NASCAR
June 24, 2020

Let's unpack this whole NASCAR / Bubba Wallace noose mess

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Chris Graythen

By now, you probably know the basic details of what happened at Talladega Superspeedway. On Sunday, a member of Bubba Wallace's crew found a noose in their garage. Wallace is NASCAR's only black full-time driver, and the outcry from both the organization and his fellow drivers was immediate. The race was delayed until Monday by weather, and in a show of solidarity, drivers and pit crew members walked behind Wallace's car in a slow procession before the race. It was a touching moment:

Then something strange happened. The FBI, called on to investigate, released a statement late Tuesday that essentially said there was no crime:

They still called the offending object a "noose," but as you see in the statement, it had been there at least since October 2019, meaning that there's no way Wallace had been targeted that far in advance. Next, it emerged that the whole thing was looking more and more like a coincidence, and that the "noose" in question was a loop tied into the pull-down rope on the garage door:

Finally, video emerged. At the 54-second mark of the video below, posted to YouTube in November 2019, you can see the noose-like rope on the left side of garage no. 4, which Wallace's team occupied this past week at Talladega:

All of that came out Tuesday night, and served to further inflame and divide the two fan factions who had already been at each other's throats. On the political left, some suggested the FBI was covering up a hate crime, and on the right, many (even before the new evidence) claimed that it was a hoax involving Bubba Wallace's team, NASCAR, or both.

But what do we actually know?

First, this needs some context. Not only is Wallace the lone full-time black driver on the circuit, but he's also been outspoken on racial justice issues since George Floyd's death in late May. On June 8, he called for NASCAR to ban the confederate flag on its grounds, and two days later, they did exactly that. There was backlash from some of NASCAR's southern fans, and Wallace told reporters that he feared for his safety. That's the backdrop against which the noose incident occurred; when it was reported that a noose had been found, many naturally assumed that it was meant as a symbol of intimidation and threat, planted in response to Wallace's anti-flag activism.

Wallace himself, it's important to note, did not see the "noose" himself. It was one of his crew members who first spotted it and informed NASCAR, who released a statement Monday morning decrying racism and vowing to start an immediate investigation. They brought in the FBI, found old video footage, and determined, at the very least, that Wallace wasn't the target of a racist act.

That's good news, of course, but it's undoubtedly a little embarrassing after the magnitude of the initial reaction. Not that NASCAR did anything wrong, or could have done anything different; it's just that none of the action and outrage was based on an actual crime of intent. The truth of the noose doesn't reduce the power of the displays that followed, but those who support the Confederate flag and insist it's about "heritage" rather than racism will see this as evidence that they're being railroaded unfairly. Indeed, a quick search of Twitter (note: I don't recommend it) shows that this grievance process has already begun.

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When you consider that none of the other garages had similar rope pulls, this is an almost unbelievable coincidence, and while it inspired some moving scenes at Talladega on Monday, it also managed to sow distrust for reasons that weren't really in anybody's control.

There are a few questions we don't have answers to yet. Was there a racial component to the rope being tied like a noose in the first place? Almost definitely not, but that will remain a mystery. Was there an element of opportunism in the Wallace crew member who reported...i.e., did he truly believe it was a targeted attack on his driver? With tensions as high as they are, and Wallace and his team fearing for their safety, the answer there seems like an easy yes, and suggesting otherwise is just cynical. Did the FBI continue describing the garage rope pull as a "noose" to give NASCAR and Bubba Wallace a break and try to forestall any hoax theories? Again, who knows?

The end result here, as with so many other controversies in and out of sports, is that people are going to see what they want to see. NASCAR has made strides in recognizing social justice, but in the case of the noose, a bizarre accident managed to exacerbate tensions and confirm existing biases. It's now clear what really happened at Talladega, but for a divided fanbase, we're far from true clarity.

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