The conversation at the Talladega Superspeedway is generally about racing. NASCAR turned it into race.
Sure there were a few Confederate flags outside NASCAR’s most-exciting racetrack ahead of last week’s 500-mile race, clearly in defiance to stock-car’s recent ban of the battlefield flag. A plane pulled a banner over the track with a Confederate flag and the words “DEFUND NASCAR.”
And shortly after the race was scrubbed and moved to Monday by thunderstorms, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace’s race team said it found a noose in its garage stall.
Wallace, the only fulltime African American driver in the Cup Series who was a catalyst behind removing the flag, never backed down. In fact, his resolve to racial prejudices and the symbols that come with it, was strengthened.
NASCAR jumped quickly to seize the opportunity to insert itself into the political conversation of the moment, turning Monday’s race into a 200 mph civil rights rally.
The problem was, there was no noose. A crewman from another team simply tied a loop at the end of a garage door rope so they could close the door. And they did it last October.
The FBI sent 15 investigators to Talladega to investigation. It didn’t take them long to determine the entire episode was an overaction.
Since the garage area has extremely limited access due to the coronavirus, it should have been easy to find quick answers.
And in the process, they diminished many of the positive conversations Wallace embraces.
I’ve been around the garage area for more than 40 years. I’ve seen hundreds of garage ropes with loops or knots to provide something to grab to pull the door down. Go check your own garage door.
NASCAR got it wrong.
The country got it wrong.
The national media got it wrong.
Wallace didn’t. His message was on the mark, even if it was based on a false premise.
Bubba wasn’t involved in NASCAR jumping the gun – and gaining national attention. His message of equal treatment for everyone wasn’t affected by NASCAR’s premature announcement. In fact, it’s clear he’s still clinging to the false claim.
His reaction, however, doesn’t help move the sport forward. He admitted Tuesday night the rope was a pulldown, but he said the loop, while it didn’t operate like a noose, still appeared to be a noose.
To be true, that means someone would have guessed properly eight months ago that Wallace’s team would occupy that particular stall.
He went on CNN Tuesday night and
“... None of the allegations of it being a hoax will break me or tear me down. Will it piss me off? Absolutely, but that only fuels the competitive drive in me to shut everybody up to get back on the race track next week in Pocono under a tremendous amount of B.S.”
NASCAR issued a statement Tuesday night saying it was relieved Wallace wasn’t the target of a hate crime in the garage area. The group also said it will continue to strive for to “providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all who love racing.”
What NASCAR didn’t do was apologize for putting the sport, and everyone else, on edge.
Keep in mind, this is the same organization that ran commercials a year ago proudly stating it’s a sport where its members don’t kneel during the National Anthem.
Wallace’s car owner, Richard Petty, has a history of being colorblind. He often gave parts to Wendell Scott, creating a spot on his hauler called “Wendell’s drawer,” and that was in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Scott is the only African American to win at the Cup Series level, taking the checkered flag at Jacksonville’s Speedway Park in 1964.
The only other African American to win in one of NASCAR’s three national series is Wallace, where he won six truck series races.
Wallace finished 14th in Monday’s race. Nobody will remember that. But the memory of hundreds of crewmen, drivers and NASCAR officials standing with Wallace before the race is something that won’t – or shouldn’t – be forgotten.
Neither will the fact NASCAR’s reputation, especially among its fans and race teams, was smeared by impulsive and unverified claim.