Friday, December 17, 2021

OPINION: ESPN's Bubba Wallace documentary manages to both intrigue and disappoint

PHOTO: Brock Beard

What was the purpose of making “Fistful of Steel: The Rise of Bubba Wallace?” Fresh off his first career Cup Series win, and on the eve of 23XI Racing’s expansion into a two-car team, Wallace's is very much a story that’s still being written.

If the film’s purpose was to simply to present a biography of Wallace, it largely succeeds. We learn so much about who he is, and both the people and events that have shaped his life. Most revealing are the interviews with his parents, who during their marriage attempted to reconcile two very different outlooks on life. We see the direct effect on Wallace himself, especially when his parents offered contradictory advice about how to handle a traffic stop. Their divorce, and the subsequent estranged relationship between Wallace and his father, remains a subject so sensitive that all three won’t talk about it, shedding new light on Wallace’s battle with depression.  

Racing, then, must have been an escape for Wallace and the film does a good job chronicling most of his rise through the ranks of stock car racing. His success in the Truck Series dovetails perfectly with the included biography of Wendell Scott, and we see how much Wallace’s success means to the Scott family – especially his 2014 win in a Scott “throwback” scheme.

This is the strongest part of the film because it clears up two misconceptions some outside the sport have about Wallace. First, Wallace is a skilled driver who has won on some of NASCAR’s toughest tracks. And second, well before 2020, Wallace was popular with both fans and drivers. Yes, Wallace does share stories about his negative experiences with law enforcement. But, in the first hour or so, there are no stories of competitors intimidating him, nor of fans booing him. In fact, we see him take pictures with everyone.

Unfortunately, this part of the film also leaves out other significant moments of his career that highlighted both his personality and his unique place in the sport. The film incorrectly states the 2018 Daytona 500 was his Cup debut, leaving out any mention of 2017. This prevents us from reliving his entire XFINITY career, which put him in position to relieve an injured Aric Almirola at Richard Petty Motorsports. There is no mention of his Cup debut at Pocono, where his closest friend Ryan Blaney scored his first win with the Wood Brothers, nor images of the two celebrating in victory lane as young stars driving two of NASCAR’s most iconic rides. In fact, Blaney is never mentioned, nor interviewed. There’s not even an account of Wallace’s hard-fought victory in the 2019 Monster Energy Open, nor other examples of him outperforming for a small team.  


Was this film intended to settle once and for all what happened at Talladega in June 2020, and to make clear to Wallace’s detractors how those events differed from the recently decided case involving Jussie Smollett? If this was the film’s intent, it failed. 

The events of 2020 – and especially Talladega – are so integral to Wallace’s story that they could be the subject of an entirely separate documentary. It is no mystery that those few days in June – not Wallace’s race – are why he has become a controversial figure in the eyes of so many. That single event changed him, or perhaps revealed a side of himself we never saw. We don’t know which because the entire chapter is compressed into the film’s last fifteen minutes.

Approaching this properly would have required asking some difficult questions. Did Wallace tie the knot in his garage door pull? No – and the footage of the stall from 2019 proves this. Did Wallace make the initial report to NASCAR? No – he wasn’t even aware it had been reported until Steve Phelps contacted him. But it is undeniable that Wallace dismissed the FBI’s findings and continued to state the garage door pull was, in his words, “a straight-up noose.” At the very least, that is a controversial stance to take, and worth a few follow-up questions. Equally controversial was the interview where the Wallace family alleged that the FBI’s findings were nothing more than a “conspiracy theory.” Again, this is not discussed further.

The film also fails to hold NASCAR accountable for their baffling decision to release a public statement about the “noose” during an ongoing investigation. Even with Steve Phelps in the room, we don't get the story. It’s never asked why NASCAR didn’t consult their own video footage showing the same knot next to Paul Menard’s car the previous October (which also meant Wallace’s car was parked in a different stall). The fear that accompanied the racial strife of that spring does not excuse this. The sanctioning body should have handled this incident with more care, not less – particularly with the then-ongoing Smollett case fresh in everyone’s mind. Instead, NASCAR created a scenario where if they were wrong – and they were – Wallace would be blamed for it – which he was – and comparisons to Smollett – no matter how unjustified – were certain to happen. 

