Corporate interest in Bubba Wallace has picked up momentum and NASCAR's only Black full-time driver has signed a new sponsor that includes funding for his Richard Petty Motorports team.
Columbia Sportswear Co. on Wednesday announced a multiyear sponsorship with Wallace as a brand ambassador that will also put the company on the No. 43 at Dover later this month and one to two other races not yet announced.
Wallace, in his third full season at NASCAR's top Cup Series level, has gained national attention over the last several months as an activist. He successfully pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events, promotes a message of "compassion, love, understanding" in his quest for inclusivity and has led the conversation among his peers about racial equality.
Joe Boyle, Columbia Brand president, told The Associated Press the company took notice of Wallace during the coronavirus pandemic when NASCAR was one of the first sports to return to competition in May. It gave Wallace the spotlight during national unrest over racial inequalities.
"With COVID there's not a lot of sports that have been on and with popular culture and everything Bubba has stood up for, we had really been watching him as he rose to national attention," Boyle said. "Everything he stood for, in terms of his fortitude, courage, conviction around what he is standing up for, that's what really Columbia has stood up for all these years, as well."
Wallace is an outdoors enthusiast and budding photographer. As discussions on sponsorship began, Wallace sent the company photographs of himself wearing a prized bright yellow ski jacket that was his first Columbia apparel purchase.
"It wasn't the (activism) that stood out for us, it was that he grew up in the outdoors," Boyle said. "His favorite activities to do outside the track is photography, hiking, biking, golf -- it's just a natural fit."
Columbia is an established brand in active outdoor lifestyle apparel, footwear, accessories and equipment. It plans to use the deal with Wallace -- its first NASCAR driver and team sponsorship agreement -- to promote its product lines.
Finding sponsorship has been difficult during Wallace's career. He joined RPM, co-owned by Hall of Famer Richard Petty, in 2017 but a lack of proper funding has long slowed the team on the track. Wallace began this season with only 16 of 36 races sold to corporate sponsors.
It has taken time for deals to come together in the months since Wallace found his voice. He signed a personal sponsorship agreement with Beats by Dre in July, a deal announced ahead of schedule when the company responded to President Donald Trump targeting Wallace in a tweet.
One week later, Cash App signed on to sponsor Wallace for five races.
"It's just incredible momentum that we have right now," Wallace told AP. "These are the types of deals that we've always talked about that we needed to be successful on and off the race track."
The deals are slowly coming in as Wallace, a free agent, plots his future in NASCAR. He has received a contract extension offer from RPM co-owner Andrew Murstein that promises a larger stake in team ownership -- Wallace already owns a piece of the team -- and he has options elsewhere.
Wallace, a six-time winner in NASCAR's Truck Series, liked the deal with Columbia because it is an authentic partnership that represents his interests.
"We're trying to find ways to incorporate photography while being outdoors," Wallace said. "But also it is about getting people outdoors that don't have the same access that we do to getting outdoors, so maybe inner city kids that it's a little bit of a hike for them to get to a state park, just to be able to go hiking or fishing.
"We are trying to come up with creative and elaborate ways to give them access and give back to communities, which all ties in with what is going on in the world about us diving deep into communities and making a bigger footprint and impact."
If Wallace does not return to RPM next season, the Columbia sponsorship would follow him to a new team in 2021.