When the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season ended, Bubba Wallace wanted to get away from it all — away from the stress of COVID-19, the stress of the season, the stress of being the new face of NASCAR.
He and his girlfriend Amanda decided to road-trip back home to Charlotte. They piled into his motor coach in Phoenix and hit the road. Fellow driver Daniel Hemric and his wife, Kenzie, followed along.
At Santa Fe, N.M., Hemric and Kenzie broke up the convoy. They headed for Oklahoma, and Wallace and Amanda continued on to Big Bend National Park in Texas. They hiked and camped and decompressed after a whirlwind 2020 that altered the course of his life and career. “It was a blast,” he says. “It was nice to get away from everything. I told my management team, don’t call me, don’t text me, I’m not answering. It was nice.”
He wanted to clear his mind and think as little as possible about the 2021 season, which happens to be the biggest opportunity of his career. “It’s so hard to not think about it, especially when it’s right around the corner,” he says.
And now here it is. Wallace, long seen as a future star if he could land a job in top-notch equipment, has the biggest opportunity of his career as the driver for 23XI Racing, the new team owned by driver Denny Hamlin and NBA icon Michael Jordan.
All great NASCAR teams have unique origin stories. Richard Childress sold popcorn at notorious Bowman-Gray Stadium. Rick Hendrick owned a successful drag boat racing team, but he struggled initially in NASCAR. He was ready to close his team in 1984, and then Geoffrey Bodine won a race at Martinsville and Hendrick decided to keep the doors open.
The founding of 23XI (pronounced twenty-three eleven) might be the most unusual of them all. It starts with a friendship between Hamlin and Jordan, who grew up in North Carolina and attended NASCAR races with his family.
Hamlin told Athlon Sports that they became friends after he sat courtside at NBA games in Charlotte for years. “I was walking out at halftime,” he said. “He stopped me and asked me about a race that happened a couple of weeks ago. I said, ‘Wow, you watch NASCAR?’ He said ‘Yeah, take my number, we’ll get up and go to a race or something sometime.'”
Soon Hamlin wore the Jumpman decal on his firesuit, and Jordan attended races as Hamlin’s most famous fan.
“Starting a race team has been something that Michael and I have talked about while playing golf together over the years, but the timing or circumstances were never really right,” Hamlin says. “It just makes sense now to lay the foundation for my racing career after I’m done driving and also help an up-and-coming driver like Bubba take his career to a higher level. Plus, Michael and Bubba can be a powerful voice together, not only in our sport, but also well beyond it.”
Wallace, the sport’s only African-American driver, transcends NASCAR like no other current driver. After George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, Wallace began speaking publicly about race issues in a way he hadn’t before. He called on NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at racetracks, which it did in June.
A few weeks later, NASCAR announced it had found a rope pull fashioned into a noose at Wallace’s garage stall in Talladega. The sport asked for a federal investigation and called it “a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and how persistent we must be in the fight against racism.”
Drivers and crew members rallied around Wallace, lining up around his car to push it to the starting grid before the race that weekend. In a sport that has long wrestled with racial tension, it was an emotional and cathartic scene.
The subsequent investigation found that the noose hanging in Wallace’s garage had been there since at least the previous October, meaning it was impossible for Wallace to have been the target. NASCAR examined the rope pulls at all 1,684 garage stalls in all 29 tracks. Only Wallace’s stall had a rope tied like a noose.
President Trump tweeted that Wallace should apologize, even though he had nothing to do with the investigation and only found out about the noose when NASCAR told him.
Wallace drew high praise across the sports industry for how he carried himself throughout the ordeal. He was interviewed repeatedly by brand-name media outlets that don’t normally cover racing. “There was tremendous weight, sometimes the weight of the entire industry, on his shoulders,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps told Athlon Sports.
“He could have gone in a direction that was really a dark one. He could have gone toe-to-toe with the haters,” Phelps said. “He took the high road, always. I think that was important for him to do. It made a lot of people become fans of his because of how he handled himself.”
That took copious self-control from Wallace. His default reaction is usually sarcasm — “I love to poke fun, poke the bear,” he says. That works and is funny when he’s talking with people who know him. But he knew it wouldn’t work on Twitter or CNN.
“There were two ways to go. You can go high or you can go low. Like Michelle Obama said, when they go low, you go high,” Wallace says. “I could have fired back and defended myself. But that doesn’t go anywhere. People already have their minds made up when they don’t even know you. I had multiple tweets that I wanted to send out on multiple occasions. I was like, ah, I don’t know. My girlfriend was like, no, don’t send that out. Just keep the high road.”
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In an appearance on CBS in which the car was unveiled, Wallace, who drove for the last three years for Richard Petty Motorsports, was asked if he felt pressure driving the No. 23 for the famously hypercompetitive Jordan. “Look at the car I’m driving right now — the iconic No. 43,” he said. “Now we’re switching over to the iconic No. 23. Pressure is kind of my middle name.”
