Talladega noose incident puts spotlight on NASCAR’s troubles with racism
By Juliet Macur and Alan Blinder
Darrell Wallace Jr. said he was relieved to hear the FBI say he had not been the target of a hate crime at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend, after a noose hanging in his garage stall was found to have been there since at least last fall.
In a statement on Twitter on Wednes- day, Wallace, known as Bubba, thanked NASCAR and the FBI for taking the threat seriously.
“We’ll gladly take a little embarrass- ment over what the alternatives could have been,” said Wallace, the sole Black driver in NASCAR’s top series.
The national turmoil over race and se- rial injustice has complicated both Wal- lace’s reaction and the public’s response to the FBI’s findings. With the government’s investigation closed and no charges filed, Wallace has found himself all but forced to defend himself from baseless speculation that he or his supporters staged the incident to garner publicity.
While NASCAR characterized the noose as a pull rope for a garage door that was “fashioned like a noose,” some people insisted the noose was just a rope with a handle and that Wallace and stock-car rac- ing executives had overreacted. Wallace said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show that he considered the knot to be a noose that someone took time to create at the end of a door pull. Though the noose was not functional, he said, the sight of it “makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”
The debate over the episode was hardly deterred by the timeline of the case, the Jus- tice Department’s conclusions or the history of a sport that long has battled racism both inside and outside the garage, including by fans who proudly flew the Confederate flag at competitions until Wallace called for NASCAR to ban it June 8. NASCAR barred the battle flag two days later.
Wallace wasn’t the first person to notice the noose in his garage or even the fourth. The accounts of Wallace and others within NASCAR indicated that he was at least the fifth person to be made aware of the noose after it was found Sunday and that he first learned about it from Steve Phelps, NAS- CAR’s president.
According to racing officials, a member of Wallace’s crew noticed the suspicious rope and reported it to Jerry Baxter, the crew chief and a fixture of the sport. Baxter alerted Jay Fabian, a senior NASCAR offi- cial. Ultimately, Phelps met Wallace at the driver’s motor home and tearfully told him what had been found.
FBI agents traveled to Talladega, Ala., less than an hour’s drive from Birmingham, and began reviewing evidence. A crucial clue was an assertion Monday morning by an employee of Wood Brothers Racing, an- other NASCAR team, that he had noticed the tied rope at a race in the fall, long be- fore Wallace had been assigned to the ga- rage stall for this week’s Geico 500.
Through a spokeswoman, the U.S. at- torney for the Northern District of Ala- bama, Jay Town, declined to be interviewed Wednesday. But the Justice Department said Tuesday that officials were certain that the noose had been in the garage since at least October and that “nobody could have known Wallace would be assigned to ga- rage No. 4” that far in advance.
“The 43 team had nothing to do with this,” Phelps said in a teleconference with reporters, referring to Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports team. He said that NAS- CAR was still investigating who might have tied the noose last year or perhaps even earlier.
There was good reason for Wallace and his team to be sensitive to anything that could be perceived as racist. His own par- ents were concerned for his safety after he spoke out this month, saying the Confeder- ate flag was a symbol of hate and not heri- tage. Those safety concerns were focused on the reaction of fans in the predominantly white sport, but history has shown that rac- ism also exists inside the stock-car circuit.
In early 1999, David Scott, one of two Black crew members in NASCAR, described in a news report that other crew members often called him names like Leroy and Lem- ont and also called him racial slurs.
“I expected that coming here,” Scott, who drove the motor home for a top own- er, told The Orlando Sentinel. “I just figure that’s the way it is.”
That harassment culminated with an in- cident in July 1999 at New Hampshire Mo- tor Speedway, according to a lawsuit Scott filed against NASCAR in 2006. Two white employees of top NASCAR drivers showed up at the door of his motor home, and one had pulled a pillowcase over his head to im- personate a Ku Klux Klan member, the suit said. When Scott opened the door, the two men screamed.
The two white men involved in the in- cident were fired, and NASCAR reminded teams that it had a zero-tolerance policy for racism. Scott’s lawsuit in 2006 claimed that the association had not given him a job he had been promised, which was supposed to protect him from the harassment he had faced working for a team in the garage area. A judge dismissed the case in 2008, the same year NASCAR settled a separate law- suit involving the first Black woman to work as a NASCAR technical official.
That official, Mauricia Grant, sued NAS- CAR for $225 million for racial discrimina- tion, sexual harassment and wrongful termi- nation. In her lawsuit, Grant, who went by the first name Mo, said she endured “virulently racist comments” and “ugly racist bigotry” by co-workers who called her names like “Nappy Headed Mo,” “Mohammed” and “Simpleton.” Some fellow officials discussed the Ku Klux Klan, she said, and it scared her. Her colleagues often made her work outside, the suit said, telling her that she would not sunburn because she was Black, and would say she was “on colored- people time” if she was late.
Grant, who didn’t respond to messages, once rode in a car with another official at Talladega who told her to duck. According to court documents, he said, “I don’t want to start a riot when these fans see a Black woman in my car.” Another official at Tal- ladega, according to the lawsuit, “jokingly” threatened to sic the garage’s bomb-sniffing dog on Grant because she could be perceived as a criminal.
While Wallace hasn’t directly faced similar daily racism within NASCAR, he has acknowledged that whatever he does or says will be placed under a microscope and criticized by fans who might not want him to be in the sport. While enduring the backlash from the noose episode, he has had to remind himself that he can’t please everybody.
“I will always have haters,” Wallace said on CNN.