Black drivers gaining

Posted Aug. 02, 2010, at 8:55 p.m.

    Black NASCAR drivers are few and far between.

But thanks to Revolution Racing and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program for minorities and women, there are two young talents who are making names for themselves in the K&N Pro Series East (formerly Busch North).

  And if they continue to progress, they could eventually land rides in the Sprint Cup series and give minorities hope that they can break through in NASCAR’s top series.

Darrell Wallace Jr., originally from Mobile, Alabama, won his second K&N Pro Series East race at Lee USA Speedway (N.H.) last weekend with an eye-opening three-wide move to the inside to get past points leader Ryan Truex and Eddie MacDonald and take the lead for good with three laps to go.

Wallace, who is just 17, is second in points behind Truex. Wallace trails by 33 points with three races remaining.

Wallace has five top-three finishes in seven races. He is the series’ top rookie.

Gifford, who is 21, is eighth in points and has three fourth-place finishes in seven races. But he could be much higher in the points. He was leading a race at Martinsville when his battery went dead; he was running third at Iowa Speedway when his right rear tire went flat; he had transmission trouble at Lime Rock and he got spun out twice at Lee.

Cherryfield native and four-time K&N Pro Series East champion Andy Santerre is the competition director for Revolution Racing and feels both drivers have potential to race in the Sprint Cup series.

“Darrell is real good. He has a lot of natural ability. And Ryan is real good, too,” said Santerre. “They have great attitudes. They’re both real good to work with.”

Both are enjoying the series and have been pleased with their seasons to date.

“It’s been a pretty good year,” said Wallace. “We definitely didn’t expect this. We won right off the bat [in the first race] at Greenville-Pickens. We expected to get some top fives and to run well. But this has been a lot more than we expected.”

“We’ve definitely had some good strong runs and some good finishes,” said Gifford. “We haven’t had the luck I would have liked to have had. We’ve lacked a little bit of consistency that Darrell has had. But this year has been really good.”

They are aware of the fact the sport lacks black drivers and they would like to be trend-setters in getting more involved.

“[African-Americans] would rather play basketball and football and other sports,” said Wallace. “But if we can show them there’s another sport out there, hopefully we can attract more African-Americans.”

Bill Lester was the last black driver to run in a Sprint Cup race back in 2006.

Wallace said Wendell Scott was the last prominent black driver. He retired in 1973 after a 495-race career. He is the only black driver to ever win a Sprint Cup race in 1963.

“Hopefully, we can bring that flame back up and carry it even farther,” said Wallace.

“There aren’t a lot of African-Americans in the sport to begin with,” said Gifford. “And there haven’t been many before so there weren’t many to look up to. So African-American kids aren’t really interested in it. As more drivers like us come along, kids from all nationalities, including women, will realize that it’s fun and they can go out and do it.”

Wallace and Gifford began their careers in go-karts.

“My dad bought a motorcycle and the guy who fixed it for him raced go-karts and invited us to watch it one weekend,” said Wallace. “We went and my dad asked me if I wanted to try a new sport. I said ‘sure.

“I started having fun with it and decided to stop playing basketball and begin racing,” said Wallace, who became the youngest driver to ever win a late model race at Franklin County Speedway in Callaway, Va. at age 14.

In 2005, in his first year of Bandolero division racing for small cars with 30-horsepower engines, he won 35 of 48 races. He won 11 races in the Legends car series the following year.

Gifford got interested in racing through his grandfather, Farrel, who was a drag racer.

“He had pictures of race cars everywhere in his shop and we would watch NASCAR races almost every Sunday,” said Gifford. “I was actually going to get involved in junior drag racing but my grandfather took me to a go-kart track and you didn’t have to travel as far to race go-karts.

“I never really thought about taking it seriously but I started winning races and got real competitive,” said Gifford, a native of Winchester, Tenn.

“It was the right decision for me. Going in a straight line for 8-10 seconds [in a drag race] didn’t seem like it would be any fun,” he said.

Gifford captured four top-five finishes in Late Model racing on dirt tracks when he was 15 and joined Team Dillon Racing as a development driver for Richard Childress Racing in 2008. He had three wins and 17 top-fives in 29 races in the Fastrak Dirt Late Model Series. He raced Late Models on dirt and asphalt a year ago and also had three top-five finishes in four races in the K&N Pro Series East.

He went to the racing combine last fall and earned one of the four spots for Revolution Racing.

Both drivers said Santerre has played a major role in their success.

“He has been huge. I really look up to Andy. You know he’s always going to give you real good equipment that is capable of winning. He’s won multiple championships. And he’s a real nice guy,” said Gifford, who is under contract as a developmental driver for Richard Childress Racing.

“Andy has been important every step of the way,” said Wallace, who is a developmental driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. “He knows all of the tracks and that’s a big help for the whole team. We always go into each race with high hopes. We know we’re going to get good set-ups.”

Wallace feels he can catch Truex and win the points title and Gifford said he would love to take a trip to Victory Lane since he is too far back to battle for the points title.

Wallace and Gifford are close friends and pull for each other.

“Things wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well if we weren’t friends,” said Gifford who hopes Wallace wins the title.

Sergio Pena, who is 12th, and Mackena Bell, who is 21st, are the other Revolution Racing drivers in the series.

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