Some would say that recent revelations make Monday’s walk for Bubba Wallace null and void, but the NASCAR community sent a brilliant message.
NASCAR has every right to feel uncomfortable and awkward right now. Having said that, no odometer can measure how much it beats the alternative.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded on Tuesday that a rope fashioned into a noose in the garage area of Talladega Superspeedway was not a hate crime against Bubba Wallace, the lone African-American driver on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. The rope, found in his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet’s garage stall, was labeled a garage door pull and had been in place since last October’s Cup weekend at least (Paul Menard and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford occupied the stall at that time).
This announcement came two days after NASCAR labeled it a noose and had called the FBI in to investigate the incident and a little over 24 hours after drivers stood behind Wallace at the rescheduled GEICO 500 on Monday afternoon at Talladega. In a show of solidarity, Wallace’s competitors pushed the No. 43 to the front of the field and embraced him after the invocation and national anthem.
Feeling validated, a vocal subsection of the NASCAR fanbase and beyond has been quick to label Wallace a liar in the wake of the FBI’s report. Common taunts have compared Wallace to disgraced actor Jussie Smollett, who was indicted on six counts of making false police reports in a hate crime hoax in Chicago. Others are eager to write Monday’s happenings, a show of unity capped off by a thrilling finish won by Wallace’s close friend Ryan Blaney, off as a humiliating day that saw NASCAR give in to supposed political causes.
At this point, it’s hard to call either case true.
If it isn’t apparent by now, it’s fair to admit that this situation was not handled perfectly. Perhaps NASCAR could’ve waited until the FBI investigation was completed before putting out a statement. NASCAR has handled current events very well. They could’ve kept their proceedings in a bubble, sticking to sports in a time when fans and viewers desperately try to cling to that concept. Instead, they bestowed a message of support to change and demonstrations with a message to fans and drivers that was hard to miss: prior to the start of the Fold of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks ago. NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the nation’s spurs for change immediately before the cars took the green flag…a point where many viewers would undoubtedly be watching. The Confederate flag, a popular accessory among the predominantly-southeastern fanbase, was also banned from raceday vicinities.
But a rare condemnation of going too fast has now opened Wallace to a new round of criticism, adding to a former batch that was, obviously unfairly, directed toward the 26-year-old for the color of his skin. Wallace has every right to remain frustrated, especially in these tenuous times in our nation. That frustration was seen when Wallace appeared on CNN on Tuesday night. While Wallace backed NASCAR, he reiterated his belief to Don Lemon that he believes that, its 2019 prescience accounted for, what he saw in his stall was a noose. (UPDATE: Wallace posted on Twitter on Wednesday that he was “relieved…that the investigation that this wasn’t what we feated it was”)
Those who shift the blame toward Wallace have perhaps never walked a mile in his shoes. During the Talladega proceedings, apologists of the Confederate flag stood outside the track (as well as flying a banner bearing the flag over the track) and waved the symbol created to represent a secession from the United States of America in defiance of NASCAR’s ban. A combination of Confederate flag apologists attempting to disturb the peace and a series of African-American deaths by hanging (seen by some as lynching) vindicated NASCAR’s decision to do their due diligence and vindicates a frustration that Wallace’s competitors can’t have. No evidence points to Wallace being the one who started the incident. NASCAR President Steve Phelps clarified in a Tuesday conference call that Wallace and his team “had nothing to do with this”. Yet, he’s going to be the one who bears the brunt of criticism toward this issue.
Even if the FBI determined that no hate crime was apparent (NASCAR is continuing its own investigation for the time being), it’s naive to say that Wallace hasn’t faced opposition for his speaking out. It should be understandable why the mere thought, the mere image of a noose, its purpose notwithstanding, had an effect on Wallace, who is only the seventh African-American driver to compete at the Cup Series level. Such dedication toward a flag created for the primary purpose of preserving the institution of slavery defied any idea that Wallace has faced no obstacles in his quest for equality.
That’s where Monday came in.
Perfection is rare to achieve in any form of sports. Sports’ mere status in our society has been pushed down a few notches during this period. Even as some leagues attempt to make a comeback, some participants are turning down an opportunity to do so to focus on social justice. But the display at Talladega showed how sports can, at the very least, play a part in an ongoing healing process, one this country is in desperate need of.
Tensions were understandably high when the green flag was ready to wave. But faced with the mere thought of a threat toward one of their own, the NASCAR community came together. The effects of Monday’s event will be felt for a long time. Drivers, crews, and management alike made it clear: mess with one, you mess with all.
“(Monday) to me as a sport was one of the most important days we’ve had. It’s one of the most kind of indelible print on my mind until the day I die, seeing the support that Bubba had from not just the drivers but all the crews, all the officials who were down in pit road, anyone who was part of that footprint. Everyone wanted to show their support for a family member of NASCAR. We are one big family. We are one large community and everyone’s belief is that someone was attacking a member of our family.”
“It turned out that that was not the case, but at the time that’s what our industry thought, so drivers, crew, our officials, everyone supported Bubba Wallace and the 43 team, and that was a very powerful image in not just the history of our sport but I think in all sports.”
With Wallace inadvertently subjected to more scrutiny, having his back becomes more important than ever. With their display and support thereafter, drivers made it clear that they would rise up for Wallace at the slightest sign of trouble.
“I support him 100 percent. I’m always going to be behind him,” Blaney said after his Monday victory. “If you run afoul to Bubba, you run afoul to me. (He’s) just a great person and a great family he comes from that makes him who he is today.”
“It was just an honor to be a part of that. Not only the drivers, but the crew members and the fans that were in attendance as well, NASCAR. That’s something I think everyone will remember for a long time. It showed how much we support not only Darrell. That was the main reason we were doing it, to support Darrell. But everybody that has been oppressed not only for the past two weeks but for a long time.”
Despite responding well to recent events, it’s clear that things won’t be a green-white-checkered sprint, but rather a marathon more akin to the Coca-Cola 600. There’s going to be some bumps in the road, but Wallace and NASCAR are trying to do the right thing, go for equality.
It’s a good sign that no one in the NASCAR garage was intentionally harmful, but this misstep does not eliminate the injustices and instances of racism seen on a daily basis. The process needs work, but NASCAR and Wallace are doing their part to ensure that the fight against systemic racism rages on even when its no longer trending.
Mistakes have been made in this process. But if one of them produces unity, it’s certainly hard to argue the merits against it.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags