Last Sunday, when the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway was scheduled to go green, feels like a year ago.
The events that have transpired in between that scheduled race and now have been nothing short of emotionally exhausting. We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of society (and a whole heck of a lot of it all on social media), and it’s been a taxing experience.
It started Sunday night, when NASCAR announced it was “angry and outraged” that a noose had been discovered in the No. 43’s garage stall in the Cup Series, calling it a “heinous act.”
Reaction poured in from around the world, not just the garage, offering messages of support for Bubba Wallace and those in the industry dispelling false narratives of NASCAR being undoubtedly racist. But as is commonplace in 2020, there were also those calling the entire situation “a hoax.”
This isn’t going to be a bunch of mumbo jumbo attacking those people, who also happened to be the same ones calling Wallace “Bubba Smollett” for something he had “nothing to do with,” according to NASCAR President Steve Phelps.
But the moment that will live in the hearts, minds and fabric of every soul that turned on FOX Monday afternoon, June 22, is this.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) June 22, 2020
Yes, I cried. Yes, I know you did too. And yes, it’s OK that we did.
It’s clear where I stand on the stances NASCAR has taken in recent weeks, be it supportive of the LGBTQ community, social injustice toward African Americans or banning the confederate flag at any NASCAR event, and that moment wasn’t a culmination of the strides that had been made up until that point — it was just the next step.
One that was launched after seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson told other drivers via a group chat that he’d be standing next to Wallace during the national anthem, and Kevin Harvick hatched the idea of pushing the No. 43 to the front of the grid and everybody standing in solidarity with him.
Wallace wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Kirk Price kneeling during the anthem was a big moment. So was #BlackLivesMatter adorning the side of his car. So was the banning of the rebel flag. So was Richard Petty, who was on the record in opposition of peaceful anthem protests in 2017, releasing a powerful statement and subsequently comforting his driver, the only Black one in the Cup Series, in front of the entire NASCAR garage, as tears rolled down his face.
Monday’s display of support with Wallace was momentous. Tuesday’s findings by the FBI and NASCAR don’t change that.
But the unfortunate part is that, to some, they do.
The second the FBI stated “no federal crime was committed,” my immediate reaction was confusion.
How was this possible? Placing a noose in the garage stall of the only Black driver in a historically covertly racist sport (hate it, but it’s true) who has been at the center of attention for his outspokenness on progressive change, who has received death threats… that doesn’t check out. I wasn’t sure.
After realizing that no hate crime was actually committed, reassurance fell over me. With COVID-19 restrictions, it had to have been “an inside job.” NASCAR officials, Cup teams, track workers and safety workers are the only people who would have had garage access last weekend.
The fact that it was somebody who’s not an outsider but who knows the ins and outs of the sport, who has likely had interactions not just with Wallace but also plenty people of color (as the garage is more diverse than most think), that was more troublesome than anything.
It took me a couple hours to come to grips with the fact that the entire situation, from NASCAR’s initial statement leaving no room whatsoever for interpretation, to the FBI’s investigation, to the ultimate positive resolution, was purely coincidental and an unfortunately timed misunderstanding of epic proportions.
Typing that sentence still makes me cringe, because it’s so hard to believe. But it’s the truth.
Because just before Phelps admitted the initial statement released Sunday night was “emotionally charged” and that “in hindsight … I should have used the word ‘alleged’ in our statement” and reiterated “the noose is real,” this image was released.
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) June 25, 2020
Try telling me that’s still “just a garage pull rope.” I’m no rope expert, but it doesn’t take one to know what a noose looks like.
NASCAR also searched 29 tracks and 1,684 garage stalls and found that only 11 had pull down ropes with knots tied on them. Of those 11, there was only one fashioned as a noose.
If you’re still skeptical, reread the FBI and NASCAR statements. The FBI called the rope in question a noose four times. NASCAR referred to it as such five times.
NASCAR could have handled the situation differently, at least with adding one simple word, as Phelps admitted. But it didn’t. Now it’s paying for it optics-wise.
But something tells me there’d be a little awkwardness stemming from embarrassment in trying to “protect our family member” in what was a perceived hate crime. Wouldn’t you agree?
FOX’s Colin Cowherd may have said it best on Tuesday evening while sifting through the information:”If you’re asking for growth, let’s not demand historic perfection. NASCAR grew yesterday.”
And so did Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post.
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
And NASCAR furthered that transparency and message on Monday.
If I’ve learned only three things this week, it’s that those “don’t read the comments section” people were unequivocally correct, Monday’s pre-race moment was the most powerful thing I’ve seen in my life watching sports and the need to weed out racism and bigotry remains more clear than ever.
NASCAR, with Wallace at the forefront, will be on the right side of history. That I’m sure of.
And now, we have four national series events to enjoy from Pocono Raceway, five if you include the ARCA Menards Series, seven if you include the ARCA Menards Series West from Utah Motorsports Campus.
Seven races, three days and a much-needed respite after what’s been an emotionally exhausting week.
But as The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck said, nobody said change was easy.