For all intents and purposes, we can consider this article a follow up piece to something I wrote about during the 2019 playoffs regarding how Darrell “Bubba” Wallace was being flogged for his childish actions after the Charlotte Roval race. I defended Bubba then, as his antics were good for the sport in dire need of more enemies, and it made many traditional NASCAR fans look like dopes in the process. It seems Bubba has learned an entirely new way to act childish, but this time he’s got it wrong. How did one of NASCAR’s most interesting characters find a way to make those same fans look like dopes all over again…and simultaneously jeopardize financials in a time of uncertainty? First things first, how did we get to this moment?
You may have heard about this, but there’s a bit of a pandemic going on around the globe and most pleasurable activities have ground to a halt, with professional sports being one of the most publicized sacrifices. Covid-19 has caused every professional sport to think of new ways to entertain fans and draw profit as billions of people are compelled to change their everyday lives. Auto racing, particularly NASCAR in the United States can take credit for one of the most creative and rewarding diversions to this unique problem. In about a 10 day turnaround, the television networks, drivers, and public relations side of the governing body have teamed up to present “simulations” of races following the real life NASCAR race schedule. To tragically over-simplify if you’re unaware: real world NASCAR drivers each play a computer game over the internet called “iRacing” at the same time, which is then broadcast on television using live Fox Sports commentary. The majority of a Sunday NASCAR cup field each using a range of realistic steering wheel controllers on a computer from their homes and garages produces a product that is not only a satisfying alternative, but a wildly entertaining exhibition that’s also creating new buzz for the sport. This is the legitimizing bump that eSports has been waiting for, as over 1 million people have been watching the slick televised events that are remarkably realistic given the circumstances. There’s far more informative articles and news pieces about how this all works, but I can’t overstate how overjoyed and validated I’ve personally felt as an avid sim racer myself. Ever since my uncle gifted me my first Thrustmaster T2 steering wheel and a copy of NASCAR Racing 2, I’ve logged countless hours on the computer thinking I could really compete in auto racing if I ever had the chance. My own anecdotes aside, the iRacing NASCAR product has yielded new opportunities for current racing drivers as well.
We’re three weeks deep into the NASCAR “sim season” and storylines have sprouted all over regarding drivers of wildly varied popularity. Drivers of NASCAR royalty like Dale Earnhardt Jr and Bobby Labonte have un-retired to take part, sparking interest in older race fans. Drivers known only to the most hardcore of NASCAR enthusiasts are getting national television coverage. Maryland’s Timmy Hill, an avid iRacer, won at Texas in a simulated version of a car woefully underfunded in the real world, but finally being raced on an even playing field. Perhaps most important, varied and new sponsors are considering entering the world of NASCAR from the sim racing angle. Landon Cassill, another high talent that lacks the funding to become a household name, courted a real money sponsorship from Blue-Emu (that muscle balm stuff Johnny Bench has been hawking in commercials) for a sim version of a car that would have been completely blank in real life. Cassill has worked his ass off to promote this new deal to his dedicated internet fan base, and the Blue-Emu logo is popping up more and more as he seemed born for this unique moment in racing history. This seemed to pay-off even more, as for Sunday’s Bristol race Blue Emu was sponsoring both Landon Cassill and Bubba Wallace in his simulated Richard Petty #43.
Bristol Motor Speedway, both in the real world and on the iRacing simulation is a treterous short track that causes plenty of accidents and hurt feelings, making it a fan favorite on the NASCAR schedule. Throwing in the crazy variables of driver skill level at the differences between a real racecar and its simulated counterpart, and Sunday’s race was a wreck-fest by anyone’s standards. Bubba Wallace was starting deep in the field, and was quickly involved in the first accidents. I’ll spare you the details if you’re not a NASCAR or sim racing fan, but Bubba was pretty much screwed within the first 20 laps of the race and was going to have a beat up car that would not have been in contention to win. Rather than considering the damage to his car, or at the very least give the new Blue Emu sponsorship some continued air play on his Twitch stream or television broadcast, Wallace quickly exited the sim and withdrew from the race. In a perfect storm of timing and circumstance, other competitors, including the nationally televised employee of Fox Sports Clint Bowyer gave the notion that Bubba Wallace performed the most ridiculed act in any video game…the RAGE QUIT!!! Whether breaking your X-Box controller after losing a game of Madden Football or turning tail to run out of a televised racing sim, the Rage Quit is publically viewed as the coward’s response to video game adversity. Being forced to withdraw early from a race, particularly at Bristol is nothing new, and even the best of us have had to cool off after a game no matter the stakes. Perhaps a more experienced racing driver would have made the best of it: give the sponsor a little extra plug while poking fun at your unfortunate moment. Sadly, Bubba Wallace chose a different approach when taking to Twitter during the buzz of what just happened:
Maybe not the best reaction, but it’s even worse when you consider the circumstances. It’s one thing to refer to a meaningless video game when nothing is on the line, but Bubba really fucked up here. Blue Emu, to the best of our knowledge, spent actual money on sponsoring Wallace for this event, making the event something that should for all intents and purposes, “matter.” What’s worse still is that he’s indirectly giving ammunition to the sort of fans that are toxic to both him and his marketability while having this little episode. Blue Emu, perhaps fueled by a Wendy’s-esque notion of brand sassiness, appeared to fire Bubba on the spot over twitter in response.
The shit show that’s developed in the last 24 hours can be felt all over social media, which is the only real arena for sports commentary in wake of the pandemic. Think back to Bubba’s water bottle incident from last year. Those pesky “traditional” fans of boomers and conservative thinkers threw him to the wolves for acting “without honor” and other such bullshit dog whistle remarks about a driver who makes them even the slightest bit uncomfortable. It’s a cruel irony that many of those same people are now PRAISING Bubba Wallace for acting like an idiot. I won’t claim to know the exact reason for the praise, but refusing to embrace technology in the wake of a pandemic lockdown is all it takes for some people’s opinion to miraculously change. This simultaneous heel/face turn which changes depending on fan perspective fails to benefit anyone, and will ultimately hurt Bubba Wallace in the long run. In a word, this display of indifference makes Bubba Wallace toxic. There have been several articles and think pieces on Bubba’s struggle to find sponsorship, and frankly I’ll never question this struggle ever again. If Bubba can’t work even a small opportunity with the consideration it deserves, what does he do when it comes to the multi-million dollar deals it’ll take to succeed at the NASCAR Cup level? His team owner, Richard Petty, was one of the best at making sponsors feel good, even as his team as struggled in the years after his retirement. The King’s legacy has been kept alive all these years solely from a concoction of STP additive and Goody’s powders, and most NASCAR fans can feel that deep in their souls. Even NASCAR’s biggest bad guy Kyle Busch knows how to keep one of the world’s biggest corporations happy while being an insufferable prick…why isn’t Bubba Wallace getting the memo here? None of us yet know what NASCAR is going to look like in the short term, or whenever auto racing will be back to normal. What Bubba Wallace chooses to do in the next several weeks will be critical, as companies of all sizes will be rethinking their numbers and dollars, and nothing will ever be quite the same. Which side of history will Bubba Wallace fall into? Will he be the young talent that took his path through NASCAR’s most famous car to cut his own successful career? Or will he be the man that threw it all away with NASCAR’s first true RAGE QUIT?
I’m excited for the result no matter the outcome, but I truly hope Bubba sees the light and takes a better path. NASCAR needs Bubba Wallace, and like it or not as fans, we need him too.
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