PILSEN — One of NASCAR’s top drivers stopped by a Pilsen youth club to surprise dozens of kids with autographs and a chance to ask questions about what it’s like to be a race car driver.
Bubba Wallace popped in Tuesday to say hello to kids participating in summer programs at the Union League Boys and Girls Club, 2157 W. 19th St., after joining city officials to announce Chicago will host a series of NASCAR races starting next summer,
“We were able to drive a race car through the streets of Chicago,” Wallace said. “I can’t say I’ve driven one though the streets anywhere else, especially not Chicago, so definitely top of the list.”
Wallace is the lone Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, the highest level of racing, and is a member of the 23XI team founded by NBA star Michael Jordan and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin in 2020. In 2021, Wallace became the first Black driver in more than 50 years to win a NASCAR Cup Series race.
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Gathered on the floor of the Boys and Girls Club gym, kids asked Wallace questions: Does he like McDonald’s? What does it feel like to crash a race car? Does he know Michael Jordan?
Wallace told the group he didn’t always think he wanted to be a professional race car driver, but he happened to get into racing go-karts and was able to work his way up to the big leagues.
“You gotta be successful at every opportunity you get,” Wallace told the kids. “You gotta make the most of it. Surround yourself with the right people.”
Wallace and NASCAR visited the Pilsen kids clubs last summer and gifted the organization two virtual racing simulators, which program directors said the kids love.
“They get a chance to experience what I go through every weekend, virtually,” Wallace said. “They get to see how hard it is. … Racing teaches you nothing but patience. That’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned. Patience is key. The quicker you learn that, the better off you’ll be.”
NASCAR is donating another set of simulators to the kids club.
Before kids lined up for autographs from Wallace, they gifted him a Union League Boys and Girls Club T-Shirt. He asked the group if it meant he was part of the family.
“Yeah!” the kids yelled back.
The Union League Boys and Girls Club — a separate organization from Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago — has been in Pilsen since 1920. It offers after-school programs, summer activities and free meals to provide “academic success, good character and citizenship, and healthy lifestyles” to kids all across the city. There are 19 clubs in Chicago.
Wallace said he hopes kids are able to come out next year when he’s in town for the city’s first NASCAR street race, set for July 2023.
“I think that would be really special. That’s how I got my start — I was going to see a go-kart race, and got hooked,” he said. “I figure a couple of these kids could do the same thing.”
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