One of the few drivers that people who don’t follow NASCAR can name is Bubba Wallace, and he’s never even won a major race. Of course, he is one of the best up-and-coming drivers in the country, a young, magnetic sports star. But it’s off the track where Wallace has really grabbed headlines, primarily for bringing an anti-racist stand to an overwhelmingly white sport.
After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, Wallace painted Black Lives Matter on his race car, and was a driving force behind NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its events. He was also the subject of controversy after a noose was found in his garage at Alabama’s Talladega racetrack. After an investigation, the FBI concluded he had not been the target of a hate crime, but the episode sparked a backlash among some fans, including President Trump, who thought Wallace should apologize for insinuating he was a target of racism.
All of this is to say you’d have to drive pretty far to find a more polarizing figure in NASCAR than Bubba Wallace. In a new ad for Root Insurance, the brand embraces that dynamic unapologetically.
Created by Tool of North America and director Wesley Walker, it’s a dark portrait of Wallace, working out and racing in the rain, punctuated by a cacophony of media questions, flashes of a noose and a Confederate flag, references to President Trump’s tweet about him, and a raging crowd holding up “apologize” signs. Then we see a young Black fan watching the racer with admiration. Wallace ignores the cackled questioning and the mics shoved in his face as he walks away, and the ad fades to the tagline, “Progress Owes No Apology.”
Root Insurance is a rising name in insurance using mobile tech, machine learning, and AI to disrupt auto insurance. It is targeting a valuation of more than $6 billion in an upcoming IPO. Chief brand officer Kelly Ruoff says the spot is aimed at an audience they define as socially aware and culturally connected—people who make purchasing decisions based on an alignment of values, and will reward a brand for doing the right thing. The goal here was to tell Wallace’s story with a wider audience and show the brand’s support of him in the process.
“Early on, we homed in on the part of his story that made him known beyond NASCAR —President Trump tweeting at him in June asking if he had apologized yet,” says Ruoff. “The idea of an apology quickly became the theme we centered on. Just because an apology is asked for doesn’t mean it’s owed. We knew there was power in denying an apology. It spoke to the high road that Bubba always takes, but it also spoke to his feisty spirit.”
Walker says working with Wallace was a blessing, not only as a director and creative, but as a fellow Black man in America today. “The brief was incredibly collaborative, and in partnering with Bubba Wallace, I was tasked with honoring the power of his story and bringing to light the grit and determination it takes to be a change agent in these uncertain times,” says Walker. “We sourced every element in our narrative from pure facts and focused on revealing Bubba’s inner world—that standing for change is not easy, or a matter of pure heroism—it is work. Real and true inner work.”
The brand is launching its partnership with Wallace at the right time, as his star continues to rise. This week he announced he joined the newly formed 23X1 Racing team, co-owned by Michael Jordan and legendary driver Denny Hamlin. Jordan is now the first-ever Black majority owner of a NASCAR Cup series team. Given the big-name owners, as part of a well-funded operation that includes a partnership with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, this team was built for maximum media and fan attention. And like Root, they’re not avoiding the controversy and hype around Wallace, they’re banking on it.
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) October 22, 2020