Bubba Wallace, NASCAR and investigating a hate crime: What we know and don’t know after the FBI’s findings

It’s difficult to recall a more emotional, more confusing and yet inspiring few days during NASCAR’s 72-year history than what unfolded from 10:45 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 21, through 6:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, June 23.

The roller coaster began when NASCAR released a statement Sunday night that a noose had been found in the Talladega Superspeedway garage stall belonging to the circuit’s only Black full-time driver, Bubba Wallace. It ended Tuesday with the FBI stating it would not pursue federal charges after its investigation at Talladega. In between, there was outrage and an unprecedented show of support for Wallace, perhaps more than for any driver since Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500.

Late Tuesday, there was relief among people in the NASCAR garage, some embarrassment among those same people, and gleeful celebrations on social media from those who claimed it was a hoax from the beginning.

If you’ve lost sight of the facts of the incident, we review what happened and try to answer the questions that many are asking.

Was there a noose found in Bubba Wallace’s garage at Talladega?

Yes. NASCAR officials and FBI investigators have not disputed that. Rope pulldowns are installed on the roller doors in every bay of the Talladega Superspeedway garage. According to NASCAR, every one of those pulldowns was checked as part of the FBI investigation, and the only one of those fashioned into a noose was the rope in garage No. 4, which was assigned to the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevy this past weekend.

FBI special agent Johnnie Sharp Jr. led a team of 15 FBI investigators as they inspected the garage and interviewed multiple people around Talladega Superspeedway, including Wallace. In his official statement, written with U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, Sharp used the word “noose” four times and never disputed that it was a noose — saying only that the timing of its hanging in garage No. 4, at least as early as October 2019, meant it was not directed at Wallace and thus was not a federal crime.

Was Wallace’s team purposely assigned to the garage No. 4 stall so he would be exposed to the noose?

No. Garage workspaces are assigned to teams per their rank in the NASCAR Cup Series standings. Furthermore, because of COVID-19 pandemic-related social distancing policies, team garage assignments have been even more spread out than normal, making the idea of slotting a certain team in a certain garage seem even less plausible. The FBI stated that “nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned to garage number 4 last week,” and that, as a result, no federal crime had been committed.

Did Wallace ever see the noose?

play

1:39

Bubba Wallace maintains the image that he saw from Talladega was not a garage pull and is insistent it was a noose.

Not until NASCAR brought it to his attention Sunday night. Again, because of pandemic team roster restrictions and the nature of a one-day race schedule, a very limited number of people were allowed into the garage area at all. One member of the No. 43 team found the noose, reported it to NASCAR security, and then took it to NASCAR president Steve Phelps and his executive team. This was widely reported Sunday night and Monday, despite what “Bubba Was In On It” conspiracy theorists might tell you.

With the FBI closing its investigation, why is NASCAR continuing its own inquiry?

The purpose is to identify the person who tied the rope into a noose and why they did it — whether it be a NASCAR crew member, track worker or someone else with access to the garage before or during the October 2019 race weekend. As one NASCAR official told ESPN.com on Tuesday night: “There a lot of ways to tie a rope. This was unquestionably a noose. So, why?” Also, now that it has been proved that the noose was there during a race weekend in October, why was it not noticed until now, eight months later?

Why won’t NASCAR just show the photo of the noose?

Officials say they won’t do that because their internal investigation is ongoing. All evidence submitted as part of the FBI investigation is back in NASCAR’s hands, including the photo and video evidence used to reveal that the noose was visible in the same garage, hanging from the door pulldown, during the October 2019 race weekend. While the official images and the noose itself remain withheld from the public eye so far, other images of the noose have surfaced from outside sources.

Why didn’t NASCAR simply wait for both investigations to be finished before going public?

It certainly could have. As of Sunday evening, only the one crew member and NASCAR personnel had seen the noose. Wallace didn’t even know about it until Phelps came to his motor home Sunday evening to tell him what was happening, a conversation during which Wallace says the NASCAR president was in tears. This was at the end of an emotionally charged day that had seen just-banned Confederate flags flown over the speedway behind an airplane and around the racetrack grounds by a convoy of pickup trucks.

When the noose was brought to NASCAR’s attention, the decision was made to release a very bold public statement. (“We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act.”) NASCAR issued its statement in no small part to speak to those who had protested the flag ban throughout the day. Although NASCAR had anticipated pushback to its flag ban, the noose discovery was a last straw on a very frustrating day.

Are NASCAR officials embarrassed by the FBI’s report?

play

1:42

NASCAR president Steve Phelps says the FBI’s finding that Bubba Wallace was not the victim of a hate crime was the best news the promotion could have hoped for.

Yes and no, with a much higher percentage toward no. They aren’t happy about the optics of it all, and they certainly haven’t enjoyed those conspiracy theorists believing they scored a win. But they also don’t regret acting as swiftly and as publicly as they did. NASCAR president Phelps said Tuesday: “I do want to make sure everyone understands that, if given the evidence that we had delivered to us late [Sunday] afternoon, we would do the same thing — we would have done the same investigation. It was important for us to do. There is no place in our sport for this type of racism or hatred. It’s not part of who we are as a sport.”

What is the mood among the drivers, who so dramatically supported Wallace during the Talladega prerace ceremonies?

The incredible scene on pit road Monday at Talladega was orchestrated entirely by the drivers without NASCAR’s input, beginning with an angry group-text chain as they read NASCAR’s statement Sunday night. On Tuesday evening, multiple drivers we texted with said that although they were frustrated their efforts were now tagged with an asterisk, they, too, wouldn’t have changed what they did. Wallace addressed their support during an interview with CNN after Tuesday’s announcement by the FBI: “We’ve seen everybody come together on Monday there; that was one of the coolest things that I have ever been able to be a part of. Not saying that I wanted that, but drivers wanted to do that; they wanted to show support of me. And 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.”

What has Wallace said in response to the FBI report?

Wallace spoke to CNN on Tuesday night while social media platforms were fueled with multiple Wallace-related trending topics, none of them nice. During the interview, he reiterated that what was found in garage 4 at Talladega wasn’t merely a garage door pull: “From the evidence that we have and I have, it’s a straight-up noose. … It was a noose that was, whether tied in 2019 or whenever, it was a noose. It wasn’t directed at me, but somebody tied it.” When asked about the social media chatter, he said, “I’m pissed. I’m mad because people are trying to test my character. They are trying to test my integrity. They are not going to steal that away from me, but they’re trying to test that.”