NASCAR: Does Bubba Wallace deserve all the hate?

Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Bubba Wallace has garnered more hate and criticism than any other NASCAR driver in the last year. But how much of that should really fall on his shoulders?

One year ago today, hours after rain had caused the NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway to be postponed from Sunday, June 21 to Monday, June 22, NASCAR released the following statement.

“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.

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“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.”

The Richard Petty Motorsports-owned #43 team, of course, was that of Bubba Wallace.

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Wallace, the lone African-American driver currently competing full-time at the highest level of stock car racing, had already been in the spotlight in recent weeks at the time amid rising racial tensions in the United States over his stance on the Confederate Flag and the Black Lives Matter car he ran at Martinsville Speedway.

And naturally, over the next few days, anything and everything that had to do with the “noose” was brought up in questions to Wallace and to his competitors, with Wallace even discussing the alleged “hate crime” on multiple talk shows.

Many fans, like NASCAR, called for whoever targeted Wallace to be banned from the sport. Others were more skeptical.

But those who were skeptical and unwilling to submit to the “heinous act” rhetoric were criticized. Wallace himself even called those who dared pose an alternative narrative “simple-minded” on one of his guest talk show appearances, referring to the situation as a “despicable act of racism and hatred”.

Lo and behold, there was no hate crime committed, and all the people who had been deemed racist miscreants for merely suggesting that this could have possibly been true were proven correct.

A few days later, the “noose” was deemed by the FBI to be a “garage pull rope fashioned like a noose” that had been there since at least the previous race at Talladega Superspeedway the previous October, when the #21 Wood Brothers Racing team of Paul Menard used the stall.

Stalls were assigned based on points, so nobody could have known that it would be the #43 team assigned to the stall in June.

And as a result of the fact that no hate crime was committed, that led to Wallace becoming the number one most hated driver in the sport — not even a year after he was a hero for intentionally wrecking Kyle Busch at Watkins Glen International.

Some compared him to Jussie Smollett, and social media went wild with crazy memes and jokes that are still passed around to this day.

Wallace had this to say.

Wallace added the following in an interview.

"“Let’s get it straight. I don’t need all the fame and all the media hype to create my brand and create my image. People that know me, know I’m 100 percent raw and real and I just go out and give my all on the racetrack.”“[I was like], thank God. Awesome, great news. But as soon as they announced it, I went from Bubba Wallace, the somewhat favorite driver, to the worst-hated driver in the sport. And from there it was Jussie Smollett, a fake news hoax, all that stuff. That I planted it, [that] I was in the garage and I did it.”"

So how much of that should have really fallen onto Wallace’s shoulders?

How much of this criticism does he actually deserve — especially a full year later, week in and week out?

Of course, we could always bring up the debate about the Confederate Flag and how Wallace took the lead in having that banned or the Black Lives Matter car that was allowed to run at Martinsville Speedway. I cannot stress enough that I understand the frustration with both.

But at the end of the day, those are purely political issues. Everyone is going to have an opinion on those things, and if we dwell too much on either one of those two debates, absolutely nothing is going to get solved.

If you choose to love or hate a NASCAR driver, Wallace or any other driver, based on your stance on those political issues, more power to you.

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However, the “noose” incident is where there is simply what’s factual, and what’s not factual.

And much of that didn’t actually have to do with Wallace.

I get the frustration of an already stereotyped fanbase being chided as a bunch of racist rednecks one too many times, especially during the tumultuous times of 2020. The anger of effectively being lied to about a racist hate crime was justifiable.

But again, the question has to do with Wallace. How much of this criticism does he actually deserve?

There were several steps of this whole sequence that were widely covered by mainstream news outlets.

Others were conveniently less touched upon.

And therein lies the disconnect between Wallace getting the hate he continues to get, and the reality of what happened.

First of all, Wallace never actually saw the rope. That’s something that many fans still don’t understand.

He was told about it and shown a picture of it by NASCAR president Steve Phelps, who told him that a hate crime had been committed. That immediately led Wallace to think about his family.

Due to restrictions at the time, Wallace would not have even been allowed in the area where it was spotted, and again, it was there since at least the previous October. There is photographic proof of that.

So it wasn’t “planted” as a hate hoax, either.

And fans would not have been allowed into that area either.

But again, had you pointed out that blatantly obvious fact before the truth came out following an FBI investigation, you were labeled a racist redneck who didn’t belong in the sport — because obviously somebody had committed a hate crime and it needed to be blown up and portrayed as such for as long as it possibly could be.

Many fans sought an apology after the truth was revealed. No, there was never a direct “I’m sorry” or “we’re sorry” type of apology that came from anybody involved, but there were many things that were admitted that flew under the radar regarding how the situation could have been handled differently.

Phelps admitted that he regretted not using the word “alleged” in NASCAR’s initial false statement implying that Wallace had been attacked over his skin color.

"“Upon learning of and seeing the noose, our initial reaction was to protect our driver. We’re living in a highly charged and emotional time. What we saw was a symbol of hate and was only present in one area of the garage, that of the 43 car of Bubba Wallace. In hindsight, we should have, I should have used the word “alleged” in our statement.”"

