Wallace, who called on NASCAR to ban displays of the Confederate flag at its racetracks, fought back tears as he climbed from his car for prerace ceremonies. He rested his head on the roof and was comforted by his team owner, seven-time champion Richard Petty, who, at 82, is the sport’s most venerated icon.
Wallace, the top-flight Cup Series’s lone African American competitor, was then embraced by several fellow drivers before climbing back in his car for the race’s official start less than 24 hours after a noose was discovered hanging in his garage stall.
The act, which is being investigated by the FBI, laid bare what is at stake for stock-car racing as the national debate over systemic racism plays out in dramatic fashion.
In heeding Wallace’s call to ban displays of the Confederate flag at its tracks, NASCAR sent a clear signal June 10 that it stands on the side of diversity and inclusion. If the cost was losing fans determined to use stock-car racing to celebrate what many regard as a symbol of hate, NASCAR executives deemed the price worth it to ensure that all potential ticket-buyers, corporate sponsors and future drivers feel welcome at its events.
Sunday’s discovery of the noose was a gut-punch to that effort, immediately denounced as “heinous” by NASCAR President Steve Phelps, who vowed to ban for life whoever was responsible.
On a deeper level, the dangling noose — hung within the confines of a secured garage that was off-limits to fans, accessible only to race teams and essential NASCAR and track personnel — suggests that NASCAR’s challenge in shedding a racially charged past will be more difficult than anticipated.
For starters, NASCAR now knows it is battling an enemy “within” as well. Assuming the perpetrator is identified, the sport will be banning one of its own.
Moreover, among the noose, the Confederate flag-toting airplane that flew over Talladega Sunday with a banner proclaiming “DEFUND NASCAR” and pushback on social media, including conspiracists arguing that Wallace hung the noose himself to inflame the situation, NASCAR’s push for equality appears to have triggered a deep-seated culture war that may well erupt anew around every turn going forward — in grandstands, garages, infields and skies above.
“This is a sign that there are some in NASCAR who are not going to go quietly,” said Ramsey Poston, who served as NASCAR’s managing director of communications from 2004 to 2011. “It is going to be a major challenge for NASCAR.
“Just like we are seeing across America now, there are people standing up and challenging progress. NASCAR has tried to make this a very positive step forward through the full, all-out ban of the Confederate flag. This was a response to that.”
NASCAR drivers past and present condemned the incident as news spread about the discovery of the noose in the Talladega garage stall assigned to Wallace’s No. 43 team.
Wallace, 26, who started racing at 9 and has competed in all three featured NASCAR series, issued a statement of his own on social media before the race, which was won by Ryan Blaney, voicing thanks for the support he had received throughout the sport.
“Together, our sport has made a commitment to driving real change and championing a community that is accepting and welcoming of everyone,” wrote Wallace, who finished 14th on Monday. “Nothing is more important and we will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate. As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you.’ This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to stand proudly for what I believe in.”
None was more vehement than Petty, who said he was “enraged” by what he called a “filthy” and “despicable” act.
“The sick person who perpetrated this act must be found, exposed, and swiftly and immediately expelled from NASCAR,” Petty said in a statement.
Then, the man known simply as “The King” boarded a flight for Alabama, traveling to a racetrack for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, to stand alongside Wallace at Talladega, where the hashtag #IStandWithBubba had been painted in huge block letters on the front-stretch grass.
In a conference call with reporters shortly before Monday’s race, Phelps, the NASCAR president who announced the ban on displays of the Confederate flag, didn’t hesitate when asked if the perpetrator would be banned.
“Unequivocally, they will be banned from the sport for life,” Phelps said. “There is no room for this at all. We won’t tolerate it. They won’t be here. I don’t care who they are: They will not be here.”
Phelps underscored NASCAR’s conviction that “there is no place for racism” in the sport and said that the “heinous act” only strengthened its resolve to make stock-car racing welcome and open to all, then fielded questions.
Phelps declined to disclose how many surveillance cameras, if any, are in the Talladega garage and what, if any, footage might have been captured, citing the ongoing investigation of the FBI, which was summoned to the track Monday morning.
For the same reason, he declined to reveal the number of people who had access to the infield garage in general or the area of Wallace’s No. 43 stall, saying such details were part of the FBI’s investigative process.
Under the sport’s safety protocols to guard against transmission of the coronavirus, the number is probably between 700 and 900, which would include 640 team members and essential NASCAR and track personnel, such as racecar inspectors, security and safety crews. Each must show proper credentials to enter the garage, as well as submit to a temperature check to enter the track.
“We don’t have a lot of answers at this moment,” Phelps said. “It is a very, very serious act, and we take it as such.”
Jay E. Town, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said in a statement Monday that his office, the FBI and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division were reviewing the situation to determine whether federal law had been violated.
“Regardless of whether federal charges can be brought,” the statement read, “this type of action has no place in our society.”
The noose-hanging episode comes at a critical moment in NASCAR’s 72-year history, as stock-car racing executives try to rebuild and extend their fan base after race-day attendance and TV audiences plunged in recent years.
Many of its core fans griped that stock-car racing, which grew out of hardscrabble dirt tracks in the Southeast and moonshiners’ moonlit Appalachian back roads, was disrespecting its roots in expanding to major media markets such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth. Many among them tuned out.
Meanwhile, NASCAR has pushed to win over a younger, more diverse demographic — partly to replenish a waning fan base, partly to attract deep-pocketed sponsors with a national reach and partly because executives feel it’s the right thing to do.
To that end, the sport banned the Confederate flag on its racecars, drivers’ uniforms and official merchandise years ago. In 2015, then-chairman Brian France discouraged fans from bringing their flags to the track. And the presence of Confederate flags since has declined at many tracks.
At others, such as Talladega, which is roughly 50 miles east of Birmingham and 250 miles northeast of Mobile, where Wallace was born, the Confederate flag is a routine sight, flying as a stubborn badge of pride alongside flags bearing NASCAR’s logo and the car numbers of the sport’s most popular drivers.
After Monday’s race, Wallace climbed from his car and strode toward the track’s front stretch to exchange high-fives through the fence with several young fans shouting their support and sporting Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
“Look at these first-time fans from Atlanta! It’s so cool. The sport is changing,” Wallace told Fox.
He acknowledged that the past few days had been “hectic” and the prerace show of solidarity from fellow drivers and crew was “one of the hardest things I’ve had to witness in my life.”
Then he apologized for not wearing his protective mask, explaining that it was a deliberate decision so people could see his expression.
“I just wanted to show whoever it was that you’re not going to take away my smile,” Wallace said. “And I’m going to keep on going.”