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Netflix’s ‘RACE: Bubba Wallace’ Explores How a Black Driver Reluctantly Became a Change Agent

Director Erik Parker spoke to IndieWire about making his Netflix docuseries and balancing the duality implied in its title.

RACE: Bubba Wallace

Bubba Wallace in “RACE: Bubba Wallace”

Courtesy of Netflix

As a Black man in America with admittedly preconceived notions about the seemingly insular world of NASCAR, I’ve had little interest in watching any of its annual competitions or even learning about the sport. However, when Netflix debuted the trailer for its docuseries “RACE: Bubba Wallace,” it had my attention. The draw was its title character — a Black man thriving in, and disrupting the lily-white world of professional American auto racing, with its staunch Southern traditions, and all that the term historically implies. So if there’s any justification for “RACE’s” existence, it’s that it has the potential to draw curious African American non-fans (and possibly others), who may then become new fans of a sport that has historically shut them out.

“I think for all accounts, it was a win in that regard,” director Erik Parker, also an African American, told IndieWire during a recent interview. “To follow this series through the eyes of probably the most polarizing figure in NASCAR, who happens to be a Black man breaking down barriers, gave us an opportunity to explore a lot of different issues. When I came into the series, I knew very little about NASCAR, and I wasn’t very interested in learning about the sport. However, following Bubba’s story gave me a gateway into understanding more about the culture, the heritage, while getting to know the only African American driver at the Cup Series in one of America’s homegrown sports.”

The six-episode “RACE,” which debuts on Tuesday, February 22 is certainly educational. It does a great job of breaking down the science of racing, and the chess match that it ultimately is between drivers trying to maneuver potentially fatal pathways in order to put themselves in positions to win. Much of the technical excavating in “RACE” is thanks to the appearance of Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing with NBA legend Michael Jordan, who entered the sport in September 2020, when he and Hamlin launched the organization for which Wallace is one of two drivers, along with Kurt Busch.

“Denny Hamlin is one of the great racers driving today, and we used him to talk about NASCAR and the strategy behind it because he really is a strategist when it comes to dealing with the actual sport,” Parker said. “Bubba wanted to show people what it’s like for a driver, what it takes, the pressures, and all these other aspects of the daily grind of driving, which people don’t know very much about. We combined the racial element and the performance element to paint a complete portrait of his life, and so the word ‘race’ has a double meaning. They play off each other providing tension, although much of that comes from the racial element.”

The series began filming after the “racial reckoning” of 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd in May, which sparked protests across the country calling for justice. In early June, Wallace inflamed NASCAR fans when he wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt in sympathy with protesters, during a NASCAR event, and raced a car with a Black Lives Matter paint scheme.

He upped the ante the following week when he told CNN’s Don Lemon that NASCAR should ban the Confederate flag from its races. A symbol so deeply entrenched in the sport, it seemed inconceivable that the racing organization would cave, and risk alienating its base. But it became a question of whether it wanted to be on the right side of history, by prohibiting a 150-year-old emblem of racism that has been claimed by white supremacists and mythologized as representative of a mutinous Southern heritage.

Less than a month after the murder of Floyd, on June 10, 2020, NASCAR released a statement forbidding the Confederate flag from all its events and properties, which the organization said ran “contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.”

Wallace, already in the crosshairs of diehard NASCAR fans, drew their intensified ire. A noose was found in the Talladega Superspeedway garage stall assigned to him. In response, the sport enhanced security, installing cameras in all NASCAR garages, and began to require racial sensitivity training for NASCAR employees.

“There was lots of concern around Bubba for his safety at the time, because having the flag banned brought him a lot of heat, him and his family,” Parker said. “So when the noose was found at his garage, there was heightened tension around him. I think NASCAR did the right thing. And I have to credit them for the footage where all their people came out in support when they said, ‘We stand with Bubba’.”

It may come as a surprise that NASCAR as an organization and a number of its race car teams are quite diverse, which the docuseries highlights. Parker differentiates between hardcore NASCAR fans and NASCAR as an institution.

“The entrenched fans don’t speak for the people who run the sport, especially the drivers,” he said. “They travel a lot which opens them up to other experiences. And NASCAR now is really making a great effort to be inclusive. I was struck by how many Black people are involved. I thought I would go there and see no Black people behind the scenes. But I discovered that on Bubba’s crew are two Black pit members. Also, there are top-level Black people at NASCAR, who work within the sport and love the sport.”

They include Erik Moses, who NASCAR named president of Nashville Superspeedway in 2021, making him the first African American president of a NASCAR track. And just last week, Jusan Hamilton was named the first Black race director in Daytona 500 history.

“Some of this happened as a result of the racial uprising, but some of it was already on its way,” Parker said. “There’s this old diehard tradition and Confederate flag fan, and a lot of them are seeing NASCAR going a different direction, are critical of it, and don’t want any part of it. They don’t want to see it become more inclusive. But then there’s a machine that sees very little downside for NASCAR as it broadens its reach because that means it’s going to bring more people and therefore more money. They just have to cut ties with, or work to convince those fans who are less tolerant of the direction they’re moving.”

It’s a story that speaks to the post-Trump “American narrative.” Donald Trump’s election foregrounded the voices of one-half of a divided country resistant to progressive change — the “browning of America” as it’s been referred to, with the country at a demographic inflection point. But change is inevitable. According to the Census Bureau, population growth is slowing among whites, and by 2044, no one racial group will be a majority of the country.

Like several NASCAR drivers who refused to appear in the docuseries, Wallace was reluctant to talk about “the browning of NASCAR,” and the incidents of 2020 that thrust him into the national spotlight. “Bubba wanted to move on from it, and so we had to make sure that we included all of the other stuff about the sport itself because he was really focused on the new season,” Parker said.

Still, deliberately or not, the 28-year-old Wallace emerged as a change agent, taking on the NASCAR establishment and winning, while also changing the face of the sport. The impact has yet to be formally quantified, but it probably isn’t a stretch to say that he’s brought attention to the sport in a way that hasn’t previously happened, and, as a result, increased interest in it, diversifying its fanbase, and reviving declining viewership. According to NASCAR reporter, Greg Engle, during the 2021 season’s top tier Cup series, “12 of the 32 races had ratings that were higher” over 2020, including “a six-race stretch leading up to Talladega that saw a consecutive increase in viewership each week.”

He concluded: “And based on what we see today, NASCAR seems to be on an upward trajectory and shows no signs of slowing down.” Additionally, NASCAR boasts more Black owners in the Daytona 500 today than ever before.

In October 2021, Wallace posted his first Cup Series victory at Talladega Superspeedway, becoming the first Black driver to prevail in the sport’s premier division in nearly 58 years, since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott earned a Cup Series win.

“Bubba Wallace is a young man who found himself at a time in history where he took a stand when he was called, and answered the call,” Parker said. “He had a lot to lose, including his livelihood and whatever support he had left. And this is a man who loves to race more than anything. But he put that all on the line when he stood up to injustice and did so without wavering because he thought it was the right thing to do. We didn’t know we needed him until he did.”

All six episodes of “RACE: Bubba Wallace” are now streaming on Netflix.

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