TALLADEGA, Ala. — A noose was found in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace's garage stall Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, less than two weeks after Wallace — the only full-time Black driver currently competing in the top-tier Cup Series — successfully pushed the stock car racing organization to ban the Confederate flag at its tracks and facilities.
NASCAR said it had launched an immediate investigation and will do everything possible to find out who was responsible and "eliminate them from the sport."
"We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act," a statement from NASCAR read. "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."
On Twitter, Wallace said the "the despicable act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and how persistent we must be in the fight against racism."
"As my mother told me today, 'They are just trying to scare you,'" the 26-year-old Richard Petty Motorsports driver wrote. "This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in."
The noose was discovered the same day NASCAR's fledgling flag ban faced its first major challenge. The ban took effect before last week's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but there were only about 1,000 spectators admitted to the South Florida track, most of them military members and their families.
At Talladega, in the heart of the Deep South, as many as 5,000 fans — all from within 150 miles and the state of Alabama — were to be permitted, even though thunderstorms postponed the race until 3 p.m. Monday and visitors were barred from the infield at the 2.66-mile tri-oval.
There weren't any immediate reports of how many Confederate flags were confiscated or taken down at the track, if any — but the divisive banner was present nearby. There were informal protests Saturday and Sunday alike, with cars and pickup trucks driving along nearby roads flying the flag and parading past the entrance to the track. A small plane flew overhead pulling a banner with the flag and the words "Defund NASCAR."
NASCAR did not acknowledge the plane, though executive Steve O'Donnell tweeted a picture of black and white hands shaking with the words: "You won't see a photo of a jackass flying a flag over the track here...but you will see this." Rapper Ice Cube tweeted about the plane saying, "(Expletive) him NASCAR, you got new fans in this household."
Wallace, who was born in Mobile, Alabama, but grew up in North Carolina near NASCAR's home base, said he has found support among fellow drivers for his stance on the flag. He noted that after the announcement about the noose.
"Over the last several weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the support from people across the NASCAR industry including other drivers and team members in the garage," he wrote on Twitter. "Together, our sport has made a commitment to driving real chance and championing a community that is accepting and welcoming of everyone. Nothing is more important and we will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate."
Wallace's 2013 victory in a Truck Series race was only the second in a NASCAR national series event by a Black driver — Wendell Scott won in 1963 on the Grand National Division, the forerunner to the Cup Series — and helped push him into the top circuit, where he drives for NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty but is forced to scramble for sponsorship dollars.
NASCAR has spent years trying to distance itself from the Confederate flag, long a part of its moonshine-running roots from its founding more than 70 years ago. Five years ago, Brian France, NASCAR's chairman at the time, tried to ban flying the flags at tracks, a proposal that was not enforced and was largely ignored.
This year was different, and it was Wallace who led the charge. Over the past month, as the nation has been roiled by social unrest largely tied to the death of George Floyd, Wallace wore a black T-shirt with the words "I CAN'T BREATHE" and "BLACK LIVES MATTER" at Atlanta Motor Speedway and also had a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme at Martinsville Speedway.
Wallace, whose father is white, was not always outspoken about racism; even after Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, Wallace was not the first driver to speak out for racial equality. He has said he began to find his public voice on racism after watching video in May of Ahmaud Arbery's fatal shooting in Georgia. He said he now recognizes he must not let his platform as a prominent driver go to waste.
NBA star LeBron James tweeted his support to Wallace, calling the noose "sickening!"
"Know you don't stand alone! I'm right here with you as well as every other athlete," James wrote. "I just want to continue to say how proud I am of you for continuing to take a stand for change here in America and sports!"
Talladega is usually one of the more raucous stops on the NASCAR schedule, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted racing, like all sports, to shut down for months and then to bar or sharply limit fans. The scene this weekend was a dramatic departure from the NASCAR norm, with plenty of room for social distancing and fans asked to wear masks.
Directly across from the track, though, Ed Sugg's merchandise tent was flying Confederate flags prominently in a display alongside Trump 2020 banners and an American flag.
"They're doing very well," said the Helena resident, who has been selling an array of wares at NASCAR races for 21 years. "People are disappointed that NASCAR has taken that stance. It's been around for as long as all of us have been. I don't think anybody really connects it to any kind of racism or anything. It's just a Southern thing. It's transparent. It's just a heritage thing."