The media also escapes unscathed despite their role in furthering the misinformation that day - perhaps not all that surprising since ESPN joined in the chorus. Yes, COVID-19 regulations at the time prevented media members from accessing the garage to actually see the garage pull in question. But, like NASCAR, that meant they had to be more careful in their reporting, not less. 

When NASCAR first broke word about the “noose,” ESPN’s Ryan McGee was among the many media members who let his outrage overcome his objectivity. He published an open letter to the person responsible for the alleged crime, and in his overzealousness invoked the rhetoric of a lynch mob: “And if you were hiding in plain sight among those in that image,” he closed, “then your time among them is numbered because the hunt is on. You know it too.” It must also be said that, when the FBI subsequently reported no hate crime had occurred, McGee was one of the only media members to apologize, and in his video posted that week made a call that journalists should “pump the brakes.” 

Sadly, most others in the press did not follow McGee's example. They expressed no contrition for their rush to judgment and assumed no responsibility, even though they had implicated crew members, emergency personnel, and NASCAR officials who were the only people even allowed in the garage that weekend. This, too, didn’t make it into the documentary, despite McGee’s significant involvement in the project.

With so much left unresolved, we – Wallace included – are all now living with the consequences. Tainted are images of one of the most poignant moments in sports as an entire garage rallied around their driver, saying in no uncertain terms, “if you’ve got a problem with him, you’ve got a problem with all of us.” The tragedy of that moment is that, if NASCAR had spontaneously decided to celebrate Wallace the exact same way just one week, one month, or one year earlier, no one would have minded, and it would still be celebrated as it should have been. Shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, “well, thank goodness there wasn’t a hate crime,” does not transport us all into this alternate reality.

When deciding to make this documentary, ESPN had an opportunity - and arguably the duty - to set the record straight about Bubba Wallace and persuade at least some of his doubters to see him in a new light. While Wallace’s biography dispelled some of the more flagrant lies made about him, nothing was done to address his unpleasant truths. By not only failing to do this, but actively making the truth even harder to find, ESPN has not championed justice, but inhibited it.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

PREVIEW: Gary Bradberry on his eventful 1994 ARCA campaign

PHOTOS: Bryan Hallman, BRH Racing Archives

On December 9, I had the opportunity to interview Gary Bradberry to follow-up on my video biography of him from earlier this month. The following is just an excerpt from the one-hour interview, the audio of which will be posted soon to my YouTube channel. This segment focuses on Bradberry's early ARCA career in 1994, including a particularly memorable weekend in Flat Rock.

Was there any significance to running the number 78 or those red paint schemes?

I always loved red and my little brother Charlie loved red, so the only (color) we ever raced was red. And I'll tell you the story on the 78 - I went to work at a motorcycle shop. . .my first Yamaha racing go kart and I got we started selling them at the motorcycle shop and I got interested in the go kart racing. That's how I got into the go-kart racing. So they let me start driving. They had a they had a complimentary shop motorcycle racing team this shop did, and so they decided to promote sales they would start running a few go-kart races to promote the go-kart sales, and they let me drive the go-kart. I'd become their go-kart driver. And that shop - that motorcycle shop - their shop number on the motorcycle and on the go-kart was 78 and that is how I got the 78. I just stuck with it from the from the go-kart racing back when I worked at that little motorcycle shop and that's how the 78 come about. And it was a strange thing though - the Triad Motorsports team that had 78, everybody a lot of people leave until this day thanks that was mine, the Pilot car and the Hanes car was my race team because of the number. But it was just strictly a coincidence that I got hired to drive that car because the number had absolutely nothing to do with that I was hired to drive it.

