Bubba Wallace Says ‘You Never Give Up’ Nine Months After Noose Incident: NASCAR Is About ‘Patience’
"Hopefully, [when I retire] they see me as the guy who never gave up no matter what obstacle was in front," the racer tells PEOPLE
Bubba Wallace is standing strong as the sole Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series.
On Tuesday, the star athlete, 27, opened up to PEOPLE about pushing past obstacles, including some of the racial prejudice that he has endured as a Black man at the top level of his sport.
In June, a reported noose was found hanging in the Talladega Superspeedway garage which Wallace was assigned for a Cup Series race in Alabama. An FBI investigation ultimately determined that Wallace wasn't the target of a hate crime and the noose had been there since at least October 2019, but NASCAR President Steve Phelps said "the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba."
Speaking with PEOPLE in March as part of his partnership with McDonald's Black and Positively Golden Mentors Program, in which he continues to advise 18-year-old aspiring NASCAR driver Rajah Caruth, Wallace discusses his experiences in the sport — and how he defines being a role model.
"McDonald's has been a huge part of my career over the last four or five years," he tells PEOPLE. "They've stepped up in a huge way [with] sponsorship and funding on the race track and we've figured out how we can influence the next generation who are following my footsteps."
The Cup Series driver adds, "With this Black and Positively Golden Mentors Program, I've been able to watch Rajah's success, [which started] a handful of years ago. He's having a lot of fun and I'm trying to give him words of wisdom and advice for on the track and off the track. It's pretty special. I'm excited about this partnership and what we can do to influence not just Rajah, but anyone who wants to get inside motorsports and be a change maker."
Wallace's advice to those breaking into the sport is simple, "Go out and live life to the fullest. Don't be afraid and don't let anybody tell you that you can't. Go out and do it."
And his mentee Caruth has really enjoyed learning from Wallace.
'"[His guidance] has not been only during this mentorship, it's been since I started learning cars," Caruth tells PEOPLE. "Being a part of the McDonald's Black and Positively Golden Mentorship Program has been great. [I've learned how] to be confident, avoid the negativity, ignore it and do [my] best."
And for Wallace, né William Darrell Wallace Jr., serving as a mentor has been rewarding.
"It's been a lot of fun and it's cool to see, 'Hey, he's listening,'" says the NASCAR racer. "Rajah has progressed from his last race and this sport is all about patience. Winning does not happen right out of the gate. Success does not happen right out of the gate, so the more mentally tough you are, the better you'll be in the long run because you'll know, 'Okay, we lost this game, we lost this battle, but we didn't lose the war.' "
When asked how he maintains his mental clarity despite naysayers and their criticism, Wallace tells PEOPLE, "It's tough for sure. Sometimes you have your cloudy days. I've had them this year, when you just can't seem to shake the funk and you're like, 'Maybe tomorrow will be another day, another opportunity,' and then it happens. That's why you never give up. You never know what's in store for you the next day. That's why you always keep pushing."
And Caruth has also learned to keep pushing.
"I've been interested in racing since I was a little kid, [even though] I didn't grow up around the sport," says the aspiring star. "The interest came from getting toys and watching it on TV. It just really snowballed as I got older and that interest became a passion that became an obsession and it's been that way forever."
Reflecting nine months on from the noose incident, Wallace tells PEOPLE what he would say to those who have discriminated against him because of his race: "I'm pretty sure they don't wanna hear it. They already got their minds made up about me so it's hard to convince them otherwise, you know? But [I would say], 'You just can't judge a book by its cover.' "
He continues, "Get to know somebody before you make your assumption about them. It takes me five seconds, but at least I gave them five seconds before I made my assumption about you. Some people are going off of, 'It looks like he did this,' or 'It looks like he said this.' Well, how about you find out about who he is as an actual human being, you know? I think that's what it is. Let's all do our due diligence."
But the change-maker isn't focused on that, instead, he is looking forward to leaving a powerful legacy behind when he retires from NASCAR someday.
"I think with everything that's going on off the track, it's time for some on-track success, so being able to get into the rhythm [and] getting our feet wet [with] everybody at 23XI [is my goal]," he tells PEOPLE. "The success is gonna come. You just have to be patient."
"Hopefully, [when I retire] they see me as the guy who never gave up no matter what obstacle was in front, " says the racer. "I've always tried to break through it and come out on top and be the better man."
And following in his footsteps, Caruth has a similar ambition.
"My ultimate goal when I hang up the helmet, hopefully years down the line, [is that] my name will be mentioned with some of the greats of our sport," he says. "That's a long ways away. I know kinda like Bubba [has taught me], you just gotta trust the process. This [McDonald's Black and Positively Golden] Mentorship Program is another step along the way and I'm excited to be a part of it."
After a tough weekend competing in Las Vegas, Wallace — who is now with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin's new team 23XI Racing, his car sporting the basketball legend's iconic No. 23 — is looking forward to hitting the track at the Phoenix Raceway on Sunday afternoon.
He tells PEOPLE that the first thing he did after officially signing with basketball champion Jordan, 58, and NASCAR great Hamlin, 40, was celebrate with his longtime girlfriend Amanda Carter and their puppy Asher.
"I got a lot of text messages and phone calls though, so a lot of people were happy," he recalls with a smile.
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