Column: As NASCAR continues, Bubba Wallace is weary in endless fight against racism
For a brief time this week it was possible to go to the Facebook Marketplace and see something advertised as a “Bubba Rope.”
Capitalizing on the discovery of a noose in the garage of NASCAR racer Bubba Wallace last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Mike Fulp, owner of the 311 Speedway track in Stokes County, N.C., set the price of racist hucksterism at $9.99. “They come with a lifetime warranty and work great,” the listing said.
The advertisement since has been deleted and the website for 311 Speedway has vanished. If only it were equally simple to banish the Confederate flags that were defiantly waved and worn as capes and flown over the Talladega track last weekend after NASCAR had banned displaying that flag at races.
Those people weren’t celebrating heritage. They were stoking hatred, an incendiary statement in a world coming to grips — often painfully — with a history of systemic racism. Wallace, who acknowledges having a sarcastic side to his personality, allowed that side to speak when saying he expects to see continued opposition to the Confederate flag ban.
“It’s the right to peaceful protest, man,” said Wallace, NASCAR’s lone full-time Black driver. “Outside, they’re just going to be making a lot of noise. It’s part of it. It’s exactly what you see on the flip side of everything going on in cities as they peacefully protest, but you won’t see cops pepper-spraying them and shooting them with rubber bullets, will you?”
Prejudice is taught early and too often becomes a lifelong habit. As much as Wallace has become a willing social activist and advocate for inclusion, he’s becoming weary of fighting a battle that seems to have no end.
“I do get pissed off and part of my emotion today is one, being wore the hell out, and two is being frustrated,” he said during a Zoom call held Friday in advance of two NASCAR Cup races this weekend at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. “And three is just finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m probably a fool for thinking that because it’s 2020 and something else will happen probably tomorrow and I’ll be right back where we are.”
NASCAR responded to a noose in Bubba Wallace’s garage with a show of support for its only Black driver, but its fight remains with the Confederate flag, columnist LZ Granderson writes.
According to NASCAR president Steve Phelps, the organization’s investigation of its 29 tracks and 1,684 garage stalls — including 44 stalls at Talladega — found only 11 stalls used a rope tied in a knot as a garage-door pull. The only one that was tied into a noose was the rope in the garage stall assigned to Wallace, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports.
The FBI office in Birmingham, Ala., contacted NASCAR on Monday and began interviewing personnel at the track and those who had access to that garage. It also reviewed tapes and photos. Its investigation concluded Wallace “was not the target of a hate crime,” and said the “garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose” rope had been in that stall since early last fall, before Wallace and his team used that space.
“We are thankful to learn that this was not an intentional, racist act against Bubba,” NASCAR said in a statement.
But it wasn’t benign, either. The photograph NASCAR released Thursday was unmistakably a noose, with all the negative connotations that it carries.
“Whether it was tied sometime throughout 2019, the fall race there, someone did it with whatever intent they had,” Wallace said. “We weren’t in that garage at that time so we can’t say it was directed toward me, which is good. It wasn’t directed toward me or my family.
“But somebody still knows how to tie a noose, and whether they did it as a bad joke or not, who knows? But it was good for the public to see. It still won’t change some people’s minds of me being a hoax, but it is what it is.”
His activism was born after the shooting death of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Ga., in February. No one was charged until two months after Arbery’s death.
“It’s not like I wanted to be in this position or asked to be in this position. It just kind of happened,” Wallace said. “I’ve seen the Ahmaud Arbery video. I keep going back to that and how that changed something inside of me, to be more vocal and to stand up and help people who feel like they don’t have a voice and don’t have a platform to speak out on how they feel. Mainly the African American community. They’ve been crying out for a really long time and nothing’s really changed.
“I think right now, me encouraging others and my colleagues and competitors and my team, whoever it may be around me I may have an influence on, encourage them to speak up and step out. It just kind of all happened and I’m proud of it.”
NASCAR fans react to the news that a noose was found in the garage of Black driver Bubba Wallace.
Wallace’s rivals have spoken up, including some who have had run-ins with him on the track.
“Race car drivers are like elephants. They end up remembering everything,” said Alex Bowman, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports. “It’s hard to like somebody that you’ve wrecked with, like five times, right?”
Yet, drivers pushed Wallace’s car to the starting grid at Talladega for the rain-delayed race last Monday and formed a supportive semicircle around him during the national anthem.
“Tempers are going to flare and if you run into the same guy a couple weeks in a row here and there it’s not going to go great for your relationship. But that’s as a race car driver and that’s on the race track,” Bowman said. “As a human being I have a big appreciation for him trying to push us all to be better and speaking up and helping us do the same.”
Wallace was moved but masked that with sarcasm. He told them, “’I don’t like half of you guys but I appreciate all of you guys,’ in a joking way,” he said.
Racing will demand his attention this weekend but there are bigger victories in his sights.
“Let’s focus on how we can continue to push the message of love, compassion, and understanding. Let’s help fight the good fight in what’s going on in the world today,” he said. “Let’s get fans — new fans — out to the race track and encourage our fan base now to welcome them with open arms and show them a good time. ...
“Let’s get away from what happened at Talladega. Let’s move on from that. Let’s put it to bed.”