NASCAR’s future is dependent on surviving it’s current turn as a political piñata — with opportunists whacking from all sides — after a rope, fashioned as a noose, sparked an investigation into a potential hate crime only to discover a misunderstanding.
It’s enough for old fans and potential new ones to look on with suspicion, confusion and exhaustion.
The racing circuit, which has been hemorrhaging television ratings and ticket sales for years, requires both groups to move forward if it’s going to remain a major enterprise. It could wind up with neither, or at least far fewer fans than it needs.
NASCAR’s intentions were honorable when the rope, tied in a noose, was discovered in the Talladega garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the sport’s lone African American driver.
A sport that for too long ignored or downplayed such a thing sprang into action. A member of Wallace’s team noticed it and alerted NASCAR. The racing league launched an investigation, including later calling in the FBI. NASCAR president Steve Phelps met with Wallace, who — due to coronavirus protocol — was never allowed in the garage and never saw the rope.
“The look [Phelps] had on his face alerted me in a way I’ll never forget,” Wallace told CNN. “... Probably one of the hardest things, if not the hardest thing, that he’s ever had to tell somebody. Tears running down his face. Choked up on every word that he was trying to say. The evidence he brought me that a hate crime was committed, quote-unquote.”
The entire NASCAR community — rattled that one of its own might be responsible because garage access was so limited — rallied around Wallace, including an emotional pre-race scene Monday.
Yet the rope didn’t turn out to be directed at Wallace. It was there at least a year prior. The FBI basically concluded that it was a misunderstanding or an overreaction.
And now here we are.
Phelps declared this the “best result.” That’s true — it’s great that there isn’t a racist on some crew trying to humiliate and intimidate the sport’s only Black driver. In the end, no one was really harmed. It’s not like a specific person was accused.
Yet that isn’t how it’s playing out everywhere.
Wallace is being inaccurately accused of perpetrating a “hoax” — even though he never was in the garage to see the rope and had nothing to do with any of this.
“I hate that I’m kind of on the bad end of the deal … just because I was simply given information related to me, and we went with it,” Wallace said on ESPN.
Most who are screaming along these lines or claiming Wallace is a perpetrator were unlikely to ever support Wallace in the first place. They are showing themselves. Providing fuel to that fire aids no one though, certainly not NASCAR, which desperately wants to navigate these uncertain times.
There is a lot of money, fame and power in dividing people, and so it’s not a surprise that those who traffic in it have pounced on this issue. Suddenly they care about NASCAR.
Meanwhile, those who support Wallace see a guy hung out to dry by a NASCAR reaction that blew up in its own face. Shouldn’t Phelps be on CNN screaming that his driver is innocent, rather than leaving Bubba stuck defending himself for something he not only didn’t do, but couldn’t have?
Conspiracy theories may be idiotic, but they are also very powerful.
NASCAR was in a tough spot at the time. What was the alternative? Run its own investigation and not tell anyone? That could look like a cover-up. Besides, Wallace had the right to know that this was out there — especially because of tight security, the rope would have had to come from someone inside the circuit’s bubble.
Instead NASCAR went with transparency and let it all play out in real time, with an actual race to add wattage to the spotlight.
These were already trying enough days for the sport.
It hasn’t even been able to really test out the Confederate flag ban that Wallace himself requested. That was controversial enough among a segment of established fans. Sunday’s weather-delayed race in Talladega saw a parade of trucks haul the flag on the streets outside the track and a plane tug it overhead with the words “Defund NASCAR.”
Momentum is on the side of eliminating the flag from race weekends. And NASCAR, as a business, knows that it has to appeal to a new generation that is far more diverse if it wants to thrive over the next decade and beyond.
Yet the sport is not on the kind of strong financial ground of, say, the NFL, and thus not capable of weathering the loss of some of its customers, especially when there is no guarantee new ones will come.
Some fans are going to stop coming to the track or watching on the weekends, choosing the flag over the sport. Believing that the noose incident was some “woke hoax” will only exacerbate that.
Oh, and NASCAR still hasn’t staged a race with any kind of sizable fan presence to see if the ban will even be honored, let alone enforced. Just 5,000 were allowed inside Talladega on Monday. A planned crowd of 30,000 for Bristol, Tennessee, on July 15 will be a truer test.
Will they still come? Will they bring the flag? Will new fans arrive, or will they be turned off by the toxicity? Or are they even interested in the actual sport? Will this just turn into a culture-war rally?
No one knows at this point, except that NASCAR is presently easy to splinter politically. Putting the pieces back together is going to be the challenge.
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