Shoulder to shoulder, step by step, NASCAR lined up behind Bubba Wallace, lined up against the past, lined up for a future long overdue to arrive.
A day after NASCAR reported a noose was found in Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega International Speedway, the sport’s drivers and crew took it upon themselves prior to Monday’s race to push the circuit’s only African American driver, and his car, down pit road. They then stood behind him during the playing of the national anthem.
When Wallace climbed out of the vehicle, he was overcome with emotion, crying as each driver took a turn to hug him.
“Together,” Wallace later wrote on Twitter under a photo of the image. Indeed, together is the only way forward.
This is the kind of unified message that is as powerful as it is overdue. For too long, this sport trafficked on the fringes of society, not stepping up and not speaking out as racism and racists found a home.
Those people were the minority. Most race fans are great people who just want to watch the race but the outliers held an outsized influence on the place. They were excused, if not embraced. Shrugs and silence were the easiest response. And so it all flourished.
It’s not enough to find who among the NASCAR “family” had access to that garage to hang the noose. It’s about looking into the culture of tolerating intolerance that someone would even feel comfortable trying it.
As a sad, sick example, on Monday, the Associated Press quoted a man named Luke Johnson who was one of just 5,000 fans allowed in to watch the race. He called for NASCAR to reverse its recent (Wallace-inspired) ban of the Confederate flag and said he thought the noose incident was nothing more than a joke.
“I thought it was funny myself,” Johnson told the Associated Press.
This is where the sport is. This is the reality ... the Luke Johnsons of the world ruining it for everyone else. Or some hidden, coward on a race crew causing pain and division before scurrying back to the darkness.
NASCAR is trying now. Give it that. It’s trying to make this how NASCAR was, not is.
It officially banned the flying of the Confederate flag at events after Wallace called on them to do it. It cut public service announcements calling for solidarity and seeking better understanding of issues. It changed paint schemes. It spoke up and vowed to listen and learn.
When a member of Wallace’s crew reported the noose on Sunday, NASCAR launched an immediate investigation. It even publicly announced the discovery, an important level of transparency. By Monday, the FBI was involved.
“Unequivocally, they will be banned from this sport for life,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps promised if the perpetrator is found. “There is no room for this at all. We won’t tolerate it. They won’t be here. I don’t care who they are. They will not be here.”
Monday the hashtag “#IStandWithBubbaWallace” was painted on the infield grass for the race that was delayed a day due to weather. Then came the march.
The visual was important. It has to be maintained. Every driver needs to be vocal in stating that any fan who feels that way should find someone else — or some other sport — to support.
“The news really has disturbed us all,” seven-time Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson said on the Fox broadcast. “Of course we want justice in a sense, we want to understand who and why and all of those things, but until those [questions] are answered, we want to stand with our friend, we want to stand with Bubba.”
NASCAR itself can ban whatever it wants or act as strictly as it wants, but nothing changes until attitudes and perspectives do.
Drivers, crew chiefs and car owners have for decades either said little to nothing as these kinds of conflicts sparked up. Some probably weren’t even bothered by it. Each little failure piled on the next. The climate was created.
Consider back in 2004, when Toyota became the first Japanese auto company to enter the truck series. “Those sons of bitches bombed Pearl Harbor, don’t forget,” driver Jimmy Spencer said. It was excused as Jimmy being Jimmy. He wasn’t shunned. He went on to become a broadcaster.
That’s the kind of history that made Monday so important. The report of the noose was taken as a threat not just to Wallace, but to everyone. All the drivers. All the crew.
To the sport itself even.
What’s right is right and clinging to old ways and old thinking and old fans such as Luke Johnson come with a price, one that NASCAR is beginning to pay.
This won’t be easy. It isn’t supposed to be. Change is always fought against.
But it can be done, just as that visual of a parade marching down pit row in unison trying to make it clear that it’s a new day for this old sport.
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