FBI determines Wallace not victim of hate crime

The FBI has determined that NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace was not the victim of a hate crime and that a pull rope fashioned like a noose had been on a garage door at Talladega Superspeedway since as early as October, NASCAR said Tuesday.

“The FBI report concludes, and photographic evidence confirms, that the garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose had been positioned there since as early as last fall,” NASCAR said in its statement. “This was obviously well before the 43 team’s arrival and garage assignment.

“We appreciate the FBI’s quick and thorough investigation and are thankful to learn that this was not an intentional, racist act against Bubba. We remain steadfast in our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all who love racing.”

Wallace, NASCAR’s only full-time Black driver, successfully pushed the stock car series to ban the Confederate flag at its venues less than two weeks ago.

U.S. Attorney Jay Town and FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. said their investigation determined that “although the noose is now known to have been in garage number 4 in 2019, nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned to garage number 4 last week.”

The agencies said no crime was committed and the evidence did not support federal charges.

“For us in NASCAR, this is the best result we could hope for,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said during a teleconference Tuesday. “This is … disturbing to hear that it was thought that one of our own had committed this heinous act. It is fantastic to hear from the FBI, definitively, that there was not a hate crime.”

Phelps said NASCAR would continue its investigation as to why a rope was fashioned into a noose, regardless of when it was done.

“I do want to make sure everyone understands that, if given the evidence that we had was delivered to us on late Saturday afternoon, we would do the same thing,” Phelps said. “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.”

A crew member for Richard Petty Motorsports discovered the noose Sunday at the Alabama racetrack. NASCAR was alerted and contacted the FBI, which sent 15 agents to the track to investigate.

“I want to be clear about the 43 team: The 43 team had nothing to do with this,” Phelps said. “The evidence is very clear that the noose that was in that garage had been in the garage previously. The last race we had there in October, that noose was present.”

The Wood Brothers Racing team said one of its employees informed the team he recalled “seeing a tied handle in the garage pull down rope from last fall,” when NASCAR raced at Talladega in October. The team said it immediately alerted NASCAR and assisted the investigation.

The discovery of the noose stunned the stock car series as it is taking an active position in a push for inclusion while distancing itself from its rocky racial history. The series first tried to ban the Confederate flag five years ago but did nothing to enforce the order.

Two weeks ago, Wallace renewed the call for a ban and NASCAR answered but has yet to detail how it will stop the display. There has been criticism of the ban by some longtime fans, and security had been stepped up for Wallace, a 26-year-old Alabama native who has worn in the past month a shirt over his firesuit that reads “I Can’t Breathe.” His car had a Black Lives Matter paint scheme for a race in Virginia.

Talladega marked the first race since the coronavirus pandemic that fans were permitted — 5,000 were allowed to purchase tickets — and some who were upset with the flag ban paraded past the main entrance with the Southern symbol. A banner flew over the speedway Sunday of a Confederate flag that read “Defund NASCAR.”

On Monday, Wallace was joined by all 39 other drivers and their crews in a march down pit road as they pushed his No. 43 to the front of the line in the moments before the race. When the group reached the front line Monday, Wallace climbed out of his car and wept.

“This sport is changing,” Wallace said after the race. “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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.