So NASCAR did walk that back.

And Wallace, who definitely made a mistake as well in calling fans “simple-minded” for questioning the “official” narrative of a “despicable act of racism and hatred”, even admitted that he understood he wasn’t the target.

"“It was a noose. It was a noose, that was, whether tied in 2019 or whatever, it was a noose. So it wasn’t directed at me, but somebody tied a noose, that’s what I am saying. It was — it is — a noose.”"

So while his opinion of the picture he was shown didn’t change, Wallace walked back the attack theory as well.

He even added that it “kind of looks bad” to have received the support he received when everybody was told a “hate crime” committed, only to have that turn out to be NASCAR’s unintentional knee-jerk rendition of Aesop’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

"“I feel like there’s a ton of support. We’ve seen everyone come together on Monday there, That was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever been able to be a part of. Not saying that I wanted that, but the drivers wanted that. They wanted to show support of me. Now it kind of looks bad. But it doesn’t because within their hearts, they know that it is something that they want to stand up for.”"

So it’s not like he’s out here utilizing some sort of a victim mentality.

Just like 99% of NASCAR media, he was simply reacting to what he had been told was a fact. He was told that a hate crime was committed — and unlike anybody else, he had been told that he was the subject of that “fact”, one which implied he was being targeted.

But he learned the truth — the real fact —  and accepted it, as anybody would have upon learning that you weren’t actually the target of a racially motivated attack.

And pretty much everything he has said since then backs up that mentality. Detailing his racing career ahead of the 2021 season, he refused to say that he had it tougher growing up simply because of his skin color.

"“I was just another driver there. You know, everybody was super competitive and I didn’t necessarily feel the race card in those scenarios. And I never really have. Obviously it’s been brought out more and more in the recent months, in the last year, but it wasn’t like Wendell Scott had it back in the day, I’ll say that. I was treated fairly for the most part. When they couldn’t find out why we were so successful, then that’s when they would protest and do everything they could to stop us, but we just show back up the next week and compete and win. That was it.”"

He has had other personal experiences dealing with controversies which were not of his own doing, so that has helped.

"“Go be a part of something where you’re the minority for 18 years and you learn how to handle it. So it’s just another day in the life of Bubba Wallace here, it’s all right. I’m good with it. It’s as simple as that.”"

And he reiterated that he’s not in it for the fame.

"“It’s funny. I have a goal every year, to not be a part of the headlines. Every year I have that goal and I failed every year because there’s something that’s like, ‘Hey, I wanna, you know, not make any controversy.’ So something always happens whether it’s my doing or not, but it seems like it’s always my doing so. … It’s tiring. Seems like whatever I do, whenever I rage-quit an iRacing event, I’m the most hated person, so it’s just like, ‘Hey, let’s just stay low key here this year.’ Nope, didn’t happen. The more controversy I cause, the more media calls I have to do.”"

And finally, nobody stressed more than he did over what happened last year — something which would have been pretty challenging to do if it was all just a publicity stunt destined to fail immediately after FBI agents arrived on the scene.

"“I’ve lost seven pounds from everything that happened last year, so much stress and pressure. And now I think everything happens for a reason. … It’d be interesting to see, when it’s your time to go at the end of your lifetime, it’d be interesting to see if you could get a piece of paper handed to you saying that here’s everything that happened and why it happened and what came out of that. We’ll never know, that’s why we just live life. Every day is a new day, a new opportunity to go out and capitalize on. So that’s how I’m looking at it.”"

And if he were really in it to cause controversy and add to the racial tension, why would congratulate the driver who was not only fired for saying the n-word but left him a crying voicemail after doing so after that driver secured his first win since his return?

I understand the disdain for comments such as “simple-minded”, “heinous act”, “despicable act of racism and hatred”, among others — especially among the thousands of NASCAR fans who are constantly subjected to ridiculous stereotypes which don’t apply to them.

But look at the entire sequence of events, not just the mainstream headlines meant to spur knee-jerk reactions on social media. Their purpose is to stir up trouble, to get fans talking.

Wallace orchestrated absolutely nothing and deserves at least some credit for admitting that his initial understanding of the matter at hand was accurate. And keep in mind, he made that admission even though he had no control over the information he was given.

He was clearly not to blame for the whole ordeal, but at the same time, even NASCAR deserves more credit than they have gotten for being more forthcoming and admitting how they could have handled the situation better after spreading a false narrative based on what they thought was implied.

Sure, at the end of the day, if someone needs to be blamed, it’s them for making the initial statement they made. But again, they admitted that; it just wasn’t blasted all over the place 24/7 like that initial statement.

Unfortunately, those parts of the story just didn’t fit the narrative of those who so desperately wanted to be right from the start. And the only reason I say that is because even as the evidence emerged, you still unfortunately had several otherwise trustworthy sources trying to push the initial story as “factual”.

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Had that not been the case, even Wallace’s most passionate haters may understand by now that he was not to blame for any of the mess that happened that week. And that, unlike the story presented by NASCAR at the start, is a fact.