Last year, Sporting News watched as Bubba Wallace had Richard Petty’s autograph tattooed on the back of his thigh. Wallace had ended up on the wrong end of a social media challenge, and as a man of his word, he literally had Petty’s name permanently etched into his skin.
This year, it is Petty’s race team that is looking to figuratively get Wallace’s name permanently etched into its organization.
Richard Petty Motorsports, which is co-owned by Andrew Murstein and the 83-year-old NASCAR legend, has offered Wallace an ownership stake in the team as part of its contract extension offer, according to Forbes. Wallace, who has driven full time for RPM in the Cup Series since 2018, is set to be a free-agent driver after the 2020 season.
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This is a rare but not unprecedented offer for Wallace, who at 26 is one of the best and certainly most popular young drivers in NASCAR’s Cup Series. As Forbes notes, Jeff Gordon was given a chunk of ownership when he signed a lifetime deal with Hendrick Motorsports in 2002. Stewart-Haas Racing became what it is today after Gene Haas gave Tony Stewart 50 percent ownership of the team after signing in 2008.
The report did not specify what percentage of ownership RPM is offering Wallace.
Murstein told Forbes he expects a deal in the coming weeks, but Wallace on Sunday told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider that he has “a lot of options on the table.”
According to the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern, one of those options could be Chip Ganassi Racing, which has an open Cup Series seat for 2021 after firing Kyle Larson because of the driver’s use of the N-word. Two of CGR’s primary sponsors, McDonalds and Coca-Cola, also work with Wallace.
A move to CGR in theory would be an equipment/resources upgrade for Wallace. RPM has been underfunded compared to its competition during Wallace’s three-year run with the team, which is part of the reason he has never won a Cup race.
However, because of the recent popularity spike for NASCAR’s only Black driver, that could change. Wallace has been a leader in NASCAR amid a global push against racism this summer, and new sponsors are jumping at the chance to capitalize on his increased fame.
“We went from probably having one meeting a week with a potential sponsor to five the last five weeks or so,” Murstein said. “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 question is whether the increase in sponsorship dollars can lead to enough improvement in equipment so Wallace can compete on the track while racing for Petty. Forbes this year ranked RPM as the ninth-most valuable NASCAR organization, worth $28 million. Which is nothing compared with the $315 million Hendrick Motorsports operation, for example. And it’s not like Wallace’s sponsorship potential is tied to his racing for RPM; that money will follow him wherever he goes.
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Most young, promising racing talents like Wallace typically leave smaller teams like RPM for better opportunities with richer teams, but at the same time, most of them aren’t offered an ownership stake to stay.
Wallace is 22nd in NASCAR Cup Series championship points after 20 races this season. With six races remaining before the start of the 10-race NASCAR playoffs, Wallace is four spots and 118 points behind the postseason cut-off position.
Simply put: Wallace needs a better car. And it seems RPM is trying to convince him he can get one without leaving the team.
“The nice thing about this sport is that you can do better quickly if you spend the money,” Murstein said. “It’s not like other sports where you only have so much talent. Here, the technology on the car is part of the talent.”