Editor’s note: Since this story was published, the FBI has determined that Bubba Wallace was not the victim of a hate crime and that no charges will be filed. A pull rope fashioned like a noose had been on a garage door at Talladega Superspeedway since as early as last fall, NASCAR said Tuesday.
Nobody around NASCAR slept well Sunday night.
Long before drivers pushed their friend Bubba Wallace to the front of the row before Monday’s GEICO 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, there was a day that started with a crisis and ended with a separate one.
Sunday was arguably the most shameful day in the sport’s modern history. It began with a plane flying above the speedway with a massive Confederate flag and a sign attached reading, “Defund NASCAR.” In between there were a couple of dozen trucks showing their hateful pride with no qualms, and the day ended with a noose in the garage of the NASCAR Cup Series’ only Black racer, Bubba Wallace.
This occurred just days after praise was heaped upon NASCAR’s decision to disallow the Confederate flag from all tracks and events, a decision that came on the heels of Wallace making a public plea to do so.
All the work the league had done felt erased.
Thankfully, everyone rallied. For the most part, there was nothing but support for Wallace – save a pocket of a few disingenuous clowns asserting that this somehow may have been a staged event.
And some of those moments were downright moving. The scenes of Richard Petty, who owns the team Wallace races for and has posed with plenty of Confederate flags in his life, coming together to show solidarity with his driver was nothing short of historic. Watching his cohorts push his car to the front of the pack before the race was the kind of moment that you see once in your life.
While Wallace didn’t win, it wasn’t a complete failure overall. A lot of eyeballs tuned in to a great race that ended with a wild checkered flag and reminded America of why the sport is cool at all, which everyone enjoyed. But there is still one lingering question regarding the dark day of Sunday: Is NASCAR’s open-door strategy even realistic?
Perhaps more importantly: Is it something they plan to enforce publicly?
Before the race, league president Steve Phelps spoke to the media about the incident that was announced around 10 o’clock the night before.
“Obviously this is a very, very serious act,” Phelps said. “We take [it] as such. We will do everything in our power to make sure that whoever has committed this act comes to justice and comes to light, and we weed this type of behavior from our sport.”
That specific phrase “comes to light” is of particular interest. Casually around the sport, feelings are tad mixed about whether naming and shaming is the smartest strategy for growth. Yet at the same time, if the bulk of the new eyeballs on the sport want more transparency in what is effectively the social enforcement that drew them there, certainly that is a factor.
With the FBI involved, the league has a certain amount of cover. But a noose is considered a threat on the level of a hate crime in certain states, and if NASCAR finds out who is responsible and doesn’t tell the public, that’s not only unfair but unsafe.
The entire scene from Alabama brings to light the biggest problem the league and the sport face when it comes to the entire act of disassociation. NASCAR’s and stock car racing’s connections to their communities are part and parcel with dealing with racists in some cases. There’s no way that they couldn’t find out who flew that plane over the speedway with a flag that clearly wasn’t made that day. Surely everyone in town probably has a good idea of who did, too. There can’t be more than a handful of pilots in all of Talladega County with those kinds of skywriting skills on call.
Turns out, they didn’t have to, because a group known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans took responsibility themselves. Mind you, this is a group that they’ve had to ban from sponsoring cars in the past. But what do you do if an ugly incident of discrimination occurs with a sponsor company you had faith in, but ultimately failed society through racist acts? Do you ban that team from racing, too, for an off-track incident? The tentacles of racism run deep, and drawing the line at the Confederate flag means preparing for another battery of decisions.
So, in some ways, the perpetrator himself doesn’t necessarily matter, but is instructive as to how grassroots this process is going to be. How can you trust a business you lease or contract with if you can’t guarantee that they themselves won’t sabotage the entire effort on your own watch? You still gotta run the races.
So, for all of the league’s effort to keep a symbol of hate off its walls to promote a welcoming attitude, there are certain things it can’t control, understandably. The question is whether it’s willing to make changes on what it can control when all cameras aren’t watching. Or for that matter, when they are.
“Unequivocally, they will be banned from this sport for life,” Phelps said of the likely punishment for those who are responsible for the noose. “There’s no room for this at all, and we won’t tolerate it. And they won’t be here. I don’t care who they are, they will not be here.”
NASCAR bills itself as a family. But, Lord knows that those folks are the hardest ones to get rid of.