Bubba’s Block Party aims to expose NASCAR to new audience

Bubba’s Block Party is in its second year and intends to expose NASCAR to communities that historically haven’t been welcomed by the sport. (Kyle Williams/MEDILL)

By Kyle Williams
Medill Reports

Bubba Wallace finished watching his pit crew perform and strolled toward the stage area, as part of Bubba’s Block Party, a community-focused initiative held at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center on Wednesday to bring awareness and visibility to NASCAR among the Black community.

Wallace, who drives the No. 23 Toyota Camry for Bulls legend Michael Jordan’s 23 XI Racing. said events such as Bubba’s Block Party are intended to help show NASCAR isn’t “messing around” when it comes to diversifying its audience. 

“We want to change for the better and allow all ages and races and disabilities and whatnot to be a part of our sport with no boundaries, no hindrance there,” Wallace said. “I think that shows that we care and are inclusive.”

The block party had a feel of a family reunion or a cookout as kids ran around throughout the event, playing tag or playing catch with one another, with various genres of music playing in the background — ranging from Drake and Doja Cat to Chicago-based artists such as Chance The Rapper, Kanye West and house music. 

Previous block parties were held in Richmond, Virginia, and Birmingham, Alabama. Attendees could get free haircuts, watch Wallace’s pit crew give demonstrations and enjoy food from local Black-owned restaurants. 

Perri L. Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, credits Wallace with having the block party next to the museum, the nation’s oldest independent African American museum. She also said NASCAR and Wallace decided to use local Black-owned vendors such as Charmz Kitchen, Jerk Chicken Quesadilla, Taste-E Cookies and Co. and many more. 

“He knew what he wanted and what was important,” Irmer said, “and so here he is at our museum, and I’m just really, really thrilled. 

“I think it’s going to be great for the community and really great for the kids.”

Irmer said she brought her two grandsons to the event and that it’s important they’re around NASCAR events to understand there are more job opportunities for them besides the driver. According to NASCAR’s website, there are around 900 crew positions among the three national championship series. 

“For our kids to understand that these are all businesses and that there are so many things that they can get involved in, and now you believe it’s accessible because they’re seeing it in your community with your own eyes,” Irmer said, “it’s just phenomenal.”

NASCAR is experiencing gradual progress regarding diverse viewership.  The percentage of its audience who were people of color went from 20% in 2011 to 23% in 2021. Wallace is the only Black driver on the circuit, and only three drivers identify as people of color. Wallace was the second Black driver to win at NASCAR’S elite Cup level. His win came 58 years after Wendell Scott became the first Black driver to win at NASCAR’s top level.

Allen Linton II grew up on the South Side and has been a NASCAR fan since 2000. He attended the event after finding out on Twitter. However, he said he was pessimistic about the event because Tuesday’s Navy Pier Fan Fest was located away from where the minority communities are, but once he found out it was near a majority Black community, he felt more at ease. 

“Events like this where you have young kids, early career adults, elders, everyone in between is great because you put the sport right in front of people,” Linton said. “Showing folks you want to grow the tent of race fans opens up opportunities to folks that would absolutely gravitate to something as big, bold and cool as auto racing.

“I loved the history on display opposite the main stage to see the legacy of Black drivers in NASCAR. More than anything else, it was great to see some other Black racing fans. Seeing and meeting folks who follow the sport made me feel like my racing community is closer than I ever knew. That means something to know I’m not alone in a sport that is known to be southern and White.”

Chicago-born rapper Lupe Fiasco said he has “always been a NASCAR fan” and that it was an easy decision to perform once NASCAR contacted him. Lupe said it was significant for Wallace to hold his event on the South Side, particularly at the DuSable museum. 

“I mean, location, location, location, you got to come to where the people are gonna come to, where the beacons and the icons and the community for the culture are,” Lupe said. 

The Grammy-nominated artist said he has always been drawn to math and science and wants kids to look at the engineering side of NASCAR and how cars are built. He also would want kids to “think about kind of the business model, how that kind of runs through, and to think about the logistics of it, how they kind of move things around.”

But before kids can get interested in the intricacies of the sport, they have to be exposed to the sport. The rapper recognized the importance of Wallace holding the event at the museum. 

“DuSable has been here this whole time, so you already had a foot here,” Lupe said. “Sometimes the foot doesn’t necessarily need to be over there. It needs to be back where you came from and not overlook that. So I think you need to represent all sides. You know, we represent over here, but I think it’s more important to represent back here at the crib.”

Kyle Williams is a sports media graduate student at Northwestern. You can follow him at @K_Williamsmedia on Twitter.