Bubba Wallace returns to Martinsville this weekend, somewhat subdued by the realities of racing and toned down from his younger and louder days.
“I’m more mature now,” he said this week, preparing to race at the track that tests patience and rewards those with the fastest car and the courage to crash.
“It’s certainly a fun track to watch racing,” Wallace said. “There’s just something about it, out in the middle of nowhere with some of the best fans in racing.”
Martinsville requires a certain restraint from the time you unload to the time you take your car back to Charlotte, usually wrecked and good for little more than parts.
It was at the little half-mile in the middle of nowhere that Wallace changed the sport, winning not once but twice in the Truck Series, becoming the first African-American driver since Wendell Scott to win in one of NASCAR’s top racing series.
Now in the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43, he returns to Martinsville for the STP 500 weekend with the kind of confidence he has on no other track.
“We bring the resume,” he said.
And he brings the swagger.
But can RPM deliver the speed? That’s been a nagging question for years now, and the frustration is starting to set in.
“It’s been frustrating for a while now,” Wallace said. “The King is frustrated, too. But he knows the circumstance. He’s cool.”
Martinsville is the hardest track to keep your cool, with the tight track wrapped around an impossibly cramped infield where everybody’s in everybody’s business. This is where you know who your friends are. This isn’t normal.
“It’s a better question to ask what a normal life even looks like,” he said.
Wallace said the realities of racing require thick skin and your head on a swivel. On and off the track. In a sport where drivers and teams live inside a circus tent year round, tempers get in the way and the circle of friends dwindle into tight packs.
“Growing up in a cut-throat sport, you have to take care of yourself,” Wallace said. “It’s easy to get stabbed.”
On the smallest track in racing, no one turns his back. This is an in-your-face kind of place in more ways that one.
Wallace’s experience at RPM has made him one of the guys, even if there are guys he wants to have nothing to do with.
“I’m still treated the same,” he said. “Hopefully my peers respect me.”
They know he has two wins here, and not all of them can say that.
The track demands certain qualities in both driver and car. Handling and brakes and set-up are all different here. Most teams have a car specifically built for Martinsville, which is why drivers aren’t afraid to beat and bang. The car only needs to survive for the fall race, and most teams will only take what’s left of the car to rebuild for the October race at Martinsville.
Wallace said the new NASCAR package won’t come into play this week. He said it’s more a matter of looking at old notes and matching the cars to the quirks. Then it’s up to the driver to be willing to dive into the turns and move somebody out of the way if necessary.
That’s where the patience comes into play.
That’s when tempers flare.
“I’ll try to translate what I did in the trucks, how we dealt with lapped traffic, looking back at the resume,” he said.
Wallace rekindled old memories this afternoon, driving in the truck race for the first time since he won for the second time in 2014.
On Sunday, he’ll keep his head on a swivel and his eyes in his rear-view mirror, looking both to survive and advance from the quirky little track in the middle of nowhere.