TALLADEGA, Ala. — Bubba Wallace steered the No. 43 to the front of pit road, NASCAR champion Kyle Busch pushing the famous car on one side and close friend Ryan Blaney pushing on the other.
The 40-driver field and their crew members followed. After the car came to a stop, Wallace climbed out, sat on the window ledge and sobbed. Richard Petty, his Hall of Fame team owner, gently placed a hand on Wallace’s shoulder.
As federal authorities descended on Talladega Superspeedway on Monday to investigate the discovery of a noose in Wallace’s garage stall, the entire industry rallied around the Cup Series’ only Black driver.
“The news has disturbed us all, and we want justice and know who and why,” seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson said. “And we want to stand with our friend.”
Petty, 82, at his first race since the coronavirus pandemic began and at Talladega on race day for the first time in more than 10 years, stood side by side with Wallace during the national anthem before the rain-postponed event. Everyone stood behind the car while Brad Keselowski held the American flag at the front of the display of solidarity.
The idea to stand with Wallace started with Johnson, and former series champion Kevin Harvick suggested they all push the car to the front of the grid, Wallace said.
One by one, after the anthem, they hugged Wallace. He then had a long embrace with Petty.
And then he went racing.
If not for a shortage of fuel, Wallace might have had a chance to race for the win. A late stop for gas led to a 14th-place finish, but it felt like a win for Wallace.
Blaney held on to the lead after a restart with two laps to go and edged Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in a photo finish.
Wallace went to the fence and slapped hands through the wiring with a group of fans. He apologized for not wearing a mandatory mask but didn’t put it on because “I wanted to show whoever it was, you are not going to take away my smile.”
“This sport is changing,” he said. “The pre-race deal was 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 bad-ass fan base, thank you guys for coming out. This is truly incredible, and I’m glad to be a part of this sport.”
It was Wallace who successfully pushed the stock-car series to ban the Confederate flag at its venues less than two weeks ago, and he was the target when the noose was found hanging in the Richard Petty Motorsports garage stall Sunday afternoon at the Alabama track. A member of Wallace’s crew reported it to NASCAR, and by Monday morning, U.S. Attorney Jay Town said his office, the FBI and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division were involved.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps said security has been stepped up for Wallace — his team also was granted unusual access to its car to ensure it had not been tampered with overnight — and the FBI was “on site” at the track.
“Unequivocally, [the perpetrators] will be banned from this sport for life,” Phelps said.
He declined to discuss whether cameras might have captured anything of value but noted NASCAR has an approved list of who is allowed access that has been turned over to authorities.
On Twitter, Wallace said the “the despicable act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and how persistent we must be in the fight against racism.”
“As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you,’’’ he wrote. “This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in.”
The noose was discovered on the same day NASCAR’s fledgling flag ban faced its biggest challenge. The ban took effect before last week’s race near Miami, but there were only about 1,000 military members admitted into that race. At Talladega, in the heart of the South, as many as 5,000 fans were allowed in, even though rain postponed the race until Monday.