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FBI investigating noose left in stall of Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace

Fans at Talladega Superspeedway cheer for Bubba Wallace after the GEICO 500.
Fans at Talladega Superspeedway cheer for Bubba Wallace after the GEICO 500.Chris Graythen/Getty

NASCAR president Steve Phelps said Monday afternoon that the sport will permanently ban the person or people who hung the noose found in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on Sunday.

"Unequivocally, they will be banned from the sport for life," Phelps said in a teleconference with reporters. "There is no room for this at all. We won't tolerate it. They won't be here."

Phelps underscored NASCAR’s conviction that “there is no place for racism” in the sport and said the “heinous act” only strengthened its resolve to make stock-car racing welcome and open to all, then fielded questions.

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Noting that the FBI is on the scene and investigating, Phelps declined to disclose how many surveillance cameras, if any, are in the Talladega garage and what, if any, footage they might have captured. Similarly, he declined to reveal the number of people who had access to the infield garage in general or the area of Wallace’s stall, saying such details were part of the FBI’s investigative process.

The noose was discovered Sunday afternoon by a member of the No. 43 race team, who reported it to NASCAR. Phelps said that 7:30 a.m. Monday, NASCAR notified the FBI and that its investigators were on site.

"We don't have a lot of answers at this moment," Phelps said. "It is a very, very serious act, and we take it as such."

Wallace, the only full-time Black driver in the stock-car circuit’s elite Cup Series, called it a “despicable act of racism and hatred [that] leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society.”

NASCAR said in a statement that the noose was discovered in the late afternoon, on a day when its Cup Series race in Alabama was the first to have any fans in attendance since the organization banned all displays of the Confederate flag after Wallace pushed for such a move. Thunderstorms forced postponement of the race until 3 p.m. Monday, with the noose incident now overshadowing the race.

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Just before the race, Wallace sat in his Chevrolet Camaro as other drivers pushed it along pit row to the start of the field for the national anthem, with many more drivers and team members walking behind. The show of support, including the hashtag #IStandWithBubba painted on the grass nearby, left Wallace in an emotional state as he received hugs and well wishes.

Bubba Wallace reacts by his car after NASCAR drivers pushed him to the front of the grid as a sign of solidarity prior to Monday's race.
Bubba Wallace reacts by his car after NASCAR drivers pushed him to the front of the grid as a sign of solidarity prior to Monday's race.Chris Graythen/Getty

"As everybody knows, this is such a big family in the garage area, and the news really has disturbed us all," seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson said after the display of support for Wallace. "Of course, we want justice, in a sense, we want to know why, and all those things. But until those answers are answered, we want to stand with our friend. We want to stand with Bubba."

Richard Petty, the NASCAR legend who runs the company for which Wallace drives, was in Talladega on Monday to show support for Wallace. Petty, 82, has attended no races during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We are angry and outraged and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act,‘‘ NASCAR said. “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.”

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Jay E. Town, US attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said in a statement Monday that his office, the FBI, and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division “are reviewing the situation surrounding the noose that was found in Bubba Wallace’s garage to determine whether there are violations of federal law. Regardless of whether federal charges can be brought, this type of action has no place in our society.”

ESPN reported that Wallace never saw the noose and that it was immediately reported to NASCAR officials after it was discovered by a member of Wallace’s team. The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke, who has extensively covered NASCAR, noted how closely the organization restricts access even when there isn’t a pandemic. It “controls entry into its garages,” she wrote. “Not just anyone can get into a garage stall, particular given tightly controlled access amid pandemic.” The speedway had not commented on the incident as of Monday morning, and it is not clear whether there are security cameras in the area.

Only 5,000 fans were admitted Sunday to Talladega Superspeedway as NASCAR took another step toward returning to action in the wake of the pandemic. After shutting down in March, as did almost all major sports leagues worldwide, NASCAR began to stage races again in May, shortly before footage emerged of George Floyd's death while in Minneapolis police custody.

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That event sparked widespread demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, and Wallace drove a car emblazoned with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in a race this month.

Bubba Wallace speaks to the media after Monday's race.
Bubba Wallace speaks to the media after Monday's race.Chris Graythen/Getty

“My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags,” Wallace said at the time. “There should be no individual that is uncomfortable showing up to our events to have a good time with their family that feels some type of way about something they have seen, an object they have seen flying. No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. So it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them.”

NASCAR responded quickly by broadening its ban on displays of the Confederate flag, which already extended to its teams and company personnel, to fans at its events and properties.

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors, and our industry,” NASCAR said June 10 in a statement. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special.”

Before Sunday’s race, an airplane flew over Talladega pulling a large Confederate flag and a banner that read, “Defund NASCAR.” There also was a rolling protest just outside the grounds of the raceway, with vehicles parading Confederate flags.

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While sharing NASCAR’s statement about the discovery of the noose, Cup Series driver Michael McDowell tweeted Sunday: “God help us. The level of evil it takes to do something like this is disgusting. This is enraging and heartbreaking all at the same time.”