Can Bubba Wallace be NASCAR’s version of Tiger Woods?

Bubba Wallace prior to the start of the NASCAR race at Talladega(Photo: Getty Images)

Purely on a whim, I ventured to the 1990 PGA Championship golf tournament held at the Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama. As an avid amateur hacker at the time, I was intrigued by the opportunity of getting to watch the world’s greatest players take on a very challenging course in an attempt to capture one of the sport’s major championships.

Looking back on that now, one thing that seems more than a little odd is that I had made virtually no preparations for my trip yet was able to easily secure a hotel room not far from Shoal Creek. Also, I had not purchased tickets prior to my arrival but easily strolled right up to the entrance and secured passes for each of the two days I was there with almost no waiting in line.

Less than a decade later such ease of attendance at a major golf tournament or even a standard PGA Tour event would not have been possible. The explosion of popularity for the sport can, without question, be attributed to one person- Tiger Woods.

When Woods made his highly anticipated debut in professional golf, which was almost immediately followed by unprecedented success for someone of his age, the golf world was turned upside down. Although there had been greats in the sport such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer who were highly popular among fans, Woods’ long drives and pin-rattling approach shots drew spectators to the courses and television broadcasts in numbers not seen before.

A whole new audience was suddenly paying attention to golf.

The fact that Woods was African-American further added to the attention being paid to him. Here was a person of color wildly succeeding in a sport previously dominated by whites. Granted, there had been other black golfers but none had won in the way Woods was winning nor had they been able to draw crowds like the new sensation was doing.

And it wasn’t just black fans who were drawn by Woods. New interest was garnered among many of all races to see if Tiger would win yet another tournament and by how many strokes. Further, many young people were suddenly watching and taking up the sport because of this new superstar.

Considering that 2020 has been a year which has seen many new ways of thinking and acting, could NASCAR be experiencing a similar boost from an entirely new audience?

With racial tensions on the rise throughout the United States, African-American driver Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace, Jr. has recently been placed at the forefront of NASCAR’s attempt to become more inclusive. A new advertising campaign features not only the Richard Petty Motorsports driver but also a number of the sport’s major white stars.

As has been well publicized by now, when a rope fashioned in the form of a noose was discovered in the garage stall of Wallace’s Chevrolet at the Talladega Super Speedway, a remarkable demonstration of unity was carried out by the sport’s drivers and teams when they, in unison, pushed the No. 43 car to the front of the starting grid.

Drivers and team members gather around Wallace’s car(Photo: Getty Images)

So are there any similarities between the movement of new fans begun by Woods into the primarily white world of golf and that of Wallace into the primarily white world of NASCAR?

First, it has to be pointed out that the immediate attention given to the now legendary golfer was not simply because of skin color but also because of the wins he quickly piled up as he left the sport’s top competitors in his wake. Wallace, on the other hand, has yet to achieve victory at NASCAR’s top level although he does have a runner-up finish in the sport’s premier event, the Daytona 500, back in 2018. He is, however, a six-time winner on the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and placed third in the final standings on that tour in 2014.

But the real comparison between Woods and Wallace, at least for now, could be that of drawing new eyeballs to their respective sports. People who had hardly paid golf any attention before he came along were suddenly riveted as Woods began to dominate the sport. And it seems as if that same sort of notice has come NASCAR’s way in recent weeks because of recent events around the country.

Even NBA star LeBron James recently tweeted about NASCAR:

James has more than 46 million followers on Twitter who had the opportunity to see that tweet. Not all of those followers are black and not all are white, but they all, at least for a moment, paid attention to a NASCAR race car for the perhaps the first time in their lives.

It would seem unlikely that Wallace, or any other driver, would go on a run in NASCAR that would match that of Woods in golf. It would almost be like having a season equivalent to the one enjoyed by Jeff Gordon in 1998 and repeating that feat over and over again. But what could happen that would serve as a benefit to all of NASCAR could be a wave of attention from sources that have never paid attention to the sport before, just as was the case with Tiger Woods in the early 2000’s.

Bubba Wallace greeting fans after the Talladega race(Photo: Getty Images)

With high-profile celebrities and athletes recognizing NASCAR’s efforts in terms of inclusion, new fans could be made, whether they be black, white, or any other race. So in that sense, there could be a measure of comparison drawn between Tiger Woods and Bubba Wallace.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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