Youngsters in Pilsen got an introduction to NASCAR racing when one of its biggest stars, Bubba Wallace, visited the Union League Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday afternoon and donated two racing simulators and money.
Wallace, whose real name is William Darrell Wallace Jr., came to the club as part of a partnership between the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and NASCAR with the goal of expanding the sport’s audience, according to Mary Ann Mahon Huels, president and CEO of the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs, which has several locations in Chicago.
Wallace, in town for a Fox television event Thursday, wanted to do something for young kids while in Chicago, according to spokesperson Beth Silverman.
Wallace, decked out in his McDonald’s Racing suit and ball cap, races under No. 23 — and races on 23XI Racing team, owned by Chicago’s most famous No. 23 — Michael Jordan.
Walking into the gymnasium of the club at 2157 W. 19th St., Wallace was greeted by about 30 children who regularly attend the club both during and after school hours. And although many of them said they didn’t know until recently who Wallace was, when asked who the most famous athlete to ever wear No. 23 was, most shouted that it was Michael Jordan, a fact Wallace said he was well aware of.
“I got a great appreciation by watching ‘The Last Dance’ of what Michael Jordan means to Chicago and what Chicago means to Michael Jordan. It’s kind of surreal; I feel like we came full circle being here today,” Wallace said.
Also Wednesday, NASCAR gave the club a $5,000 check, and two racing simulators were provided to the club by Logitech, one of several Wallace sponsors. A third simulator was given to the club’s branch at 1214 W. Washtenaw Ave.
After taking a few questions from the kids, Wallace jumped on a simulator and was cheered on by the kids in the clubs. Then, he let them have a turn behind the wheel and rooted them on.
Wallace, who is biracial, is the only Black full-time driver in NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, Xfinity and Truck), also said it was important that the kids in the club, who are mostly Latino and Black, see that they have options.
“I went to Boys & Girls Clubs a few times when I was young and know how special it is for people to come in. To see what we’re doing now and having NASCAR be a part of it is very humbling.”
“It’s important to get them out to race and introduce them to it so they can be lifelong fans.”
Since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, Wallace has been vocal about the need for change in stock car racing and led NASCAR’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. He also successfully got NASCAR to ban displays of the Confederate flag at events starting last June, a practice that went on for several years.
Now the challenge is to integrate the sport’s fan base, which is still overwhelmingly white. But events like the one Wednesday are a start, Wallace said.
After telling the kids that he’d love to see a NASCAR event in Chicago eventually, he conceded that winning a NASCAR race may be easier than navigating Chicago traffic at rush hour.
“Traffic is tougher. Traffic’s always the worst,” Wallace said, laughing.