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Why ‘noose’ controversy’s outcome mustn’t deter NASCAR

by Jack Benyon
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The image of the NASCAR community gathered behind Bubba Wallace before the Talladega race in a show of solidarity was a seminal moment in NASCAR and motorsport’s fight against racism.

But the fact that the event that caused it – a supposed noose being left in Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports garage ahead of the planned race day – has subsequently turned out not to actually be a hate crime, has created murky waters.

The message NASCAR sent with its solidarity behind Bubba was strong, and the sanctioning body has quashed the racists and naysayers throughout Wallace’s recent campaigning, banning the Confederate Flag from the track and sanctioning Wallace’s Black Lives Matter livery as it supports a movement for equality. Wallace has said that despite being the the only African American at the top of the NASCAR ladder, he does not feel alone thanks to the support behind him.

Now the FBI investigation concluding on Tuesday that this ‘noose’ had been in the garage area since at least 2019, and was not a hate crime towards Wallace, has given a previously defeated social media army something to fixate on and obsess over. The FBI’s investigation is over, NASCAR’s continues, and a social media storm has ensued.

Conspiracy theories raged, even including suggestions that it was a set-up coordinated by one, two or all three of Wallace, the Petty team and NASCAR itself.

There’s no way to avoid the fact that this negativity has detracted from the impact of Monday’s uniting events and the pictures of the entire NASCAR community stood behind Wallace. As much as we all wish that wasn’t the case, it has.

But the thing is, NASCAR doesn’t think it should have handling things any differently.

“I do want to make sure everyone understands that if given the evidence that we had was delivered to us on Sunday [again], we would do the same thing,” said NASCAR president Steve Phelps.

“We would have done the same investigation.

“It was important for us to do. There is no place in our sport for this type of racism or hatred. It’s not part of who we are as a sport.”

Bubba Wallace

Let’s look at all sides of the story, something social media often doesn’t like to do.

Would it have been better if NASCAR didn’t investigate? It has worked tirelessly over recent weeks to support Wallace, ban the Confederate Flag, even creating a new senior management position for African American Brandon Thompson as vice president of diversity and inclusion.

How would it have looked if it hadn’t investigated an object that looked like a noose, reported to it by a member of a team working with an African American driver? NASCAR had a responsibility to investigate.

That team member who reported it, if this kind of rope was normal as a garage pull-to-open as many on social media have suggested, why would he report it? Why would the crew chief escalate that to NASCAR if it wasn’t in some way unusual?

I’ve seen the back to back picture being shared around social media of a rope on the garage door between 2019 and 2020, but that hasn’t been confirmed as the rope in question here. And if that was a noose, it would be rubbish for pulling the garage door down as it would slip down all the time, a simple knot would be far more likely/effective in that instance. A knot and a noose should be easy to differentiate between if you have the offending item to hand.

Bubba Wallace Richard Petty Motorsports NASCAR garage Talladega 2020

Appearing on CNN after the FBI announcement, Wallace addressed this topic, asked about the negative reaction to the incident from some towards him – which he said was not a “surprise” to him.

“The image that I have and I have seen of what was hanging in my garage is not a garage pull,” Wallace declared. “I’ve been racing all my life, I’ve raced out of hundreds of garages that never had garage pulls like that.

“So people that want to call it a garage pull and put out all the videos and photos of knots as their evidence, go ahead.

“But from the evidence that we have, and that I have, it’s a straight-up noose.

“The FBI has stated over and over again it’s a noose, NASCAR leadership has stated that it was a noose. I can confirm that I actually got evidence of what was hanging in my garage, over my car around my pit crew guys to confirm that it was a noose. Never seen anything like it.

“I talked to my crew chief, I wanted to make sure we weren’t jumping the gun. I said ‘this isn’t a regular old knot’, He said ‘Bubba, this isn’t something that can be done in a minute by just tying a knot. This is something that took time’.”

Wood Brothers Racing had garage number four, where the noose was found last weekend, when NASCAR previously raced at Talladega in 2019. It issued a statement on the matter and claimed one of its crew remembered seeing it. Spectacularly, some said that the rope was planted by Wallace, or NASCAR, or the team, despite the fact that it was proven the rope was there in 2019 and Wood Brothers admitted as much. And the fact that NASCAR president Phelps confirmed that he was the person to tell Wallace about the incident.

During the whole current social movement for ‘Black Lives Matter’, a dominant rhetoric from the ‘All Lives Matter’ response has been that some groups are just trying to be victims. The noose incident gave fuel to those people claiming this was true of Wallace, that this was a ‘hoax’ set up to gain him favour. Or that it was NASCAR trying to justify and gain favour for the banning of the Confederate Flag.

But Bubba has been so effective in his campaigns that he didn’t need this incident. No doubt, he’s gained some added media exposure from it to explain his stance, but it’s not of his own doing and his own campaigning had already been rigorous enough to attract the attention of the likes of Lebron James, one of the world’s biggest sportspeople and one of the most admirable due to his push for equality.

Bubba Wallace Ryan Blaney

NASCAR couldn’t avoid investigating, it would have been catastrophic if someone had placed a noose in Wallace’s garage and it hadn’t investigated. It couldn’t risk underplaying this.

In hindsight, it could have kept the identification of the noose as the offending object private until the investigation was concluded.

But that’s tricky in a close knit paddock, and if it had slipped out through sources, it would have looked like NASCAR was covering it up. So it was really left with no choice.

Perhaps it could have softened its statement slightly. Its aggressive nature may have been necessary to show its determination to expel racism, but it was a major factor in the incident being taken so seriously by the wider world as a proven attack of racial hatred.

Equally, NASCAR using phrasing like ‘an apparent noose’ would have – justifiably – prompted accusations of playing down the severity of hate crime. I can understand how NASCAR responded and the need for stern words against an apparent racist act.

Just because it wasn’t a noose or a hate crime or however you sum it up on this occasion, that doesn’t mean there are no racists in the NASCAR fraternity and that the work to extinguish racism is actually complete.

Now is still the time to step up investigations and campaigning, not think that this investigation proves racism doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be targeted. Because that’s simply not true.

Ultimately we should be celebrating that a hate crime didn’t take place and that someone has not been threatened with a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. That should be a relief. A relief tempered with sadness that a positive message will have been undermined to some.

We must look past the noose now, and focus on the moment it created – of solidarity and unity in the paddock – that brought so many together, and not allow it to undo the hard work spearheaded by Wallace.

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