FONTANA, Cali. – At lap 24, everyone stood. The crews in the pits climbed the wall and stood too, as cars zipped by with their deafening engine noises. Many in the grandstands, already decked out in yellow and purple held up the number 2 or chose to remove hats as the sun peeked out of what was earlier a cloudy and rain-spitting morning. If the loss of Kobe Bryant is still reverberating throughout sports, NASCAR felt it too.
The Los Angeles area race is usually a chance to see a Mad Libs of celebrities; this year’s list in attendance included Nick Lachey, Logan Paul, Shawne Merriman, David Boreanaz, and one of the guys from O-Town. But it was also the sport’s first time in California since the helicopter crash on Jan. 26 that took the lives of all nine aboard, including Kobe and Gianna Bryant. NASCAR drivers are often big basketball fans, as most living in the North Carolina area pull for the Hornets (and remember Bryant being drafted to Charlotte in 1996, although he never played for them). Multiple drivers have basketball courts in their compounds, and some like Dale Jr. organize leagues with their crews and other drivers. Denny Hamlin is a Jordan Brand athlete – and met Michael Jordan at a Hornets game – leading to a longterm friendship that includes golf outings.
It was only natural that the motorsports world needed a chance to grieve, mourn, and celebrate the life of a fierce competitor, especially in Southern California. And NASCAR did so throughout the day on Sunday. The No. 24 was spray painted into the infield. A banner of Kobe hung entering the grandstands, with a space to write notes and tributes. During the Drivers Meeting, a prayer was said for those who died in the crash.
Sneaker artist Kickstradomis worked with Daniel Suarez to create custom gloves and shoes the driver of the No. 96 car wore during the race, with both items auctioned over for the Mamba Mambacita Sports Foundation afterward.
Other drivers had the names of all of nine individuals on their car wraps as they competed in the Auto Club 400, while Ryan Blaney and William Byron took their tributes a step further. Blaney, who counts Body Armour (of which Kobe was a primary investor) among his sponsors, is also a huge Hornets fan and essentially did a jersey – well fire suit – swap with Bryant when the two met. His team created a custom paint scheme for the No. 12 car, featuring both 2 and 24 on the backend. And he sold shirts and diecasts of the car, with proceeds going to MambaOnThree, a foundation that exists to “support loved ones of the seven other victims involved in the tragedy.”
Honored that @drinkBODYARMOR is running a Kobe Bryant tribute scheme this weekend. I was fortunate enough to meet Kobe & this is a great way to honor him, Gianna & all the victims. Stay tuned for merch details and all proceeds will go to https://t.co/WdOVfr5mRk. #MambaMentality pic.twitter.com/UrtylAIsCK
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) February 25, 2020
“You see a lot of Lakers jerseys around the track here,” William Byron told Dime. “Normally when we go to a racetrack it’s not that way, but here you do. Every year. The colors look amazing on the car, the purple and gold, and it’s been well received from the fans.”
Byron, who at just 22 years old was born a year after Kobe entered the league, grew up with Bryant as an NBA icon. As the driver of the No. 24 car, there was extra emphasis to do something meaningful over the weekend.
“Our sponsor Axalta got a lot of suggestions about it and I feel like, really for us it made a lot of sense being the 24 car and even having the yellow numbers,” Byron added. “It’s definitely really special for us to have that connection, and I feel like being in Los Angeles for the race it really makes sense.”
Byron was in 18th place, with Blaney in third, as the 24th lap was run. Byron eventually finished 15th, with Blaney running close to the lead all day, winning the second stage, but finishing 19th after a corded tire forced him into the pits.