DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bubba Wallace had the location selected, a friend to serve as photographer and a cover story to ensure that his proposal to Amanda Carter would be a surprise.
But things didn’t go as planned last July.
The cover story worked. Wallace and Carter flew to Oregon to finalize Wallace’s line of clothing that Columbia Sportswear recently launched.
They stayed a few extra days in the Pacific Northwest with NASCAR off for the Olympic break. Wallace hid the engagement ring in his golf bag — “The only bag I cared about on the trip,” he told NBC Sports.
He had alerted Carter’s sister of his plans. She had one request for her future brother-in-law.
“Make sure you say something and don’t just freeze and say, ‘Will you marry me?’’’ She told Wallace.
“That’s the easy part,” he responded.
Wallace knew what he would say when the moment came. They stopped at Multnomah Falls to take a picture. That was the setup.
But the spray from the falls splashed Carter. As she implored Wallace to “hurry up” and take the picture, he scrambled to get the ring from his pocket.
Carter walked away from the spot.
Wallace called for her to stop, dropped to one knee and …
“I just sat there and did the exact opposite her sister said, and I froze and didn’t say a word,” Wallace said. “I didn’t ask if she would marry me. I just had the terrified deer in the headlights look. I wasn’t terrified. I was excited.
“She said yes.”
Why I waited so long..we will never know. The wait is over!! Here’s to forever! Forever ever! pic.twitter.com/6dU1skeGA5
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) July 30, 2021
That Wallace’s proposal didn’t go as expected mirrors his racing career, which had early success sidetracked by lack of sponsorship before he moved to Cup. Even in NASCAR’s premier series, he struggled with a lower-funded team before he joined Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin at 23XI Racing and won at Talladega last season.
Wallace never imagined himself an activist until seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing. As the lone Black driver competing full-time in Cup, Wallace pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events in 2020. He’s attracted new fans, but also has been booed at driver introductions by others.
Wallace likes to say “What you see is what you get” with him, a sentiment he’ll share on his Nextflix docu-series that debuts Feb. 22. It’s just a part of Wallace’s growing influence as he heads into Sunday’s Daytona 500 and his second season with 23XI Racing.
Years ago, NASCAR claimed 75 million fans. Netflix had 222 million subscribers in the last quarter of last year.
The potential reach for Wallace with the six-episode Netflix series titled “Race: Bubba Wallace” gives him and NASCAR the chance to be seen by people who might not be as familiar with the sport. The hope is to engage people as Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” Formula 1 series, which has been credited with increasing interest in that series in the U.S.
“I think it would be a success if we could get the people who aren’t my biggest fans to actually tune in to see what is Bubba Wallace, who is Bubba Wallace, really,” he told NBC Sports.
Erik Parker, who directed the series, wanted to show the challenges Wallace faced on and off the track. Parker told Wallace’s story through last season’s events while also going back to 2020 when Wallace moved to the forefront in the sport and the push for diversity, equity and inclusion.
“That’s something that we, a lot of times, take for granted when we see somebody who is a public figure and they’re dealing with a lot of different people and a lot of different situations,” Parker told NBC Sports. “You’re not realizing what’s exactly happening on the inside and how they’re being pulled and what they’re doing to just maintain. How he does that is kind of inspiring in a lot of ways.”
Wallace’s reach stretches beyond a streaming platform. Columbia Sportswear launched the Bubba Wallace Collection of outdoor activewear Feb. 2 and marked the company’s first signature collection developed with a sponsored athlete. Wallace worked with Columbia’s design team on a lightweight puffer jacket, a special edition shoe, long sleeve shirt and crew neck sweatshirt, among other items.
“It’s got the reds, the whites and golds in there,” Wallace said. “Gold is like a sense of royalty, so, to be able to provide people with that feeling is special because we all want that feeling in our lives. When they put a piece of BW wear on, the collection there, they can feel that, hopefully, and they can see that I thought about everybody in this collection, making them feel special.”
