we need to close up our shop. That’s not the case at all. That’s a personal goal for me. Knowing the success of Toyota, knowing the success with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing), there’s a lot more opportunity than I’ve had in recent years to go out and compete. Knowing our cars, knowing the hours that are going into it, knowing the manufacturing that’s going into it, there’s no reason why we can’t go out and just compete.”
You have continued to be a target of some hateful messages on social media. Has that ramped up with the news of this new race team and are you ever concerned for your safety at the race track?
“I’ll just let you know when it ramps down, it’s going to be there every day. And that’s part of it. It makes me stronger.”
Toyota Racing PR