So, what's this about an ARCA race at Flat Rock in 1994, where your equipment was stolen?

We went to Detroit, to Michigan for the Flat Rock race and we stayed in the Detroit suburbs and normally we carried our our hauler rig which had living quarters in it. But normally, somebody went along with the vehicle, but this particular trip we all went in the hauler rig and the trailer. And we got up there, got our motel, spent the night. We had to be at the track the next morning for practice. It was a one day show, just a one day show. So we got up the next morning and a guy come to my room and asked me why we moved our hauler truck. And I said, 'I didn't move the hauler truck.' And he said, 'Well, it's not there.' I kinda laughed - I thought it was a joke, and I walked outside and the hauler rig was gone, and the awning at the office of the motel was half tore down. And about this time, the motel people are jumping all over us telling us we're gonna pay for that awning, and we don't even know what they're talking about.

Well come to find out, we finally come to reality to figure out the hauler rig has been stolen. The lady in the office said, 'Well, yeah, 'cause y'all left out of here about - somebody's getting in it about four o'clock in the morning, and they didn't make that turn, and they caught the awning on the motel and tore it down. So we realized then what happened. We called the police and there we sat on the sidewalk - the motel was booked that night, we didn't have any room. There we sit on the sidewalk with our luggage and no hauler rig, no nothing. And I was running for points that year and I had a good chance of finishing, you know, second, third, fourth - I was running for the Rookie of the Year was the main thing. And everything we owned - spare motors -  everything we owned, was in that in that tractor trailer. I mean, we were out of business - we was out of the racing business at that time.

And about two hours later, the police pulled up in the parking lot, and told us 'Look, we found your hauler rig, but it's been wrecked, and it's been towed to an impound area,' or whatever you want to call it. So we're thinking if some of the stuff is just still in it, which we didn't have much expectations of that. But they carried us to this impound yard. As far as the hauler rig being wrecked, it was the damage on the trailer from running into the awning overhang at the motel. It had a flat tire on the trailer. The living quarters of the hauler rig had been tore up and the TV and VCR all that stuff was gone. And we went back to the back and opened the door on our trailer, and we had left late and set a new spare motor right in the door, and would you believe the people that robbed us, they never even opened the door on that trailer. Two boxes, motor, everything was sitting right inside that door, so there it had not been touched. So we get on the phone right quick and call and get in touch with somebody at ARCA at the track. It's about lunchtime now there. They're fixin' to practice and we go to the we put a tire on it, we go to the track. ARCA practice is almost over, and they let me have about five laps practice. I go out qualify. I qualify dead last. I start in the rear and we come from dead last and won the race. We took the lead with I don't know 10 or 12 laps I guess to go. What a wild weekend. We never made a change on the car from the time it left the racetrack here. We started the race with it just like it left. So that was a pretty wild weekend. It really was.

Was that the only car you had in ARCA that season?

That was the only short track car I had. That year, we had one short track car, and then we had an intermediate car for you know Atlanta, places like that. Then we had our superspeedway car and that was that was all of our cars. But our spare motor and stuff was in the trailer and our pit stuff---I mean if we hadn't have got the trailer back, we would have been shut down for the rest of the year because I mean everything we owned stayed in that trailer. So that was a miracle that we got that trailer back and that the trailer hadn't been broken into. . .And it was kind of funny, the race started and I had an old dirty wore-out practice suit - driving suit - and I always practiced in it and I put on my new suit for the race. And the guy that crew chiefed and all got aggravated at me, told me I had to change. I said I'm not changing nothing - I said I'm wearing this suit. All I wanna do is get this race behind us and go home. (Laughs) And I won the race and I got that dirty old wore out nasty driving suit in pictures. So I guarantee that was the last thing on my mind was having a shot at winning that race cuz that little track is tough to pass on anyway and then we were starting in the rear. But man, of all times in the car was just great. And it was pretty neat weekend.