It's a great combination: the American NASCAR racing series and basketball legend Michael Jordan. The former Chicago Bulls star has been a team owner since 2020 in the sport where high-speed laps are driven counterclockwise.
Bubba Wallace will also drive one of his cars in the new season, which starts next weekend. Wallace, Nascar's only black driver, convinced Jordan three years ago.
Both 23XI Racing team cars feature Jordan's previous jersey numbers, 23 and 45, as well as the iconic Jumpman logo from his popular clothing line. Every now and then the big boss comes into the race. And it doesn't go unnoticed: In his rare public appearances, Jordan is often the biggest attraction.
His investment initially caused surprise. What was Jordan supposed to do with a sport that couldn't be removed from basketball? “I've been a racing fan my whole life,” he said.
About the author
Koen van der Velden describes De Volkskrant About sports in the United States. Lives in New York.
His father used to take him to Nascar races near his hometown of Wilmington, in the southern United States where auto racing is very popular. A trip to the Daytona 500 in Florida left a big impression.
Jordan kept his hobby to himself, because it was not fashionable in the black community to watch bright white NASCAR. Brad Dougherty, his colleague at the University of North Carolina, liked the idea, but was ridiculed for it.
Jordan also ironically called him a “hillbilly,” a term for white rural people. “But he sat down to watch,” Dougherty told ESPN.
As the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets), Jordan met NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin in 2006. To his surprise, the former basketball player knew a lot about his sport. The two became friends and Jordan became Hamlin's car sponsor, but serious collaboration did not happen until the fall of 2020. Jordan and Hamlin started their own team and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace became their first driver.
Jordan always doubted starting a NASCAR team. Was he in the right place? – Until he met Wallace. The American performed well, but also stood out as the only black driver in the field. “I see this as an opportunity to tap into new audiences and create more opportunities for Black people in racing,” Jordan said when announcing his team.
2020 NASCAR numbers showed 70 percent of fans were white and just under 10 percent were Black. This sport is especially popular in conservative America.
Wallace did not gain credit when he called for the removal of the “Confederate flag” often seen at NASCAR races in 2020. The racist battle flag of the Old South was banned shortly thereafter, sparking outrage from supporter groups. Wallace received support from his teammates, but relied on boos from spectators at the races.
Shortly after the controversial flag was banned, Wallace found a noose in his garage in Alabama. The FBI's investigation showed that the thing had been around for some time, but the fear was still there.
Jordan knew what he was getting into, he told a television column in 2020 today. “I will jump into the jaws of racism, and I am ready for it.” According to him, more drivers like Wallace could open up the sport to a wider audience. New numbers show interest from the black community has increased slightly.
Nascar (the National Association for Stock Car Racing) can use every new fan. Viewing figures for the enhanced passenger car category have declined since the turn of the century, as has sponsorship income.
The hope is that Jordan and Wallace will make the racing series more attractive to a younger, diverse audience. A street race in Chicago, which has been on the calendar since last year, should also help. (NASCAR races aren't just about paperclip-shaped tracks, as is often thought.)
Jordan has had more time to spend with his team since last summer. He sold his NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets, for $3 billion, according to Financial Magazine Forbes He is one of the four hundred richest people on earth. The 150 million he paid for 23XI Racing was pocket change.
Jordan has not won a single title with the Hornets in thirteen years as owner. It upset the six-time NBA champion, who was known as a player with an almost pathological drive to be the best, a mentality he also demanded of his teammates.
Wallace said Jordan is also making a claim as the owner of his own NASCAR stable. “He's always teasing you to see if you're on your toes. You have to be prepared for that.”
23XI Racing is one of the best teams, but Jordan is also still waiting for his first racing championship. Wallace has won two races since the team's inception. After the first, Jordan said he shed a tear.
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