There is no doubt that the pressure will be sky-high for Wallace, probably higher than it should be.
Still, for as much excitement as the announcement of 23XI’s formation generated, the team should be viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism. The recent history of new teams in NASCAR is not stellar, and while Jordan might be the greatest basketball player in history, he has been mediocre at best as an NBA team owner.
He bought the Charlotte Hornets in April of 2010. Starting with the 2010-2011 season, the Hornets have gone 320–467 (.407). The 2011-12 edition won only seven out of 66 games, posting the worst winning percentage in league history (.106). Under Jordan’s stewardship, the Hornets have never had back-to-back winning seasons and have made the playoffs only twice.
Other athletes have dabbled in becoming NASCAR team owners, and most of them have failed. Some never even made it to the racetrack. Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman were co-owners of Hall of Fame Racing, which opened to much excitement in 2006. They sold the team after two full seasons, and it closed a few years later with zero wins, two top 5s, and four top 10s. Elliott-Marino Motorsports — a partnership between Bill Elliott and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino — lasted only one season.
Athletes’ struggles as NASCAR team owners have little to nothing to do with the fact that they are athletes and everything to do with the fact that running a successful race team is extremely difficult. Almost everybody fails at NASCAR team ownership — athletes, business owners, whoever.
In the last decade or so, NASCAR has made myriad changes that should have made it easier for new teams to compete. The institution of the charter system guaranteed that the owner of a charter would have a starting spot. And cost controls built into the rules also decreased the amount of yearly investment needed to field a team. But even with those changes, new teams have not found solid footing in the sport.
23XI Racing’s partnership with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing will certainly help. Joe Gibbs, the NFL Hall of Fame coach, is the best example of a crossover owner who has found great success. In 29 seasons, JGR has won five championships and 185 races, including 28 over the last two years. Hamlin, a savvy veteran driver, contributed 13 of them. His presence will be important, too.
“My main goal for 23XI Racing is to be competitive for a championship as soon as possible,” Jordan says. “Our partnership with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing gives us the equipment, resources, and expertise to do it.”
Having all of that does not guarantee that Wallace will be fast on the track any more than using great ingredients and a world-class chef’s recipe guarantees that your dinner will be delicious. Satellite teams rarely enjoy sustained success, and they are almost never fast right away, a fact Hamlin and Wallace acknowledge.
“We have to be patient,” Hamlin says. “But I believe that we’re putting the best team that’s possibly available together. I’m pretty confident that we’re going to have the parts and pieces we need to do it. My vision is well beyond just a one-car team, and hopefully we can execute and continue to grow year after year.”
Still, there are reasons to think Wallace could have a strong year. His team will essentially be the same one that fielded cars for Christopher Bell’s No. 95 team for Leavine Family Racing. Wallace points to Bell’s strong push at the end of the season, the most notable being a top-5 finish at Texas.
Driving subpar equipment for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Cup level last year, Wallace says he would have competed for a shot in the playoffs if not for back-to-back bad finishes at Charlotte.
He acknowledges that that’s a “shoulda, coulda, woulda” analysis, but it’s inarguable that he has improved his on-track results in each season. And if he makes a similar improvement this year while in better equipment, that’ll justify optimism. Wallace says that reasonable expectations for 2021 include making the playoffs and securing his first win.
“If we take what the car will give us, take what the race will give us, I think we have a really good shot at some incredible feats,” Wallace says.
The biggest challenge that the team faces might not be building fast cars but rather learning how to work together to make them faster.
This will be Wallace’s first season with crew chief Mike Wheeler. They planned to get together often in the offseason to get to know each other. Considering that there will be limited or no practice time throughout the season, their ability to communicate will be crucial.
“This needs to be a partnership, a relationship. Just getting the team to vibe and jell — you’re going to have the new team bugs — that’s our biggest challenge right now,” Wallace says.
Off the track, 23XI Racing has an easier path to success, even in an era that has seen dwindling sponsorship opportunities. The sport exists as a means to connect businesses with people who want to spend money. The team likely will succeed in that regard. Simply having Jordan as an owner will attract sponsors. And Wallace’s rising stature in the sport makes him a compelling spokesman. Both Wallace and Jordan will attract substantial free media coverage, which will add value to the sponsorship.
How long the sponsors will stay patient as the team learns to run up front is an open question. Hamlin and Jordan — both fierce competitors — will have to show patience, too.
“Toyota is in the business of winning and winning championships, and I want to contribute to that,” Hamlin says. “I am way too competitive, and anybody that knows me knows that I don’t do anything halfway. I make sure that I do it the right way. I’m trying to do that right from Year One.
“It will take time, ultimately, to build this into an organization like a Joe Gibbs Racing. It takes a lot of time.”
— Written by Matt Crossman for Athlon Sports’ 2021 Racing magazine. With 144 pages of racing content, it’s the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.
(Top photo courtesy of Jared Allen and 23XI Racing)