When you hear the name Michael Jordan, you’ll probably think of either basketball or sneakers. His Airness, however, is breaking into a new sporting scene: NASCAR. During 2020, the NBA legend teamed up with Denny Hamlin to launch 23XI Racing, which will make its Cup Series debut at the Daytona 500.
Since motorsports aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s easy to assume that Michael Jordan simply saw an opportunity to expand his brand and make a bit more money. In reality, though, MJ’s relationship with NASCAR goes back quite a while.
Michael Jordan made a fortune thanks to his basketball fame
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After infamously failing to make his high school’s varsity basketball team at the first attempt, Jordan didn’t miss a beat. He made the varsity the following fall and grew into a McDonald’s All-American; MJ then headed to the University of North Carolina and hit the game-winning shot to seal an NCAA title as a freshman. His star, however, would only continue to rise.
While it took Jordan a little while to get past the Detroit Pistons, his winning ways continued in the NBA. He, of course, took won six championships in two separate three-peats, along with just about every individual award you can imagine.
That on-court success set the stage for MJ’s biggest victory: his massive financial fortune. Although Jordan’s NBA salary wasn’t massive by modern standards, he more than made up for that reality with endorsements; he also stuck a major deal with Nike and now owns the Charlotte Hornets. In total, he’s estimated to be worth roughly $1.6 billion, which is quite a win, no matter how you slice it.
Michael Jordan has a longer relationship with NASCAR than you might think
Thanks to that massive net worth, Michael Jordan was able to break into NASCAR as an owner of his own team. His relationship with motorsports, however, isn’t just a marriage of convenience.
As Ryan McGee explained in a 2020 ESPN story, Jordan isn’t that new to the NASCAR scene. “As a kid growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, [Jordan’s] father, James, would often take Michael and his siblings to Winston Cup Series races around the Carolinas, places like Charlotte, Darlington, and Rockingham, and even all the way to Daytona Beach, Florida,” he wrote.
MJ’s relationship with NASCAR didn’t end there, though. At the University of North Carolina, he still watched the occasional race, thanks to a teammate.
“My teammates, from Chapel Hill to the Cleveland Cavaliers, most of them have always given me a hard time when I’d be in the locker room changing the TV channel to the NASCAR races,” Brad Daugherty told McGee. “Michael always gave me a hard time, too, about being a hillbilly and all of that. But you know what? He would also sit there and watch with me. He liked it. He always did.”
Bubba Wallace helped convince MJ to become a NASCAR owner
During his childhood and time in college, we know that Michael Jordan watched the occasional NASCAR race. As an adult, he also headed down to Daytona as both a friend of Denny Hamlin or the owner of a Superbike team. Buying into the sport, however, was always a bridge too far.
In 2020, however, everything changed, and Jordan joined forces with Hamlin to create 23XI Racing. Who inspired MJ to put his name and money on the line? Bubba Wallace.
“The answer is Darrell [Bubba] Wallace Jr., who has spent the 2020 Cup Series season on an upward trajectory of public recognition like nothing NASCAR has ever seen,” McGee wrote. “He has battled bigotry—he called for a ban on Confederate flags at tracks, and NASCAR listened—while also battling for top-10 finishes as a driver for poor-but-proud Richard Petty Motorsports. Over the past two months, Wallace has accrued multiple personal sponsorship deals worth millions of dollars and repeatedly hinted about an impending new opportunity for 2021 and beyond.”
Wallace also has the potential to become a champion, which, if you know anything about His Airness, is certainly an important part of the equation.
When Michael Jordan left basketball behind to play professional baseball, he was trying to make a childhood dream come true. While owning a NASCAR team might not have crossed his mind until later in life, we do know that His Airness does have a deeper connection to motorsports than some would imagine.