Compared to the other drivers of the NASCAR Cup Series, Bubba Wallace has had to endure a much longer and more inert offseason: He only lasted five laps in last year’s Championship Race at Phoenix before getting spun and crashed, and since then, he’s had to wait to get back in a race car while recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum — an injury which developed over the course of nearly 20 years of racing on his path to NASCAR’s highest level.
After almost a full three months, the waiting ended last week in the same place it started. Wallace returned to the driver’s seat during a NASCAR organizational test at Phoenix, giving him some needed track time in the Cup Series’ Next Gen car and the opportunity to see how his surgically-repaired shoulder would hold up physically.
It was then that Wallace, in an environment wholly familiar yet completely new, began to get a sense of what he can expect as his fifth season in the Cup Series begins.
“Any time you have surgery and then you’ve got to go perform or whatever, you don’t know what to expect. But I had no problems in the car and no problems out of the car,” Wallace told CBS Sports of his shoulder. “Usually we talked about fatigue and maybe it kind of swelling up, but I had none of that. I was able to have the same function as I did before climbing in as I did after.
“Thankful for everybody at Toyota and TPC (Toyota Performance Center) to get me through rehab and continue to do rehab to get back to 100 percent. Felt good to be back in the car, it was a good test.”
It was, arguably, imperative that Wallace get the chance to test the Next Gen car at Phoenix: Although he had participated in a Next Gen test in October, he had missed out on a pair of important tests at Charlotte and Daytona as the rules package for the car — 670 horsepower with a four-inch spoiler on all tracks except superspeedways — was finalized.
Given that, Wallace did not necessarily tout the party line of how the Next Gen car would bring an infusion of excitement into the on-track product. For him, the excitement of the latest generation of NASCAR stock cars and exactly how they will race lies largely in the ambiguity of such ideas.
“It’s hard to really pinpoint what to expect, because we just don’t know. And that’s what makes it exciting for me is the uncertainty,” Wallace said. “So kind of embracing that and being ready for whatever comes at us – You’ve got to be ready for it. So it felt good to be back in the car, to understand what we need as a team, what the car needs to be successful and to be fast. And so we learned a lot of good stuff this past week, these past two days to figure out the direction we need to go through.
“We’ll just get to the racetrack, get through these first five races to really get a direction and an idea of where we’re at as a team, and move forward from there.”
What’s coming at Wallace first is this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum — a quarter-mile short track stuffed into one of the world’s most famous arenas, and a challenge unlike anything NASCAR drivers have encountered in generations. The only thing remotely analogous to the new, purpose-built L.A. Coliseum track is the fabled Bowman Gray Stadium, an iconic quarter-mile short track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina that was used as a testing grounds to develop a tire for this weekend’s races.
On the surface, one would assume Wallace’s experience racing stock cars at Bowman Gray — he raced there twice in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, finishing sixth and second — would allow him to understand exactly what he’s getting into. But Wallace noted that the Coliseum track may be even madder than the place traditionally known as “The Madhouse”.
“I think this is gonna be even tighter than Bowman Gray, because we’re basically racing on top of the football field instead of around it,” Wallace said. “Corners seem a little bit tighter, straightaways are a little bit shorter. It’ll be interesting to see, it’ll be exciting for the fans.”
The fans Wallace alluded to are much different than fans at Bowman Gray and many other tracks NASCAR has raced on. Compared to races at the traditional and generational audiences of tracks in the Carolinas and beyond, the Clash at the Coliseum is primed to be the first experience that many of its attendees have with stock car racing: According to a report by Dustin Long of NBC Sports, more than 70 percent of fans who have bought tickets to the Clash had not purchased a ticket for a NASCAR race previously.
As he has risen to prominence, much of what Wallace has done and tried to do as an ambassador for NASCAR is welcome new audiences to the sport. And as he tries to become the first driver to ever conquer the Coliseum, he’ll be interested in seeing just who those new faces in the stands are.
“We’ve got a lot of entertainment for this exhibition race, so NASCAR is just stepping out of their little box and stepping out of their realm and doing something different and getting engaged in that stuff,” Wallace said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that – There’s nothing wrong with being different.
“So I think it’s cool for them. We’ve got a lot of exciting stuff happening this year and we’re starting the year off with something that could be chaotic, but it could be one of the coolest things we see. So we’ll just have to find out.”
Wallace’s return to the track and latest venture into the new and novel comes alongside a major addition to his off-track portfolio: Wednesday saw the launch of The Bubba Wallace Collection by Columbia Sportswear, a new line of outdoor activewear designed with input from Wallace — an avid outdoorsman and outdoor photographer who developed his first apparel line with comfort and functionality in mind.
“When we sat down with Columbia before we even signed the contract, it’s like ‘What can we do to promote each other’s brands away from the racetrack?’ This quickly came up as doing our own collection, and so I had to get my creative juices flowing,” Wallace said. “I’ve never created an apparel line, so this was new for me. But we were able to have a lot of fun with it.