Did You Notice? … The noose supposedly put in Bubba Wallace’s No. 43 garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway this past weekend wasn’t placed there by someone after all?
It had been sitting in the garage area the whole time. Since sometime in 2019, in fact.
“The FBI report concludes, and photographic evidence confirms, that the garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose had been positioned there since as early as last fall,” NASCAR explained in a statement Tuesday (June 23). “This was obviously well before the No. 43 team’s arrival and garage assignment. We appreciate the FBI’s quick and thorough investigation and are thankful to learn that this was not an intentional, racist act against Bubba.”
That’s it. No hate crime. No NASCAR insider threatening to lynch the sport’s only full-time African-American driver. Turns out there’s nothing to see here after all.
Wait a minute. What?
48 hours of thinking Wallace was being attacked? A story that became so large and caused such intense emotion that 82-year-old Richard Petty was rushed from North Carolina, risking COVID-19 for a rain-delayed GEICO 500? One that created an amazing moment of driver solidarity, no doubt, in which the other 39 drivers in the field helped push Wallace’s car to the front of the starting grid?
It was a story so controversial, Monday’s audience bested the Homestead-Miami Speedway race run the Sunday before. It was the most-watched race on a Monday since 2014; viewership (well over three million) was 118% larger than another rain-delayed event here last fall. The garage and the industry galvanized behind Wallace, culminating in a pre-race kumbaya photo retweeted almost 90,000 times.
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) June 22, 2020
It’s clear Tuesday night, after a rushed oopsies NASCAR press conference, is they want you to take that moment and run with it. It’s whoops, nothing to see here, but look at all the good that came out of the sport coming together to fight racism.
“For us at NASCAR, this is the best result we could hope for,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said on Tuesday in a teleconference. “It was disturbing to hear that it was thought that one of our own had committed this heinous act. It is fantastic to hear from the FBI definitively that there was not a hate crime.”
And it was a failure of epic proportions that a pulldown rope became the sport’s national crisis.
Before holding the sport’s feet to the fire, we should stop here and acknowledge the good. It’s a relief there was no hate crime was committed after all. The made-for-TV moment Monday was genuine, an organic show of support by a driving corps with a newfound passion for social justice. Leadership is truly trying to push past NASCAR’s complicated history with race.
I feel the worst for Wallace. At the end of the day, he’s taking heat for decisions he wasn’t responsible for. It wasn’t his choice to ban the Confederate flag; NASCAR did that. It wasn’t him reporting a noose in his garage stall Sunday afternoon; Steve Phelps did that.
In fact, Tuesday night on CNN, Wallace explained Phelps did so with “tears running down his face.” The driver was called before dinner Sunday at Talladega, then met with Phelps in person which is the first time he learned about the incident.
“The [No. 43] crew member … looked and saw the noose,” Phelps said. “Brought it to the attention of his crew chief, who then went to the NASCAR series director Jay Fabian, and we launched this investigation.”
It’s the latest in a series of incidents Wallace has been forced to react to, a weird combination of offense and defense. In the end, he will get unnecessary criticism for a situation completely out of his control. And trust me … the anger is being misdirected already. A quick look at his Twitter feed is all it takes, Wallace quick to admit to CNN’s Don Lemon he was “pissed” after looking at social media.
"I'm pissed. I'm mad because people are trying to test my character and the person that I am and my integrity." – NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace on social media reaction to the conclusion of the FBI investigation into the noose found in his team's garage https://t.co/YH4ynYqv64 pic.twitter.com/fB0m9Yj9FD
— CNN Tonight (@CNNTonight) June 24, 2020
“This will not break me,” Wallace said on Tuesday night. “That only fuels the competitive drive in me to shut everybody up and show everybody what I can do behind the wheel.”
Hopefully, the driver can put this mess behind him and move on. But after what we’ve all just witnessed, that’s going to be incredibly difficult as this story is just getting started. Ripple effects are underway.
