NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace says he's proud of all the work that's been done this year to make the sport more inclusive.
The 27-year-old tells PEOPLE in a new interview about his partnership with ChiliSleep that he's seen a change in the NASCAR community since publicly addressing his own experiences with racism as the only African-American top-tier driver.
"I feel that overall we’ve made the sport more inclusive for people that may not otherwise
have felt completely welcomed," he says. "Hats off to NASCAR, and everything they’ve done to help create change and welcome the new fan base."
He adds, "We want all people — current, future, and past generations — to know that you’re always welcome at a race."
Earlier this year, Wallace made headlines when a reported noose was found hanging in the Talladega Superspeedway garage assigned to him for a Cup Series race in June. NASCAR notified Wallace of the discovery and an FBI investigation followed. The FBI ultimately determined that months earlier someone had fashioned a noose out of the pull-down rope for the garage door, but the agency declined to describe it as an intentional racist act.
Wallace — who also successfully lobbied for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at tracks — previously told PEOPLE after the incident that he's going to "just keep fighting the good fight for me and continue to stand up for what I believe in."
The athlete also tells PEOPLE now about how crucial a good night's sleep is to his success on the track, and thanks ChiliSleep — which makes cooling mattress pads and bed coolers — for helping ensure he's getting one.
"I can’t begin to explain how much my sleep health has improved since I partnered with ChiliSleep," he says, noting that, "In general, I am very passionate about sleep."
Wallace points to increased performance, alertness, and recovery as all factors of his improved sleep hygiene.
"A little known fact: many race car drivers have an RV that we use to travel from race to race, and many of us sleep there more than we sleep in our own home. RVs generally do not have the same air condition quality and can’t get cold enough, so there have been times where I couldn’t get the temperature down low enough, leading to many sleepless nights," he explains, adding, "The races can be brutal and if I am only getting one to two hours of sleep the night before a race, I can’t perform at the highest level."
And he needs to be alert and active in a race, as Wallace tells PEOPLE that "no one realizes how exhausting race car driving can be."
"It’s a taxing sport: you’re physically clenched to the wheel for four hours straight, driving 500 laps in a car that is 185-190 degrees inside. A race car driver can surprisingly burn more than 3,000 calories in one race, but it’s a brutal environment. I have had my fair share of exhaustion from it and even fainted in Atlanta after a race."
That's where ChiliSleep's OOler sleep system has been the answer, he says.
Wallace also opens up to PEOPLE about the "tough" decision to leave Richard Petty Motorsports to join Michael Jordan's NASCAR team 23XI Racing. He admits now, "I’m still processing it every day but I get to return to the Toyota Family and work with two legends in the sports world — how can I pass that by?"
The driver says he's "excited for the future," and notes that Jordan and team co-owner Denny Hamlin also want "to do it right and want to win."
"Both Michael and Denny are at the top level in their careers, business, and personal lives, so I’m excited to learn from them both," Wallace says. "As much as I'm ready for the future, next year, my mind is still on 2020, with the plan to get through and finish out the best way possible."
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