It’s difficult to recall a more emotional, more confusing and yet inspiring few days during NASCAR’s 72-year history than what unfolded since 10:45 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 21.
The roller coaster began when NASCAR released a statement Sunday night that a noose had been found in the Talladega Superspeedway garage stall belonging to the circuit’s only Black full-time driver, Bubba Wallace. It ended Tuesday with the FBI stating it would not pursue federal charges after its investigation at Talladega found the noose formed from a garage pull rope had been there since at least October. In between, there was outrage and an unprecedented show of support for Wallace, perhaps more than for any driver since Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500.
Late Tuesday, there was relief among people in the NASCAR garage, some embarrassment among those same people, and gleeful celebrations on social media from those who from the beginning had claimed it was a hoax. But just two days later, NASCAR on Thursday completed its investigation, with president Steve Phelps saying “the noose was real” and “our initial reaction was to protect our driver.”
We review an eventful few days and try to answer questions many have asked as NASCAR and the FBI wrapped up their investigations this week.
Was there a noose found in Bubba Wallace’s garage at Talladega?
Yes. NASCAR officials and FBI investigators have not disputed that. Rope pulldowns are installed on the roller doors in every bay of the Talladega Superspeedway garage. According to NASCAR, every one of those pulldowns was checked as part of the FBI investigation, and the only one of those fashioned into a noose was the rope in garage No. 4, which was assigned to the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevy this past weekend.
FBI special agent Johnnie Sharp Jr. led a team of 15 FBI investigators as they inspected the garage and interviewed multiple people around Talladega Superspeedway, including Wallace. In his official statement, written with U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, Sharp used the word “noose” four times and never disputed it was a noose — saying only that the timing of its hanging in garage No. 4, at least as early as October 2019, meant it was not directed at Wallace and thus was not a federal crime.
Wallace was not purposely assigned to garage 4 at Talladega. Garage workspaces are assigned to teams per their rank in the NASCAR Cup Series standings. Furthermore, because of COVID-19 pandemic-related social distancing policies, team garage assignments have been even more spread out than normal, making the idea of slotting a certain team in a certain garage seem even less plausible. The FBI stated that “nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned to garage number 4 last week,” and that, as a result, no federal crime had been committed.
When asked about how frequently he has seen door pulls shaped in such a fashion, Bubba Wallace said on ESPN’s First Take on Wednesday: “I’ve been racing since I was 9 years old; I’m 26 now, I’ll be 27 this year, and I’ve never seen a garage pull like that. It makes me want to drive over to my mom’s house where we used to race out of our garage and show a garage pull.”
Why did NASCAR conduct its own inquiry?
While the FBI’s investigation concluded the noose was not specifically linked to Wallace, it still said the noose was in garage 4. So, why? That was the main reason for NASCAR — to identify the person who tied the rope into a noose and why they did it, whether it be a NASCAR crew member, track worker or someone else with access to the garage before or during October 2019. Also, why was it not noticed until now, eight months later?
Phelps addressed all of the above Thursday, when he discussed NASCAR’s findings during a conference call with reporters. Phelps said NASCAR conducted a full sweep of all 29 tracks where they hold races, and the 1,684 garage stalls within those tracks. Only 11 had a pull-down rope tied into a knot, and only one specifically tied into a noose — the one identified in garage 4 at Talladega.
“We further determined that the noose was not in place when the October 2019 race weekend began, but was created at some point during that weekend,” Phelps added. “Given that timing, and the garage access policies and procedures at the time, we were unfortunately unable to determine with any certainly who tied this rope in this manner, or why it was done.”
So, how did the noose go undetected up until this past weekend?
Said Phelps: “Our ultimate conclusion is to ensure this never happens again, that no one walks by a noose without recognizing the potential damage it can do. … Moving forward, we will be conducting thorough sweeps of the garage area to ensure nothing like this happens again.”
