By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
NASCAR went to Talladega Superspeedway on heightened alert after Bubba Wallace, its only Black driver, took on an active role in a push for racial equality.
Wallace had successfully called for the ban of the Confederate flag and received threats. Fans paraded past the main entrance of the Alabama track displaying the flag, and a plane circled above the speedway pulling a Confederate flag banner that read “Defund NASCAR.”
So NASCAR moved quickly when one of Wallace’s crew members discovered a rope that resembled a noose in their garage stall. The sanctioning body called in federal authorities, who ruled Tuesday it had been hanging there since at least last October and was not a hate crime.
U.S. Attorney Jay Town and FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. said the investigation determined “nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned” to that same stall. NASCAR said it was the lone garage stall with a pull down rope that resembled a noose.
NASCAR has defended its reaction and insisted it would call the FBI again. A defiant Wallace said there is no confusion and the rope had been fashioned into a noose.
“I wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a knot,” Wallace said on CNN. “It was a noose. Whether it was tied in 2019 … it is a noose.”
Wallace never saw the rope. He said NASCAR President Steve Phelps came to see him Sunday night at the track with “tears running down his face.”
“The evidence he brought to me was that a hate crime has been committed, quote-on-quote,” said Wallace, who instantly began to fear for the safety of his family.
Even after the conclusion it was not a hate crime, Wallace remained angry at what he perceives as constant tests of his character. He holds no ill-will toward NASCAR.
“I stand behind Steve and I stand behind NASCAR,” he said. “NASCAR was worried about Talladega. We had that one circled on the radar with everything going on.”
NASCAR opened the Talladega gates to 5,000 fans, its highest number so far during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since finding his voice over the last month, the 26-year-old Mobile, Alabama native has embraced an international role in
NASCAR’s attempt to push past its rocky racial history. Wallace has worn an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, raced with a Black Lives Matter paint scheme in Virginia and successfully lobbied for the Confederate flag ban.
NASCAR has assigned security to Wallace at the track and has been protective of the driver. The first word of the incident came in a sharply worded statement in which NASCAR said it was “angry and outraged” over the “heinous act” that the series directly linked to racism.
The FBI sent 15 agents to Talladega for Monday’s rescheduled race at the same time the industry rallied around Wallace. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, every team member on pit road lined up behind him during the national anthem.
Phelps has taken exactly nine questions about the finding in Wallace’s garage and none provided any details of the incident. Because of health protocol restrictions, a limited number of personnel have access to the garage. Only a handful of Wallace’s crew members and NASCAR saw the rope.
Roughly 48 hours after the discovery, federal authorities said video confirmed the rope “was in that garage as early as October 2019” hanging from a garage door. The rope was referred to as a noose, but can be used as a handle when closing the door.
Phelps continued to call it a noose after authorities said no charges would be filed, and held firm in that NASCAR is investigating why the rope was tied that way. He was pleased it wasn’t a hate crime directed at Wallace, but insisted NASCAR would have conducted its investigation the same way even now knowing it was just a coincidence.
“We would have done the same investigation. It was important for us to do,” he said.
“The evidence was very clear that the noose that was in the garage was in there previously. The last race we had in October, that noose was present. The evidence we had, it was clear we needed to look into this.”
He took no questions on the FBI’s findings.
Meanwhile, Wood Brothers Racing team said it cooperated with the investigation and an employee recalled “seeing a tied handle in the garage pull down rope from last fall,” when the team had the stall.
NASCAR saying it had found a noose stunned the stock car series as it takes an active position in a push for inclusion. The series first tried to ban the Confederate flag five years ago but did nothing to enforce the order.
NASCAR has yet to detail how it will answer Wallace’s call to stop the display of the flag.