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Column: NASCAR speeds toward progress but work still remains

I still remember where I was and how I felt when it was reported that the noose found in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega was not the result of a hate crime. 

It was two days after an apparent noose – later determined to be a garage door handle – was found in Wallace’s stall, and one day after NASCAR’s drivers, crews and officials rallied behind Wallace in one of the proudest moments in the sport’s 71-year history. 

The display of unity was stunning – the image of every driver and crew walking behind Wallace as he pushed his car to the front of the grid before the race. It made national headlines: “NASCAR bands together to unite against racism.” 

Just over 24 hours later, the sport would find itself on the other side of the headlines, inviting a new set of feelings to emerge.

For context, NASCAR has found itself at numerous crossroads in 2020 and has taken the right path every time. When the pandemic hit in March and the sporting landscape scrambled to adapt, NASCAR was not only ready to switch to a seven-week iRacing series, but also to be the first major sporting league to return without fans in May. 

In April, during a non-NASCAR sanctioned iRacing event, former Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson was caught using a racial slur on a Twitch stream. Larson, rightly, was quickly suspended by NASCAR and soon fired from CGR. 

In early June, as the George Floyd protests swept the nation, NASCAR embarked on its most ambitious promotion – and certainly most public, anyways – of racial equality to date. Bubba Wallace, the Cup Series’ lone Black driver, sported an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt before the race at Atlanta on June 7. 

Prior to the same race, the cars were halted during the pace laps for a moving message of equality and unity from NASCAR president Steve Phelps. NASCAR, Phelps said, would not tolerate racism and hatred. The sport, he said, needed to do better, and called upon drivers and fans to join forces to enact change.

Later that week, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its events. It was the second time the organization had fought the flag, as it had earlier requested that the symbol not be displayed at any of its sanctioned events following the Charleston church shooting in 2015.

This time, there was no request. Fly the flag – and its heritage of hatred – and face the consequences.

At Martinsville on June 10, Wallace was again at the forefront of the conversation when his #43 Chevrolet was painted black and adorned with interlocking Black and white fists on the hood. On the quarter panel, peace signs. On the sides, “#BlackLivesMatter.” 

Perhaps it was the culmination of all these things that made Wallace a conceivable target at Talladega that weekend in June.

On June 20, with limited access to the garage area due to COVID-19 protocols, a Richard Petty Motorsports crew member discovered a rope tied in a noose in Wallace’s stall. NASCAR immediately launched an investigation, involved the FBI and informed the media, with the story breaking into the news cycle late that night. 

Could a disgruntled individual within the sport have snuck into Wallace’s garage stall and planted a noose in an attempt to back him down? At the time, it seemed plausible.

Switching back to the least interesting “where were you” story of all-time, I was at a grocery store tracking down items for an Instacart order when the FBI concluded its investigation. The rope, said the FBI, was not intended as a targeted attack at Wallace but instead was a handle to open the garage door.

My group chats start buzzing as my friends saw the news before I did. A quick check of Twitter confirmed my surprise and shock – then relief and, quickly, an odd anger. 

While I was relieved that no hate crime was committed against Wallace that weekend, I felt the same way back then that I do now about a certain few who will use that incident as fuel for their backward agendas. 

NASCAR conducted an internal investigation and found that out of 1,684 garage stalls across its tracks, that was the only pull handle tied in a noose. Cue the conspiracy theorists.  

It seems to me that the “keep politics out of sports” crowd is out in droves these days. This way of thinking, rooted in a less polarized society, views sports as an escape from all of our problems. This dated notion to assume that nobody who makes the salaries of America’s professional athletes should be allowed to tell us what to think or do. Protest peacefully, sure, but only on a certain set of terms while following a strict set of rules that are written in sand. 

The new way – and the proper way – of thinking gives these figures the freedom to speak out when they see injustice around them. 

Why should, for example, a point guard who makes $15 million a year stay silent when people who look like him are being victimized for no reason other than the color of their skin? Because that player has made enough money to “escape that struggle”, or because you fear what he has to say?

I don’t wish to continue down the rabbit hole of how these people think and how they try to rationalize it. We have all seen them – the comment section warriors who think the left is out to get them. 

LeBron James isn’t protesting the latest healthcare proposals from the senators of middle America when he speaks out on the systemic issue of police brutality. The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t trigger a wave of postponed games across three sports because they were upset about a sales tax increase. 

None of this is politically motivated. If you believe it is, take a step back and listen. Stop letting your political identity – no matter how slanted you are to either side – stop you from finding joy in the things you once did. 

I use the Bubba Wallace situation from June as a case study, but these types of attitudes are seemingly so prevalent within NASCAR and sports in general today. Even in the last week, veteran Xfinity Series driver Mike Wallace was suspended for continually posting racist things on his Facebook page. 

We have a deep problem in the United States today concerning racism. While NASCAR has taken phenomenal strides in the last few months to make itself more inclusive, there remains work to be done.

I don’t know what the next steps for NASCAR entail. The sport has continued to prove that it won’t tolerate racist displays among its drivers or customers. If NASCAR keeps this energy, and all indications are that it will, the next steps will be left to society. 

I am proud to be a NASCAR fan in 2020. I’ve loved the sport like nothing else for over 15 years. I wish more of us could wake up and enjoy it together. 

One Comment

  1. John John September 18, 2020

    As a race fan, all of the peaceful displays of unity did no one any harm. In fact, the slap in the face that it gave white America was a useful reminder that each of us needs to reflect upon how we treat each other daily. BLM is a group of questionable integrity, but the majority of those who believe in equality for all could care less. Its not about an acronym: it how we treat each other. When protests turned violent, the rhetoric ramped up, too. It appears the peaceful movement was hijacked, much as it was in the early 60’s by some. But we are each judged by out actions. Ethical treatment within this country has improved by leaps and bounds in the last 50 years. We still have a way to go. It takes discipline by all people to not allow the actions of some to affect us all. But talk to minorities you may know: Black, Women, Gays about the issues that they face and then do your part to improve. Having the right, does not change the minds and souls of people. Prove what you are and prove what you are not everyday.

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