Crossing the finish line backward at Talladega is cool. Living that way is not.
NASCAR has cleared its throat and delivered that message, but it needs to be yelled.
Ryan Blaney crossed .007 seconds ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to win Monday’s delayed race, while Aric Almirola slid backward into third. There were two big crashes on the final lap.
I suppose it’s unfortunate the series happened to make a beeline for the Deep South as soon as NASCAR made the long-overdue decision to stop placating a vocal, knuckle-dragging section of its fan base. What did we get?
A plane towing a banner with the Confederate flag and the message “defund NASCAR.” (It brings me a small bit of joy that the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who claimed responsibility, shelled out for that stunt on a day not a single lap was turned.) Vehicles lining the boulevard outside the superspeedway obstinately waving said flag.
And most horrifically, a noose inside Bubba Wallace’s garage stall discovered Sunday. He’s the only Black driver in the series and recently led the call to ban the Confederate flag from NASCAR events. What the true and actual hell?
This is what Wallace gets for speaking up and using his platform for good? And barring some sort of catastrophic security meltdown, this was someone close to the action. Access to that area is restricted to race teams, NASCAR officials, security and health and safety personnel, per CNN. A big concern secondary to someone thinking it’s even remotely OK to put a noose in a Black man’s locker in the year 2020.
The FBI is reportedly involved. People will be watching the response closely.
What did we get on the positive side? The memorable visual of the drivers and crews walking behind the 43 car to the head of the grid for the national anthem, then surrounding and embracing Wallace. Jimmie Johnson said the drivers hatched the idea.
Wallace’s team owner Richard Petty, 82, who had been staying home along with most owners during the coronavirus, was there to show solidarity and perhaps take a bit of the edge off. “I stand with Bubba” was written in the tri-oval grass.
“The sport is changing,” Wallace said later.
From swiftly firing Kyle Larson for public use of a racial slur to removing guidelines that require standing for the national anthem, NASCAR finally made moves toward greater inclusivity the last few weeks. The sport has been celebrated for doing the bare minimum too late. But better than never.
So far NASCAR hasn’t had to back up much with consequences. Alienating part of a dwindling fan base is a price it must pay. No stunts, no half-measures, no waiting around. Root out and actively discourage these behaviors and, where possible, plant the seeds to change minds. Use that reach and look forward.
Decades of pandering to and acting as a last bastion/safe haven for the “heritage, not hate” set won’t be undone in a week. NASCAR needs a plan, and a good one. Now’s the time to set the tone, however, in the middle of worldwide focus, scrutiny and outrage that hit home publicly Sunday.
Wallace raced in the top five late but said he ran out of gas and finished 14th. He greeted fans without a mask (um ...) after the race with the explanation of sticking it to the offender: “You’re not going to take away my smile and I’m going to keep on going.”