Dan Wetzel-ColumnistMon, September 21, 2020, 8:59 PM EDT
No, Michael Jordan isn’t going to drive the car. He won’t fix it either. His Airness will be a principal owner of a new NASCAR team though, one with the kind of backing that can win races and championships, and for that, there is no way to minimize the impact on the sport itself.
This is big for a racing circuit that needed something big, good news for a business that is desperate for it, a shot of adrenaline for a place that for too long has been bleeding out fans, television ratings and sponsors.
Michael Jordan is coming to NASCAR? Yes, Michael Jordan — global icon, global brand — is coming to NASCAR.
He’ll offer more than just star power and needed diversity. In teaming up with Toyota, which can supply top-line cars and technology, he’ll give an intriguing, and potentially groundbreaking, landing spot for Bubba Wallace, the sport’s lone African American driver who will sign to drive for him.
Jordan and Wallace. Michael and Bubba.
“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in a statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.
“In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”
For a sport desperate to expand the demographics of its fan base, you probably couldn’t draw up a better partnership.
Jordan’s interest here harkens back to the days when, at least in the South, NASCAR was simply part of the culture, impossible to ignore.
Jordan may have won six NBA titles in Chicago, but he was always what his starting lineup introduction said he was … “from North Carolina” — raised in Wilmington, educated in Chapel Hill and is now an NBA franchise owner in Charlotte.
You just didn’t grow up where he did and when he did — the 1970s — and not know your NASCAR.
“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.”
NASCAR got bigger through the decades, but also blander. It expanded wide only to find its waters grow shallow. The recent retirements of star drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and even Danica Patrick haven’t helped. It’s a lot easier to find kids, even in Carolina, who couldn’t name a driver.
Jordan can’t and won’t change that overnight, but he attracts enormous attention and interest wherever he goes and with whatever he does. The man is his own logo, a symbol of not just athletic achievement but worldwide cool.
The Jumpman painted on the hood of a car (the No. 23?) going 200 down the back stretch of Daytona would qualify as pretty cool.
NASCAR needs investors of any kind these days. Operating a team is expensive and the deepest pockets seem more inclined to buy into football and basketball, even soccer. Here comes the reverse.
Additionally, the sport has tried desperately to appeal beyond its base audience, convinced (rightfully) that if it can just get someone to give it a try, its unique cocktail of speed and danger and soap opera will hook them. It’s not just race, either. It’s age, urban, socio-economic. Anyone can love a fast car, after all.
That Jordan will employ Wallace just adds spice to the mix. Wallace is NASCAR’s most famous current driver (or certainly will be when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson retires after 2020).
He isn’t the best driver, or the most popular driver, but he is the best known, the way Dale Jr. and Danica were before him.
Wallace is just 26 and the only African American behind the wheel at the top Cup Series level. He burst into national consciousness this summer, as calls for social justice ramped up around the country.
He found a voice — he called for the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR tracks, which the circuit obliged. Then a crew member found a door tie fashioned as a noose in his garage at Talladega. That caused other drivers and crew members to walk him down pit road in a touching show of solidarity.
The FBI was brought in and determined the noose was a coincidence of sorts (it had been in that garage for months and wasn’t related to Wallace). Even though he had nothing to do with any of it — he was a victim of, if anything, NASCAR overreacting out of an abundance of concern — Wallace has felt the backlash.
He’s unpopular with a segment of the fan base. He’s booed by many at pre-race introductions. He’s a target of President Donald Trump. Some (wrongly) believe the whole thing a “hoax.”
He’s also recognizable and rooted for by others though, including plenty of potential new fans who are eyeing the sport for the first time now that they have someone to support. In an age when corporations are bailing on NASCAR, DoorDash, CashApp and Columbia Sportswear jumped in sign to Bubba.
That now includes the main event: Jordan.
Stuck on a mid-pack team with mid-pack equipment, Wallace has managed just five top-10 finishes this year. He has talent and potential though. Given a chance with top equipment and plenty of support, he has a real chance at becoming a playoff driver.
Michael Jordan certainly isn’t getting into this to not compete for a title (insert Charlotte Hornet jokes). If nothing else, Michael offers his significant blessing on Bubba. You want to boo Wallace, then you’re booing Jordan. And if you want to start watching to cheer for Jordan, then you’re cheering for Wallace, too.
That’s a big, big deal in a sport where things like this don’t happen often enough anymore.
Michael Jordan is coming to NASCAR, and Bubba Wallace is his driver. Here we go.