Anyone else get the sinking feeling that as NASCAR continues to founder it develops more sensational plot twists than a bad Peyton Place episode?
Yeah, me too. . .
The faux-fistfights in the pits, the goofy taunting of fans by contrived heels, the baby faces who preen and posture, the throwing of water and chest-bumping bravado of 20-something no-names – a script that tries hard to take fans back to a day when real men drove stock cars to their limit and bare-knuckle, helmet-throwing brawls often settled scores right on the apron.
Now, the modern storyline reads like a bad wrestling promotion.
But this latest drama resulted in a crash of epic proportions. . .
What started out as a well-thought attempt to open the flagging sport to a more diverse demographic and show support for driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. – the only African-American competitor in the upper stratum of the Cup Series – NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation made the controversial decision to ban Confederate flags from all racetracks.
Then, just when it appeared NASCAR was making substantial progress on the issue of inclusiveness, sensitivity and furthering a greater discussion of diversity in a sport still very much entrenched in its Deep South roots, we learned the worst possible news.
Upon arrival at Talladega Superspeedway in preparation for last weekend’s GEICO 500, someone on Wallace’s race team discovered a rope “noose” hanging in their assigned garage stall – a despicable, racially charged symbol of terror – a horrific hate crime that NASCAR immediately linked to Wallace’ advocacy for the Black Lives Matter movement – an act of divisiveness and intimidation that rightfully shocked the conscience of a nation.
In response, NASCAR instantaneously issued the following:
“Late this afternoon, NASCAR was made aware that a noose was found in the garage stall of the 43 team. We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act. We have launched an immediate investigation, and will do everything we can to identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport. As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.”
Wallace was notified of his victimization by NASCAR President Steve Phelps – and Bubba immediately characterized the incident as a “painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society.”
The clearly embarrassed Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivy, accurately described the incident as a “vile act” and a “display of hatred” as the national media drew a direct line between the atrocities at Selma and Birmingham to a lone garage stall in Talladega.
And, with complete justification based upon published “facts”, the world seethed with rage.
On Monday, NASCAR President Steve Phelps angrily announced that if the person responsible were from the inside the sport – they would be “banned for life” – and the investigation of the crime was properly turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as the United States Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division offered every available resource – vowing to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of justice for Wallace.
During a press conference, Phelps bristled – then doubled-down – when some misfit reporter had the gall to question if the incident had been “staged.”
“I would say that is something that personally offends me,” Phelps said. “This is a terrible, terrible act that has happened. For those who would think that this is staged, I wouldn’t know where to go with that.”
The drama became an international cause célèbre playing out on the front page of every newspaper in the world – and served as an incredibly provocative lead story for every network affiliate, online aggregate and news channel – complete with scenes of Bubba Wallace, overcome with emotion, as his car was escorted to the starting line by the massed compliment of Cup Series drivers, owners and crew in an amazing show of solidarity.
According to the Associated Press, “Wallace was joined by his team owner, Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who gently placed a hand on Wallace’s shoulder as he sobbed. Wallace after the race went to the fencing along the grandstands and greeted supporters. Many were Black and wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts.”
“It’s just been hectic, you know, carrying this weight,” he said. “I’m proud to stand where I’m at and carry a new face. Look at (these fans). Is this the first time you’re here? From Atlanta? That is so cool! The sport is changing.”
And, just like that, NASCAR suddenly became relevant again – a sport clearly capable of introspection and instantaneous cultural change – who corrected the institutional sins of the past in less than 24-hours and immediately began drawing a young, hip, racially diverse fan base at Talladega.
Then, NASCAR’s carefully orchestrated public relations/marketing strategy of “success from scandal” hit the skids when, apparently, an astute federal agent – one of 15 FBI agents who were redirected from ongoing federal investigations to the Superspeedway – noticed that every stall in the garage had a “noose” similar to the one discovered in Wallace’ space.
Yep. The “noose” turned out to be no more than the “handle in the garage pull down rope.”
Damn. . .
It was a simple lanyard loop used to close the garage door – and it has been there since at least 2019.
As the news flashed ‘round the world at digital speed, and the narrative changed, you could almost hear Steve Phelps’ asshole slam shut as he came to the sudden realization the drama he churned into a frenzy – that kept the sport in worldwide headlines for 48-hours and exacerbated national tensions – wasn’t a heinous hate crime at all.
And it left the sport – including sponsors – with egg on their face as the natural reaction of fans turned from shock and unity to widespread anger.
Perhaps the FBI (not all 15 case agents, just one or two) should take a look at why, and how, this matter was reported to federal authorities – and, ultimately, used by NASCAR executives to exploit a young black driver who was convinced by the president of his sport that he is a victim.
How terribly corrosive to the frayed fabric of our society.
How horribly sad for this young man who will forever believe he was targeted.
In my view, NASCAR President Steve Phelps should go.
The “sport” owes Bubba Wallace – and all Americans – an immediate apology.
Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal