Never before, in the history of professional auto racing, has there ever been such a dramatic show of support for one driver, as seen Monday at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama.
Just 24 hours after finding a noose hanging in his garage stall at the track, the entire NASCAR field joined Bubba Wallace in pushing his No. 43 car to the front of the grid, moments before the race — an unprecedented show of love and strength, ESPN reported.
When the group reached the front line, Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only black full-time driver, climbed out of his car and wept, as a horde of fans, many of whom were wearing “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, looked on and cheered.
If not for a shortage of fuel, Wallace might have had a chance to race for the win. A late stop for gas led to a 14th-place finish, but Monday still felt like a win for Wallace. He went to the fence and, through the wiring, slapped hands with a group of fans as they cheered, ESPN reported.
He apologized for not wearing a mandatory mask but said he didn’t put it on because “I wanted to show whoever it was: You are not going to take away my smile.”
“This sport is changing,” he said. “The prerace deal was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to witness in my life. From all the supporters, from drivers to crew members, everybody here, the badass fan base, thank you guys for coming out. This is truly incredible, and I’m glad to be a part of this sport.”
Ryan Blaney, who won Monday’s race in a photo finish, said Wallace has been one of his best friends for 15 years, and he called the prerace show of support a special moment, ESPN reported.
“And it showed how you’re not gonna scare [Wallace]. You’re not gonna scare him,” Blaney told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “He’s really strong. He’s gonna rise above it and fight this.
“So we just wanted to show our support. I wanted to show my support for my best friend. He’s just been someone I’ve really, really loved for a long time, and I’m gonna support him 100 percent along the way for many years to come. I hope a lot of people will look at that and learn from everyone coming together and supporting each other. That’s what it’s gonna take to make things better.”
The idea for the gesture came up Monday. Jimmie Johnson said in a drivers chat that he would stand with Wallace during the national anthem. Then Kevin Harvick shared the idea that the drivers should push Wallace’s car to the front, ESPN reported.
“I’m happy to play a role in it. I want to. I know I need to,” Johnson said after his 13th-place finish. “And I feel like to see the garage area stand up as they have as well in the last few weeks, and then again today, is sending a very strong message, and I’m very proud of our sport.”
Standing alongside Wallace for the national anthem was Richard Petty, the 82-year-old Hall of Fame driver known as “The King.”
Wallace drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for Petty, who issued a scathing rebuke after the noose was found, calling for the “sick person” to be expelled from NASCAR forever, a move that NASCAR president Steve Phelps insisted will happen when the person is caught.
Sources told ESPN’s Marty Smith that Petty decided to travel to Talladega after the noose was found and that he said the “most important thing for me right now is hugging my driver.”
Two weeks ago, Wallace successfully pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its venues, though the sanctioning body has not outlined how it will enforce the restriction.
Disgruntled fans with Confederate flags drove past the main entrance to the Alabama race track prior to Sunday’s race, and a plane flew above the track pulling a banner of the flag that read “Defund NASCAR.”
Hours after the race was postponed by rain, NASCAR said the noose had been found. The sanctioning body vowed to do everything possible to find who was responsible and “eliminate them from the sport.”
Talladega County Sheriff Jimmy Kilgore said NASCAR contacted the FBI, which is handling the investigation, ESPN reported.
After Monday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, Aric Almirola, who finished third, said he was speechless when he found out that a noose had been found in Wallace’s garage stall.
“So you see people lash out and show signs of evil and darkness, and it just comes from a bad place,” Almirola said.
Lewis Hamilton, Formula One’s only black driver and its reigning champion, also offered his support via Instagram.
“It’s disgusting that this is happening, stay safe and alert out there bro,” Hamilton wrote. “Supporting you from afar, proud of you.”
(UPDATE: NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace and race officials are relieved by the FBI’s determination that no crime was committed in the hanging of a noose in his race track garage. The FBI said it had determined that the noose found in Wallace’s garage at the Talladega Speedway was a pull rope that had been placed there in October. Fifteen FBI special agents conducted numerous interviews and after a thorough review of the facts and evidence “concluded that no federal crime was committed.”)