NASCAR rallies around Black driver as FBI investigates noose

Bubba Wallace successfully pushed for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its tracks and properties two weeks ago.

Bubba Wallace
Driver Bubba Wallace was overcome with emotion after dozens of drivers pushed his car to the front of the field before Monday's race [John Bazemore/AP Photo]

Authorities said on Monday that the FBI is investigating the discovery of a noose found in the Talladega Superspeedway garage stall of Bubba Wallace and the governor of Alabama condemned the act against NASCAR’s only Black full-time driver. Wallace two weeks ago successfully pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its venues, though the sanctioning body has not outlined plans on how it will enforce the restriction.

“Late this afternoon, NASCAR was made aware that a noose was found in the garage stall of the 43 team,” NASCAR said in a statement on Sunday. “We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act.”

On Twitter, Wallace said: “The despicable act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and how persistent we must be in the fight against racism.”

As word of the incident spread through the NASCAR community, much of them rallied around Wallace on Monday. Champions Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney pushed his vehicle on the track as he steered it to the front of pit road, and the entire 40-driver field and all their crew members followed.

After the car came to a stop, Wallace climbed out, sat on the window ledge and sobbed. Richard Petty, his Hall of Fame team owner, gently placed a hand on Wallace’s shoulder.

“The news has disturbed us all and of course we want justice and know who and why,” said seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. “And we want to stand with our friend.”

The 82-year-old Petty, at his first race since the coronavirus pandemic began and at Talladega on race day for the first time in more than 10 years, stood side by side with Wallace during the national anthem before Monday’s rain-postponed event. Everyone stood behind the car while Brad Keselowski held the American flag at the front of the display of solidarity.

One by one, they hugged Wallace, who then had a long embrace with his owner. And then he went racing.

Flag ban

Earlier this month, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from all races as the sport moved to distance itself from a checkered past on race amid global protests against the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

The noose was discovered on the same day NASCAR’s fledgeling flag ban faced its biggest challenge. The ban took effect before last week’s race near Miami, but there were only about 1,000 military members admitted into that race.

At the Talladega, Alabama Superspeedway, in the heart of the South, as many as 5,000 fans were allowed in, even though rain postponed the race until Monday and visitors were barred from the infield.

No flags were spotted inside the race venue on Sunday, but cars and pick-up trucks driving along nearby roads were flying the flag and parading past the entrance to the superspeedway over the weekend.

NASCAR Talladega Confederate flag
While no Confederate flags were allowed inside the race venue, demonstrators flew them outside the track [Marvin Gentry/USA Today Sports via Reuters]

A small plane flew over the track on Sunday pulling a banner with the flag and the words: “Defund NASCAR.”

Wallace’s 2013 victory in a Truck Series race was only the second in a NASCAR national series by a Black driver (the first being Wendell Scott in 1963) and helped push him into the Cup Series, where he drives the number 43 for Hall of Famer Richard Petty and is forced to scramble for sponsorship dollars.

Wallace, a 26-year-old Alabama native, said he has found support among fellow drivers for his stance on the flag. He noted that in his tweet after the noose announcement.

“Over the last several weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the support from people across the NASCAR industry including other drivers and team members in the garage,” he said. “Together, our sport has made a commitment to driving real change and championing a community that is accepting and welcoming of everyone. Nothing is more important and we will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate.”

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said she was “shocked and appalled” by the “vile act” against Wallace, an Alabama native.

NASCAR has spent years trying to distance itself from the Confederate flag, long a part of its moonshine-running roots from its founding more than 70 years ago. Five years ago, former Chairman Brian France tried to ban flying the flags at tracks, a proposal that was not enforced and largely ignored.

This year was different and it was Wallace who led the charge. Over the past month, as the nation has been roiled by social unrest largely tied to Floyd’s death, Wallace wore a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” at one race and had a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme at another.

Wallace, whose father is white, was not always outspoken about racism; even after Floyd was killed last month, he was not the first driver to speak out for racial equality.

He said he began to find his public voice on racism after watching the video in May of Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting in Georgia. He said he now recognises he must not let his platform as a prominent driver go to waste.

NBA star LeBron James tweeted his support to Wallace, calling the noose: “Sickening!”

“Know you don’t stand alone! I’m right here with you as well as every other athlete,” James wrote. “I just want to continue to say how proud I am of you for continuing to take a stand for change here in America and sports!”

Talladega is one of the more raucous stops on the NASCAR schedule, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted the series, like all sports, to ban or sharply limit fans for months. The scene this weekend was a dramatic departure from the Talladega norm with plenty of room for social distancing and fans being asked to wear masks.

Some NASCAR fans claim the flag is about heritage and not hate, though most African Americans disagree.

Source: News Agencies