NASCAR Says It Wants to Move on From the Noose. Its Fans Must Do the Same

There are two major problems here: the noose, which went unchecked for months, and how so-called fans have reacted to Bubba Wallace in recent days.

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NASCAR

"The noose was real," is what NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in a news conference on Thursday, hopefully clearing up one of the ugliest moments the racing series has seen in recent years. While many questions remain, it turns out that, yes, there was, in fact, a rope tied into a noose in the garage of Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., the top Cup Series' only full-time Black driver, at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway. A noose that had been in that garage for months, too. The incident itself and the reactions to it—the doubt, the "hoax" allegations and the conspiracy theories thrown at Wallace, personally—prove that not only does NASCAR have a lot of work to do, but so do a lot of so-called NASCAR fans.

According to NASCAR itself, it's a noose that, out of a search of 1,684 garage stalls at 29 tracks, was found in only one place—the Talladega garage Wallace was using this past weekend. And it's a noose that had been hanging since last October. 

“As you can see from the photo, the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba," Phelps said. "With similar emotion, others across our industry and our media stood up to defend the NASCAR family... We are proud to see so many stand up for what’s right.”

NASCAR may want to move past what happened here, but as it seeks to be a more inclusive sport and one that openly says no to the racist symbols of its past, it clearly has lots of work to do. And the fact that this noose was present in this garage, apparently unquestionably for months, speaks to bigger issues within the sport's culture.

Let's go back to how this started. NASCAR has struggled with issues around racism, the display of the Confederate flag and representation within its own sport for many decades, and as with many other areas of American life, things came to a head this summer with the murder of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police. Protesters have filled the streets decrying police violence and demanding reform. Statues have been torn down. Companies and their leaders have faced hard, long-overdue reckonings. As a country, we've been forced to look in the mirror and realize we don't like what's staring back at us.

Wallace decided to do something about it too. Frustrated with other drivers' reluctance to speak out against racism, he drove a Chevrolet with a Black Lives Matter livery at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway. From there, NASCAR responded by finally banning the display of the Confederate flag from races and facilities, something it had previously just asked fans nicely not to do. That was a big shift, though it feels amazing to say as much in 2020. NASCAR's Southern roots run deep. The flag was often a fixture at those races. Ordering fans to consign it to history, where it belongs, felt like a major move in the right direction.   

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But whatever forward momentum the sport had was torpedoed on Sunday when a crew member found a noose—a horrific symbol meant to invoke the history of lynchings—in Wallace's garage ahead of the Talladega race. NASCAR alerted the FBI and local law enforcement. In response and in a show of support, Wallace's fellow drivers and series crew members marched down pit road and pushed him in his No. 43 car to the front of the line. (At the time, NASCAR chose not to release a photo of said noose, presumably not to interfere with a potential criminal investigation.)

Then the FBI claimed it was a pull rope meant to close garage doors. After that, Wallace was ridiculed in the news and on social media, derided as a fraudster and a liar, and compared to Jussie Smollett, the actor accused of staging a hate crime against himself. Seeing as how about the only thing the two men have in common is that they're both Black, that's a dog whistle so loud a human can hear it from a couple blocks away.

All of this brings us to Thursday, when NASCAR came out with its own, internal investigation. The series said that the rope was indeed a noose that had been present since last fall, and released an image that, yes, unequivocally shows us what we're dealing with:

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That's quite an unusual way to tie a garage door pull. I'm no knot expert, but there's a big difference between a rope with a loop at the bottom to make closing a garage door easier and that. It's possible someone put it there months ago as a horrific, misguided, ignorant attempt at a "joke," and nobody within NASCAR's whole ecosystem saw fit to say or do anything about it until this past week when it could not be ignored any longer. “Odds are someone saw it and didn’t react negatively to it,” Phelps said. And therein lies NASCAR's problem.  

Even the FBI admits that "although the noose is now known to have been in garage number 4 in 2019, nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned to garage number 4 last week." But why no one said anything sooner—why it was hanging there for months—makes this just as bad as if it was targeted at Wallace this past weekend.

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Talladega last weekend.

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Talladega last weekend.

The knee-jerk reaction that called this a "hoax" is as laughable as it is troubling. Is it so hard to believe that someone, at some point, tied a noose as a garage door pull in Talladega, Alabama? Of course not. Many local fans made very clear how they feel about symbols of the Confederacy, just this past weekend alone. It takes Olympic-level mental gymnastics to say that was always just a harmless garage door closer, or that the Confederate flag is just a flag and not a symbol of a separatist country founded on human subjugation and racial violence. Even veteran NASCAR and IndyCar racer Willy T. Ribbs, himself a pioneering Black driver, said he wasn't surprised by any of this, and he would certainly know.

We don't know who put the noose there. But the reaction by the sport's fans illustrates bigger problems. Let's put it this way: if you fervently believed, incorrectly as we know now, that this was either a "hoax" by Wallace (who did not find the noose—again, a crew member did) or just a harmless garage door rope, what is that supposed to prove to you? That there's not actually any racism in America anymore? We know that isn't true. That hate crimes and lynchings aren't a very real part of our history? Get real. That flying the Confederate flag is somehow OK, but a noose goes too far? That's preposterous. Or that white people don't need to do the hard, soul-searching work of reckoning with the legacy of slavery and racism that they still benefit from today? Sorry. No one gets off that easy. 

It's a noose. It was always a noose. And though the FBI doesn't believe a hate crime was committed—or that there isn't evidence to prosecute such a case—sometimes, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well... you know the rest. Though it may be months old, it was a noose, at least as far as NASCAR is concerned, and its presence there shows that the racism that has stained the sport for so long can't be erased overnight. 

NASCAR knows it has work to do, not only because PR disasters like this one continue to be deeply embarrassing and out of touch with the reality of America in 2020, but perhaps for cynical business reasons as well. Besides risking sponsors and money, the sport's attendance and ratings (pre-pandemic, obviously) have been declining for years. NASCAR doesn't really have a future if it stays beholden to its white, Southern and racially hostile roots. It risks becoming an anachronism if it doesn't change and evolve. 

The response to the charge Wallace has led lately, from banning the Confederate flag to drivers rallying for him after the noose was found, shows that it can. It's not an overnight fix, but change has to begin somewhere, and NASCAR says it wants to be different. Let's see if the people who fill the stands can do the same.