By: Cole Cusumano
Photo By: Nigel Kinrade | Nigel Kinrade Photography
FONTANA, Cali., — On January 26, the world lost NBA legend Kobe Bryant. The five-time champion lost his life after a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. He was one of nine people who lost their lives in the fatal crash, also among those was his daughter Gianna.
The NASCAR Cup Series now returns to Auto Club Speedway in Southern California just one month removed from the tragic incident that claimed the life of a man forever immortalized in the Golden State. While Bryant had no immediate ties to the sport, he has made an everlasting impact on people around the world – drivers included.
Among those is Ryan Blaney, who will be running a tribute paint scheme for the man many called ‘Black Mamba.’
“It was really neat to be able to do this with BodyArmor and I thank the Bryant family for letting us do that,” the driver of the No. 12 said.
The 18-time all star was a heavy investor in the sports hydration drink company and met with Blaney in 2018. The 26-year-old said it was a “really cool experience” talking about NASCAR to someone he grew up watching play for many years.
“It was a terrible accident that involved not just the Bryant family, but the other victims as well – it was tough to see,” Blaney admitted. “I’m really honored to be able to do this working with BodyArmor. He was really close with those guys, so that was a nice collaboration we were able to do to honor someone who meant a lot to people.”
The young driver recounted some of his favorite memories of late-Los Angeles Laker, including the infamous final game of his career where he scored 60 points. But his favorite Mamba moment?
In 2013, Bryant tore his achilles mid-game and went on to sink two free throws immediately after in a match up against the Golden State Warriors.
“I thought that showed the amount of heart that he had,” Blaney said. “No one has really ever done that before. That’s a badass thing right there.”
Blaney will be selling merchandise online and at the track with the commemorative Bryant paint scheme, proceeds from these sales will benefit the “MambaOnThree” fund which honors and supports the people who lost their lives in the helicopter accident.
The No.12 is one of two cars paying tribute to the NBA legend. William Byron will also be sporting purple and gold on his No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet – the same number that Bryant wore for nine years. Additionally, Daniel Suarez will adorn customized gloves and shoes that dawn the No. 8 and 24 accompanied by the iconic Lakers color scheme.
Auto Club Speedway will also pay homage to their hometown hero by painting a 24 on the infield grass.
The purple and gold BodyArmor No.12 will start 16th on Sunday, but Blaney appeared to have a top-five car in race trim. Should the 26-year-old find victory lane, this would be an emotional win for both the sporting world and the state of California.