Part of those updated protocols include installing extra cameras in all garages, making necessary changes to NASCAR’s code of conduct, and mandating that “all members of our industry complete sensitivity and unconscious bias training, with specifics and timing forthcoming.”
Why didn’t NASCAR initially show the photo of the noose?
Officials said they didn’t release the photo Sunday night because their internal investigation was still ongoing at that point. All evidence submitted as part of the FBI investigation, including the photo and video used to reveal the noose was visible in the same garage during the October 2019 race weekend, was returned to NASCAR after the FBI released its findings.
NASCAR released a photo of the noose Thursday in conjunction with Phelps’ conference call after it concluded its own investigation. Here is the image:
Did Wallace ever see the noose?
Not until NASCAR brought it to his attention Sunday night. Again, because of pandemic team-roster restrictions and the nature of a one-day race schedule, a very limited number of people were allowed into the garage area at all. One member of the No. 43 team found the noose, reported it to NASCAR security, and then took it to NASCAR president Steve Phelps and his executive team. This was widely reported Sunday night and Monday, despite what “Bubba Was In On It” conspiracy theorists might tell you.
Were NASCAR officials embarrassed by the FBI’s report and how they handled the incident?
Yes and no, with a much higher percentage toward no. They aren’t happy about the optics of it all, and they certainly haven’t enjoyed those conspiracy theorists believing they scored a win. But they also don’t regret acting as swiftly and as publicly as they did.
Phelps reiterated just that Thursday, saying that, in hindsight, he should have used the word “alleged” as part of his original statement Sunday night. The NASCAR president did not, however, show any regret for protecting one of his drivers.
“Some feel that the phrasing or words used were not right. That comes with the territory, and I will take full responsibility for that and for the emotion that was attached to it,” Phelps said. “Based on the evidence we had, we felt that one of our drivers had been threatened, a driver who had been extremely courageous in recent words and actions. It was our responsibility to react and investigate, and that’s exactly what we did.
“I stand by the actions we took, and I think they were the right ones,” Phelps added. “Given the evidence we had, we would do the same thing, we would investigate it the same way. If it comes to where we need to craft a statement differently and I need to take a little less emotion out of it, that’s something I’ll do, and I’ll take responsibility for that.”
What has been Wallace’s response to the FBI report?
Bubba Wallace is pleased with NASCAR’s push for diversity and inclusion and is confident the movement will continue.
Wallace first spoke to CNN on Tuesday night while social media platforms were fueled with multiple Wallace-related trending topics, none of them nice. During the interview, he reiterated that what was found in garage 4 at Talladega wasn’t merely a garage door pull: “From the evidence that we have and I have, it’s a straight-up noose. … It was a noose that was, whether tied in 2019 or whenever, it was a noose. It wasn’t directed at me, but somebody tied it.”
Wallace also reiterated his position on using his platform to continue to push for change in the sport, and beyond.
“If you had [seen] the Ahmaud Arbery video, and if it shook you the way it shook me, knowing that, I wanted to make change, I wanted to go down there and retaliate for that family and for that man,” Wallace said on First Take. “But I knew hate doesn’t win, love wins. It’s about spreading the right message. And we go through the Breonna Taylor incident, and then we go through the George Floyd incident — to get where change, I believe, is really happening.
“Whenever I get time away from interviews and get time to think, I am [going to be] on phone calls about ‘What are the next steps for us in showing that we care and we’re gonna make changes, instead of just saying it?’ We have to have actions to back it up.”
Phelps reiterated NASCAR’s support of Wallace and other drivers on Thursday.
“Bubba Wallace and the 43 team had nothing to do with this. Bubba Wallace has done nothing but represent this sport with courage, class and dignity,” Phelps told reporters. “It is offensive seeing anyone suggest otherwise, and frankly, it’s further evidence of how far we still need to go as a society.
“Bubba has done nothing but represent this sport with courage, class and dignity and he stood tall for what he believes in. And we all need to stand with him. I know I’m going to.”