Bubba Wallace’s important message — and NASCAR’s support — still matter

Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter now. Don’t let anyone tell you that Bubba Wallace’s cause, his plight, his courage and his resiliency somehow count for less.

Don’t let anyone tell you that all those lump-in-the-throat moments that were produced by NASCAR’s Geico 500 race at Talladega on Monday aren’t worth as much as we thought, because they are.

Tuesday afternoon brought a stunning twist to the turbulent saga that engulfed stock car racing last weekend and sent it on a wild ride since. Two days after a garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose was found in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the Cup Series’ only Black full-time driver, the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that the item had been there since some time last year and that it was purely incidental that Wallace had been assigned that stall.

No one had planted it there, like it appeared, with the intent to either make Wallace fear for his life or as a sick stroke of revenge for his resolute and impressive public calls to make NASCAR more inclusive.

The truth matters, which is why a Wallace team member alerting NASCAR and NASCAR bringing in the FBI was the correct thing to do. NASCAR President Steve Phelps said that no other garage at Talladega had its pull rope fashioned like a noose, and that given the evidence, NASCAR would have handled the incident the same way: “To be clear, we would do this again,” he said. “Of the evidence that we had, it was clear that we needed to look into this.”

It is right and just and something to be thankful for that the bottom of the matter was found and we now know more about what happened.

However, the reaction from the NASCAR community still matters, too, even though it was in response to something that didn’t actually take place.

When they believed one of their own had been wronged, NASCAR’s drivers and teams went to work in ways that warmed the soul and tested the tear ducts. Different things set off the emotions of different people. For some, the raw brotherhood and humanity that saw Wallace, fuel-empty in the most important race of his life, being pushed to the pits by rival Corey LaJoie was enough to bring out the goosebumps.

Or the sight of Richard Petty, 82 years young, breaking his own self-imposed quarantine to show out in support of Wallace, his driver.

Or, in one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of a sport that thrives on dizzying speed, the slow, somber, utterly united pre-race march down pit lane, as Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet was pushed and escorted by all of his competitors and their crews.

Most likely, all of those things stirred the emotions, even for those with little interest in professional stock car racing. Bubba Wallace wasn’t crying, you were crying.

Actually, Wallace was moved to tears, both by the backing of his competitors and in the moments after a contest where he led toward the latter stages before coming unstuck due to fuel issues.

“It was the we’ve-got-your-back moment,” FOX Sports’ NASCAR Insider Bob Pockrass told me via text message. Pockrass was referring to the march before the start, but it could just as easily apply to the whole response to what was then believed to be a sickening act.

Sadly, there were many cynics who reacted with glee to the FBI announcement, presumably the same types who tried to put forward a hoax theory about the noose, with the implication that Wallace planted it there himself.

Yet while the haters couldn’t make Wallace lose his smile, the detractors couldn’t take the shine off NASCAR’s vital moment, either.

“When you think about the images that took place, we have got to remind everybody that those images were real,” former driver and FOX Sports NASCAR analyst Regan Smith said on Race Hub. “That doesn’t change one bit what we saw in that front stretch. That is what this sport is.”

Whether Wallace was indeed the target of a direct hate crime or not isn’t the issue here. The fact remains that in his time of need, at a time when he had every reason to believe he had been on the receiving end of racist terrorism, Wallace had a multitude of hands on his shoulder.

“I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR,” Wallace’s friend and race winner Ryan Blaney said afterwards. “I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together and showed that we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Wallace has spoken out recently, as he absolutely has the right to. Those who don’t want athletes to be activists still don’t get it, but they are fighting a losing battle.

Many of the top athletes in this generation, from LeBron James to Patrick Mahomes, are starting to mirror the great athletes of the past, like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Tommie Smith, who chose not to “stick to sports.” These athletes believe sports is a part of American life as a whole, which in turn is intertwined with these larger social issues. And when they see a need to lift their voices, as Wallace and his sport did, they are no longer hesitating.

Even as the drivers stood by Wallace on Monday, there were still Confederate flags flown defiantly outside Talladega, and a banner streamed from a plane overhead. Inside the speedway, the Associated Press interviewed a fan who thought the noose incident was “funny.”

Humor takes many forms, but when a prank manifests into terrorism — for that was the information at the time — there is no room for laughter.

Wallace has been a spokesman for change. Heck, he’s been a statesman for it, with measured tones, an understanding of history, and arguments that ask for decency, propriety and equality, nothing more.

He has put forward the simple truth that Black lives do indeed matter and are worth campaigning for, and that the use of a flag representing slavery and oppression should not be welcomed in a sport that seeks inclusion.

He has stood as a man in a unique position, and rallied others behind him in a way that shows his views are heard and felt and that he should not feel alone.

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He has prompted NASCAR and those who live within its reaches to actively turn their back on a difficult and uncomfortable history, and seek new beginnings.

“I knew I should have won that damn race,” Wallace smiled after Monday’s race.

Truth is, he did. Don’t let anyone tell you different.