Darrell Wallace Jr. stands on the grid during pre-race ceremonies for the… (Jamey Price / Getty Images )
The black NASCAR truck with a white "54" on the side gleamed on pit road as its driver walked up for the night's race, prompting three dozen photographers and well-wishers to edge closer.
The attraction was 19-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. As Wallace posed for the cameras at Daytona International Speedway, the public address announcer called out his name and added: "That's a driver many people are waiting to see."
Indeed they are — especially the executives who run NASCAR — because Wallace is an African American.
Despite NASCAR's growth into one of the nation's most popular sports and a driver-diversity effort now in its 10th year, stock-car racing lacks a full-time black driver at its top levels. No African American drives in NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup racing series — where such stars as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon compete — and there isn't a full-time black driver in its second-highest level, the Nationwide Series.
Wallace, who is a rookie driving in NASCAR's third-highest series, the truck-racing circuit, appears to be the sport's best black hope to make it to the top.
"If he wins his share of races, does really well, he'll get an opportunity," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said of Wallace. Having a black driver among the 43 who race each weekend in the Cup series "is coming, but it can't come fast enough," France added.
Wallace hopes that once he succeeds, African American "kids can finally see ... a role model to look up to," he said. "They haven't had anybody in years."
He grew up in Concord, N.C., near Charlotte where most NASCAR teams are based. Wallace got the racing bug at age 9 after driving a go-kart. Soon after, he was driving small race cars with 30-horsepower engines, called "bandoleros," and quickly showed a knack for beating others to the finish line. He won 35 of 48 races.
"He was good out of the box," his father, Darrell Wallace Sr., recalled. "It's God-given talent."
By his mid-teens, Wallace had the look of a racing prodigy when he joined one of NASCAR's minor league circuits, the K&N Pro Series East. He won six races over three seasons and was named rookie of the year in 2010. Last year, Wallace drove in four of NASCAR's Nationwide Series races and finished in the top 10 three times, including a seventh-place finish in Iowa, ahead of Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch.
Wallace showed enough talent for Joe Gibbs Racing, a top-flight NASCAR team, to put him in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season, featuring highly modified pickup trucks.
In February at Daytona in his Truck Series debut, Wallace escaped a crash and finished 12th in the race.
"Made a mistake early. Learned. Capitalized. Missed the big one. Finished p12. Survived Daytona. That's a good weekend," Wallace tweeted his followers.
He did better last Saturday, in his second truck race, finishing fifth at Martinsville, Va., after leading 34 of the 250 laps. "Great, great weekend," Wallace tweeted. "Led laps, almost had it, ended up p5! That was fun!"
His next race is Sunday at Rockingham, N.C.
To move up to NASCAR's elite Cup series, however, Wallace not only has to keep racing well, he must attract the corporate sponsors that are essential to cover the costs of NASCAR's multimillion-dollar teams. That's a tough challenge for any young driver.
"It's not black or white, it's green, that's the bottom line," said Brad Daugherty, an African American co-owner of a NASCAR team and a NASCAR analyst on ESPN.
If Wallace does make it, he would integrate the driving ranks of a sport that remains overwhelmingly white 65 years after NASCAR was formed and help widen its audience as stock-car racing's popularity has flattened.
NASCAR was formed in the South and largely remained a regional sport for its first four decades. Its early stars, such as Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, were Southerners and most of the racetracks were south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
One African American driver, the late Wendell Scott, won a race in 1963 in the equivalent of what is now the Cup series. But Scott battled racism throughout a career that ended in 1973. He was barred from some events and even his 1963 win, in Jacksonville, Fla., wasn't acknowledged by officials until well after the race ended.
By the late 1990s, when Tiger Woods was becoming the first black star in golf, NASCAR was expanding across the nation. New tracks appeared in Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicago and Texas, with the sport developing a broader geographic reach as its popularity soared.
Most of its current star drivers — including Gordon, Kyle Busch and reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski — grew up outside the South. Even so, NASCAR remained slow to integrate. Drivers and their pit crews remain mostly white males and, as the grandstands plainly show, it's primarily white fans who attend NASCAR races.