Driver Bubba Wallace, right, is overcome with emotion as he and team owner Richard Petty walk to his car in the pits of the Talladega Superspeedway prior to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Monday, after an extraordinary act of solidarity in which dozens of drivers pushed Wallace's car to the front of the field. (AP/John Bazemore)
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Federal authorities on Monday confirmed they are investigating the discovery of a noose found in the Talladega Superspeedway garage stall of Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's only Black full-time driver who successfully pushed the stock car series to ban the Confederate flag at its venues earlier this month.
U.S. Attorney Jay Town said his office, the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division were reviewing the situation.
“Regardless of whether federal charges can be brought, this type of action has no place in our society,” Town said.
The racing was overshadowed by an extraordinary act of solidarity with Wallace. Dozens of drivers pushed the car belonging to Wallace to the front of the field before Monday’s race. The 26-year-old Wallace was surrounded by all 39 other drivers in the moments before the race, and they were joined by their crews in a march down pit road as they pushed his No. 43 to the front of the line. Wallace climbed out of his car and wept.
It was a stirring move to support Wallace at a track in the heart of the South where Confederate flags have flown for decades and were seen outside the superspeedway all weekend long by fans opposed to NASCAR’s ban.
The stock car series, founded in the South more than 70 years ago, has tried to distance itself from the flag for years at the risk of alienating a core group of its fan base. At Wallace's urging, it went ahead with the ban as the nation grapples with social unrest largely tied to George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.
NASCAR has not outlined how it will enforce the restriction and this week's race at Talladega presented the series with its biggest test in the early going. Disgruntled fans with Confederate flags drove past the main entrance to the Alabama race track prior to Sunday's race, while a plane flew above the track pulling a banner of the flag that read “Defund NASCAR."
We are one family.— NASCAR (@NASCAR) June 22, 2020
One NASCAR. pic.twitter.com/Y1IRI5qpRe
Hours after the race was postponed by rain, NASCAR said the noose had been found. The sanctioning body vowed to do everything possible to find who was responsible and “eliminate them from the sport."
“We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act,” the series said in a statement. “As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she was “shocked and appalled” by the “vile act” against Wallace, an Alabama native.
“There is no place for this disgusting display of hatred in our state,” Ivey said. "Bubba Wallace is one of us; he is a native of Mobile and on behalf of all Alabamians, I apologize to Bubba Wallace as well as to his family and friends for the hurt this has caused and regret the mark this leaves on our state.”
Richard Petty, seven-time NASCAR champion and owner of Wallace's famed No. 43, was headed to Talladega to support his driver. Petty, who turns 83 next month, has not attended a race during the coronavirus pandemic and said in a statement he was “enraged by the act of someone placing a noose in the garage stall of my race team."
“There's absolutely no place in our sport or society for racism,” wrote the Hall of Famer known simply as “The King.” "This filthy act serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go to eradicate racial prejudice and it galvanizes my resolve to use the resources of Richard Petty Motorsports to create change. This sick person who perpetrated this act must be found, exposed and swiftly and immediately expelled from NASCAR.
“I believe in my heart this despicable act is not representative of the competitors I see each day in the NASCAR garage area. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bubba, yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day forward.”
Reaction from Wallace's fellow drivers was immediate as they prepared for the rescheduled race Monday afternoon. Retired four-time champion Jeff Gordon called it a “cowardly” act and Ryan Blaney, one of Wallace's closest friends, tweeted: “You're my brother and always will be. Don't let the people who are lower than life to try and bring you down.”
“God help us,” NASCAR driver Michael McDowell tweeted. “The level of evil it takes to do something like this is disgusting. This is enraging and heartbreaking all at the same time.”
The 26-year-old Wallace has not commented since a statement on social media late Sunday in which he said the “the despicable act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and how persistent we must be in the fight against racism.”
“As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you,'” he wrote. “ This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in.”
Wallace has worn a shirt that says “I Can’t Breathe” over his firesuit and sported a Black Lives Matter paint scheme in a race last month in Martinsville, Virginia. Wallace has said NASCAR assigned him two sheriff’s deputies for security at Martinsville after he called for the ban.
Wallace said he has found support among fellow drivers for his stance on the flag. He noted that in his tweet after the noose announcement.
“Over the last several weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the support from people across the NASCAR industry including other drivers and team members in the garage,” he said. “Together, our sport has made a commitment to driving real change and championing a community that is accepting and welcoming of everyone. Nothing is more important and we will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate.”
Five years ago, former NASCAR chairman Brian France tried to ban flying the flags at tracks, a proposal that was not enforced and largely ignored.
This year was different and it was Wallace who led the charge. Wallace, whose father is white, was not always outspoken about racism; even after Floyd was killed last month, he was not the first driver to speak out for racial equality. He has said he began to find his public voice on racism after watching video in May of Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting in Georgia. He said he now recognizes he must not let his platform as a prominent driver go to waste.
Talladega is one of the more raucous stops on the NASCAR schedule, but the pandemic prompted the series, like all sports, to ban or sharply limit fans for months. With only 5,000 fans allowed in, the scene this week was a dramatic departure from the Talladega norm with plenty of room for social distancing and fans asked to wear masks.
Fans were not granted access to the infield or the restricted area of the Cup Series garage. Under strict new health guidelines, a very limited number of people can access the garage where the cars are kept. That would include crew members for each of the 40 teams, NASCAR employees, Talladega staff members and any contracted safety crews or security guards.
Drivers are not even permitted to enter the garage, instead going directly from their motorhomes to the race cars to drive. They were never called to the cars Sunday because of rain.
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