McDonald’s debuted a limited edition collection with 23XI Racing on Wednesday that will be available to purchase beginning Friday. Items included a custom bomber jacket, limited edition T-shirts and basketball shorts. All proceeds benefit the 23XI Institute, the team’s educational and professional development focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
While there’s much marketing around Wallace — he had a brief cameo in the McDonald’s Super Bowl commercial — he still needs to perform. He finished 21st in points last year, missing the playoffs.
Shortly after forming 23XI Racing, Jordan told NBC Sports in 2020, Jordan expressed his expectations for the team.
“My biggest conversation to Denny was, ‘Look, I don’t want to get in there just to go around the races and just go around and around and around and finish up 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th,” Jordan said. “I want to win. I want to be put in a position for the best chance for us to win. That’s my competitive nature. That’s always been who I am.”
While Wallace and the 23XI Racing bring in various sponsors and marketing opportunities, the team must balance on-track and off-track duties for the 28-year-old Wallace.
“We work really hard on making sure that the focus is where the focus needs to be and that is him winning races and being competitive and doing what he needs to do to prepare and do his best on the track,” said Steve Lauletta, president of 23XI Racing, about Wallace. “We try to make sure that we don’t make that balance too far away from the track.
“There are a lot of demands, and I think he handles them brilliantly. He knows how to be the Bubba Wallace that the brands have relied on and want to market to build their business. He knows when he has to be prepared for that. He hasn’t missed a beat with any of our (partners) last year and the new ones we brought on this year. I feel like we’ve got to continue to do that.
“We can’t take the eye off the ball and have him be just the personality. He needs to be the playoff driver, the winning driver and, hopefully, the championship driver and those other things will continue to be there when that happens vs. the other way around.”
Wallace is beginning his 10th season in NASCAR’s national series. He won his first Camping World Truck Series race as a rookie in 2013, taking the checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway. He won four times the following season and finished third in the points.
Wallace moved to Xfinity in 2015. He finished seventh in points but was winless. He also did not win in 2016. Wallace lost his ride in 2017 when Roush Fenway Racing could not find enough sponsorship for the car and disbanded the team after 13 races.
Suddenly available, Wallace filled in for four Cup races in 2017 at Richard Petty Motorsports after Aric Almirola was injured in a crash at Kansas. When Almirola left the team after that season, Wallace took over the ride. He drove the No. 43 car for three years before moving to 23XI Racing last year.
Expectations were high a year ago for Wallace at 23XI Racing, even though it was the team’s first season. The partnership with Toyota and alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing fed the fervor. Wallace said before the season that his goal was two wins.
As the team enters a second season and has added former champion Kurt Busch to be Wallace’s teammate, the goals are not as bold — at least publicly.
Hamlin talks about both drivers making the playoffs instead of victory totals.
“I think we look at bigger picture,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Bringing Dave Rogers on board (as performance director.), we actually went to lunch and we had a good heart to heart with each other. … We talked about goals and expectations. I said top 10, to be consistent top 10.
“If you’re in the top 10, you’re in the playoffs. If you’re in the playoffs, you’re going to get some traction and some momentum.
“For me, it’s just big picture. We take what the season will give us, not try too hard, not focus on two wins. Just go out and when the opportunities are right we capitalize.”
Just as he did last year at Talladega, becoming the first Black driver to win in Cup since Wendell Scott’s victory in December 1963.
“I wish I could have been there today with him,” Frank Scott, son of Wendell Scott, told NBC Sports from his Danville, Virginia, home that day as family members celebrated in the background.
“But we were there with him. Not physically, but we were with him spiritually and emotionally. It was great, man.”
It was a special moment, but there are more races to run and that can mean more opportunities to win.
“I’m sure he’s not satisfied yet with where he is in spite of winning,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, about Wallace.
Wilson said that the addition of Busch as a teammate and mentor, will make a difference for Wallace.
“Having Kurt on the shop floor right next to him and having Kurt as a mentor, as a confidant, as somebody that he can lean on is different than Denny because Denny is his owner first and foremost,” Wilson said. “Yes, (Hamlin) drives, but I think Kurt will help Bubba. I think Bubba will help Kurt. We expect that will help improve his consistency in his performance and we’re looking forward to seeing that.”