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From the moment NASCAR and the FBI announced that the noose found in the Talladega garage Sunday night was not evidence of a hate crime, the gloating and grave-dancing began. Critics accused NASCAR and the media of rushing to judgment; more despicably, they accused Bubba Wallace of manufacturing the entire escapade.
It was a pull rope! It was a normal overhand loop used to pull down garage doors! How could anyone mistake that for a noose? The condemnations flew and grew uglier by the hour. I’ll admit, I was critical myself. How could NASCAR officials make such a catastrophic mistake with something so obvious?
And then NASCAR released the photo of the noose on Thursday, and, well:
That’s not just a pull rope. That’s not an overhand loop. That’s a noose.
You look at that photo, and suddenly everything NASCAR did at the time Sunday night makes perfect sense. A noose — come on, that’s a noose, you can see it with your own eyes — hanging in the stall of the sport’s only Black Cup driver, who’s been outspoken on matters of racial equality … what else was NASCAR supposed to do?
There was no obvious immediate evidence that the noose had been around since October, as the FBI later determined. NASCAR president Steve Phelps conceded Thursday that he could have couched his initial statement with some “allegeds,” but he was angry, and it’s tough to blame him. This was, by all immediate appearances, another example of his sport getting its image dragged through racist mud, just hours after a long procession of Confederate flag-waving trucks outside Talladega’s gates.
What was NASCAR supposed to do? What would you have done?
And so this infuriating story takes yet another turn. Bubba Wallace’s defenders are in the position of feeling not good, per se, but at least validated at having visual evidence to back up verbal claims. And NASCAR’s in the uncomfortable position of realizing that while Bubba Wallace obviously wasn’t the target of a hate crime — the noose was left there in 2019 — there’s still the problem of a noose being tied and left in the garage, within sight of of officials, drivers, team members and fans ... exactly the kind of racist image NASCAR wants to banish to the history books.
The facts won’t convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced, but they’re definitive: At NASCAR’s 29 tracks, there are 1,684 garage stalls. Eleven of those stalls had knots tied in the pull ropes. And exactly one — Talladega stall No. 4 — had as its knot a noose. How much more evidence do you need?
It’s sad we have to be at the point where words alone aren’t enough. It’s sad that when Brehanna Daniels, the first Black woman to join a NASCAR pit crew, can see the noose, wonder “Why was that pull rope fashioned like a noose? Why was it there?” and have an army of Twitter experts and keyboard warriors doubt the word of someone who’s been in NASCAR garages for years. It’s sad that the words of those most hurt by the image of a noose are disregarded by those with no understanding of, or connection to, the dark history from which it emerged.
NASCAR concedes it’s impossible to figure out who tied the noose back in October 2019. In those pre-COVID days, garages were open to anyone: teams, media, officials, fans. We thus can’t guess at the motivation of whoever tied the noose, whether it was malicious or someone — like the individual in a recent AP story about the noose — who thought they were being “funny.”
But in the end, the motivations don’t matter. A noose, like a swastika, has an indisputable meaning, one that doesn’t fade with a “just joking!” tag. It’s hateful and unacceptable, and NASCAR’s only misstep here was waiting too long to release this photo. The trolls and demagogues got almost 48 hours to trash Wallace with bad faith and zero facts.
I wrote in this space on Monday that NASCAR needs to rid itself of its racist element. NASCAR’s not an inherently racist sport, but there are plenty of racists who like NASCAR. It’s time — for the good of the sport, and for the good ol’ boys truly worthy of the name — to take a stand. If they want the sport to survive, this is the only way.
The evidence is right in front of us. It’s been there all along, but too many people simply chose not to see.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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