Bubba Wallace has become one of the NASCAR Cup Series‘ biggest names in 2020, but has yet to finalise his 2021 plans. On Sunday morning, Forbes‘ David Smith revealed Richard Petty Motorsports has added a rare but major wrinkle to sweeten their offer and keep him in the #43: an ownership stake in the team.
“We’re in discussions with him about an extension that includes ownership in the team,” team co-owner Andrew Murstein told Forbes.
Wallace began racing for RPM in 2017 on a substitute basis before moving to a full-time slate the following year. Although he has not won a premier series race and is 20th in points (though a great improvement over his consecutive 28th-place finishes in 2018 and 2019), the lone active black Cup driver has blossomed into a virtual household name as he spearheaded NASCAR’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement and Confederate flag ban. Such an image has not come without backlash and drama, as evidenced by the GEICO 500 noose investigation and attacks from President Donald Trump over the summer. Despite the adversities faced, Wallace has become a fan favourite and attracted brands like Cash App, which is sponsoring his #43 for five races, and Beats Electronics, which has a personal endorsement deal with the driver.
The increase in sponsors and funding would be a boon for RPM, a midpack team that has struggled financially over the years even with the legendary Petty name. The organisation has not won a full-length points race since 2012 at Watkins Glen International with road racing expert Marcos Ambrose driving the #9 car, a remnant of the team’s merger with Evernham Motorsports that was shuttered in 2017 (as the #44) for sponsor troubles. The #43 last visited Victory Lane with Aric Almirola at the rain-shortened 2014 July Daytona International Speedway event, while its last win in a race that went the distance was with the late John Andretti at Martinsville Speedway in 1999.
“We went from probably having one meeting a week with a potential sponsor to five the last five weeks or so,” Murstein added. “I think Bubba is probably the most recognizable NASCAR driver now, other than Richard Petty. So, we’ve got probably the two most recognizable names in the sport. It’s a marketer’s dream.”
“The nice thing about this sport is that you can do better quickly if you spend the money. It’s not like other sports where you only have so much talent. Here, the technology on the car is part of the talent.”
It comes with no surprise that Wallace is an attractive name in the 2021 free agent market, with reports that teams like Chip Ganassi Racing are interested in signing him. Ganassi’s #42 car is currently driven by Matt Kenseth as a replacement for the suspended and fired Kyle Larson, and has not secured a driver for next season. Wallace is a close partner with Ganassi sponsor McDonald’s.
“We have been approached recently by three other drivers inquiring about the No. 43 ride. One of which is a current star,” Murstein commented, per Adam Stern of the Sports Business Journal. “However, our focus is on [trying to renew] Bubba. We also offered Bubba a huge pay raise for next year.”
Murstein did not reveal specifics on the interested drivers, but drivers like Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, and Corey LaJoie do not have contracts for next year.
Although uncommon, RPM’s offer is not unprecedented. In 2000, Hendrick Motorsports gave then-three-time champion Jeff Gordon a lifetime contract that included equity ownership of his #24 car; Gordon would also become car owner of the #48 currently driven by Jimmie Johnson. When Tony Stewart joined Gene Haas‘ organisation in 2009, he took over fifty percent of the team to form Stewart-Haas Racing. Of course, Gordon and Stewart were already proven winners and champions at the time of their transactions.
One can typically find owner/drivers in NASCAR’s Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, including B.J. McLeod Motorsports and Kyle Busch Motorsports. However, the higher costs and demand make them mostly absent at the Cup level outside of McLeod’s part-time operation (although MBM Motorsports runs the full schedule and is owned by Carl Long, he has not contested a national series race in 2020).