Racing’s racists scared no one, least of all Bubba Wallace

  • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
  • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
  • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

To the person or persons who tried to ruin everyone’s weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, I have something I need to tell you.

To the one(s) who thought they could dip into the tired old 1934 or ’64 racist playbook and elicit fear by placing a symbol of hate — a noose, for heaven’s sake — in the garage stall of a Black race car driver, I really need to make sure you are paying attention to what I have to say to you.

Oh, and the grown adult or adults who spent hundreds of dollars to fly a “DEFUND NASCAR” banner and Confederate flag behind a plane over Talladega, you should listen up, too. Same for you rednecks who drove a parade of pickups around the perimeter of the racetrack with that same flag flying out of the beds of your 4X4’s. Or even you, who wandered onto the property at Sonoma Raceway and hung “a piece of twine tied in what appeared to be a noose” from a tree.

I need ya’ll to read this next part.

It didn’t work. Congratulations. You failed. In fact, what you accomplished was the complete opposite of what you set out to do when you tied a rope into a loop, called the aerial advertising guy, or ruined the resale value on your truck by bolting a flagpole into the bed.

No nation, Confederate or otherwise, rallied behind your antiquated cause. Instead, the reinforcements who did roll in gathered to stand together on the other side of your pitiful effort to divide and conquer, the right side.

And you want to know who really wasn’t scared? Darrell Wallace Jr., that’s who. Yes, Bubba wept on Monday afternoon at Talladega, but it wasn’t because he was rattled by someone throwing down a piece of rope. In fact, a lot of us cried on Monday. But it certainly wasn’t because you, the always-so-impressive anonymous bully, pushed our buttons. It was because those other 39 drivers pushed Wallace’s car, all the way to the front of the prerace grid, and then so many of them repeatedly pushed his car toward the front in the aerodynamic draft.

Sure, there was plenty of shock on Sunday night when NASCAR announced that a noose had been found in the Talladega garage. Absolutely, there was disappointment. There was anger. But fear? Nah.

NASCAR’s leadership certainly wasn’t scared. If they had been, then they would have resorted to their own old-school playbook and simply made the whole mess go away as soon the noose was discovered. A crewman found it, took it NASCAR security, and they took it NASCAR president Steve Phelps and his team. No one else had seen it. Wallace didn’t even know about it until Phelps called him Sunday and told him.

When Phelps held a meeting with his executive team Sunday evening, they took a vote: Would they keep it quiet or go public and let the world know they were indeed ready for the fight they knew was coming when NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban was announced June 10? They chose to fight. Under the current pandemic personnel restrictions, the number of people allowed access to the Cup Series garage areas is at an all-time low, and everyone is constantly accounted for and tracked in the name of social distancing. When NASCAR issued its statement on Sunday night, and announced that the FBI had joined in on Monday morning, its effort to smoke out the culprits was not the act of a group of people who were scared of anyone.

The NASCAR drivers certainly weren’t scared. On Sunday night, an incensed group text began between those drivers, working to determine how they would show their support for Wallace when the sun rose and the green flag fell on Monday’s rain-delayed Talladega race.

Professional athletes who declared their sudden interest in NASCAR following the Confederate flag ban weren’t run off, either. If anything, they were emboldened. Soon after LeBron James had tweeted his support for Wallace, Bubba’s online merchandise store was so busy that it had locked up under the tidal wave of orders.

Richard Petty? You think the man who barrel-rolled his way down the frontstretches of Darlington and Daytona was going to be scared? The sport’s greatest living legend hadn’t been to the racetrack since NASCAR returned to action in May. He is 82, after all. But pandemic be damned, he flew to Alabama on Monday morning because “The most important thing for me right now is hugging my driver.”

The King, who supported the first — and before Wallace, only — Black NASCAR racer, Wendell Scott in the 1960’s, not so long ago angrily reacted to those kneeling for the national anthem. He has since confessed that he didn’t understand what that protest was really about. On Monday, he stood with Wallace, one week after his car and his crew wore the #BlackLivesMatter message, living proof that real conversations and education on racial inequality do work.

The new NASCAR fans — those who have taken to the sport over the past two weeks because that flag was banned and they finally felt welcome, who drove to Talladega from Atlanta to attend their first race, wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and pressing against the frontstretch catchfence after the race — did they look scared? No. Because they weren’t.

They were giddy. Especially when Wallace ran up front all day, leading with 30 laps remaining. And they were even more ecstatic when Wallace climbed from his 14th-place car (his chances undone by fuel mileage) and while his best friend, Ryan Blaney, celebrated the win, made the long walk out to the grandstand to high five those new fans. Then he addressed the nation — and more specifically, you, the racist noose bully — that hell no, he wasn’t scared. He never was.

“Sorry I’m not wearing my mask,” Wallace said, holding an American flag-adorned COVID-19 protective face covering in his hand. “But I wanted to show whoever it was that you’re not going to take away my smile, and I’m going to keep on going.”

As he walked back to pit road, under the same sky where the Confederate flag had been towed by a plane, back through the garage where the noose was left, and his team transporter left Talladega via the perimeter roads traveled by those flag-bearing pickup trucks, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. once again had tears in his eyes.

But it wasn’t because he was sad. And it sure wasn’t because he was scared. It’s because he was headed into the future with a smile on his face and wind in his sails. Wallace has always known that he was ready for the inevitable fight ahead. He has been fighting it his entire 26-year-old life. Wallace always knew he had the support of his fellow racers and NASCAR itself, at least he hoped he did. Now, thanks to what happened at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday, he knows that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So, yeah, to the person or persons who tried to ruin everyone’s weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, I have something I need to tell you.

Thanks. Thanks for being an idiot. Thanks for being a coward. Thanks for being a cliché. Because you gifted those of us who actually love the sport with the moment we really needed: The image of every competitor in the garage standing behind Bubba Wallace. Because that image proves to all of us that you, and those who stand with you in the shadows of the past, have no place in the world of NASCAR. And if you were hiding in plain sight among those in that image, then your time among them is numbered because the hunt is on. You know it, too.

The racers, they aren’t scared. You are. You should be.

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