Imagine, for a moment, you’re a major NASCAR sponsor. Your marketing budget is likely slashed due to COVID-19; you’re making tough choices about who and what you support come 2021. You’re also balancing a deadly virus and the social justice movements that are revolutionizing corporations around the country.
NASCAR’s initial response is to ban the Confederate flag, following through on an initial 2015 pledge by Brian France. That infuriates a group of fans who staunchly believe the flag is part of their southern heritage. They’re so incensed, they fly a plane overhead at Talladega with the words “Defund NASCAR” attached to a giant flag.
— Jerry Jordan (@JerryJordan_KTT) June 21, 2020
Not a good look for some companies, right? But wait. The move also attracts a brand new group of people interested in the sport. The #BlackLivesMatter movement turns their attention to NASCAR … only to find a noose has been hung in the garage stall of the sport’s only African-American driver. For 48 hours, they’re swept up in a national storyline as Wallace is passionately supported by all his competitors. Restrictions on the garage are such no one but another team member or NASCAR official could have “planted it there.” The storyline of racism among them runs rampant.
Except the FBI (remember, not just NASCAR was involved here) determined the noose was perfectly innocent, positioned there since last fall. This crisis, occurring just days before an unpopular ban, became the equivalent of a Good Samaritan panic attack. It’s a Scooby Doo whodunit with no actual crime.
And that’s the best-case scenario. For those concerned the whole incident was staged, for whatever reason, their concerns have been given credibility. The storyline everyone in NASCAR fed into now appears manufactured; leadership ran with it before they had all the facts. The end result leaves even supporters with a sour taste and a large portion of the industry feeling like … how do the kids say it these days?
They feel played.
If you’re a sponsor, watching this mess, are you more likely to spend your money with NASCAR? Or are there other, less controversial, ways to spend your time and cash? With sports, events, entertainment that already has the diversity you seek, minus the drama?
Count me among those disappointed in how the last 24 hours have turned out. As someone personally supportive of NASCAR’s new, progressive stance, what I thought happened Monday with Wallace was incredible. It’s the type of grassroots support that can lead to permanent change. It’s also a moment, knowing NASCAR’s history, I thought I’d never see.
But now all that was for … a hate crime that wasn’t? For a rope that we’ll now debate until the cows come home whether it was actually a noose? Pulldown rope or not, it sure feels like the wool was pulled over NASCAR’s eyes.
Emotion got the better of leadership, clearly, and Phelps is paying the price. A strong first two years of leadership is now under fire and the criticism is deserved. He’ll survive it, but many more questions need to be answered.
- How could this supposed “noose” sit in the garage for eight months and no one reported it? If it really was a noose, why didn’t track workers at Talladega see it and fix it? There were plenty of people maintaining the garage between October 2019 and June 2020.
- If a Wood Brothers employee reported Monday morning seeing the noose last fall, why not slow the narrative there was a racist plot among us before the train left the station?
- What about Bubba Wallace’s mother? Saying that other drivers have called him the N-word? Kyle Larson, among others, might be interested in who those people are since he got fired for saying it. That’s the next chapter in this story.
I’d have loved to ask those questions, among others, but NASCAR ran from any Q&A session following Phelps statement Tuesday night via teleconference. They’re continuing their own investigation, understandable to an extent, but also a bad look when the law enforcement portion of this mess, the FBI, already completed theirs. No, Tuesday wasn’t Phelps’ finest hour, and I expect the reaction will get worse before it gets better.
The best thing NASCAR could do now, honestly, is refocus on what the word race is supposed to mean for them. Monday’s GEICO 500 was one of the best superspeedway events in the last 10 years. It had a photo finish, cars spinning across the line, and stand-up, get-out-of-your-seat racing from the drop of the green flag.
But no one will remember that now. Instead, Talladega 2020 will be remembered for the hate crime that wasn’t. A Confederate flag ban and all the politics and drama surrounding it. That’s a dangerous place to be for a sport that, at its core, is supposed to be about entertainment and relieving the stress of day-to-day life. Not causing it.
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