Bubba Wallace should blame Jeff Gordon for the events that unfolded over the past week at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
No, Gordon didn’t plant a noose in Bubba’s garage. In fact, nobody did. According to investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, there never was a noose on the loose even though someone in Wallace’s crew reported one in the No. 4 stall before last weekend’s NASCAR race there.
But Gordon did start a trend on the circuit years ago that may have ultimately led to a Wallace crew member mistaking an old-fashioned makeshift pull rope attached to a garage door for a weapon of hate.
When Gordon, an eventual four-time NASCAR champion, debuted in 1992 in the – cover your eyes if you are easily offended – Hooters 500, he was not your typical stock car driver.
He didn’t come from Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina or some other southern state known for producing some of the top names in the sport like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip. He was from Indiana – home of Indy cars, the mortal enemy of the stock car.
Gordon didn’t even have a Winston Cup type race-car driver name (yes, the league was sponsored by a cigarette company back then) like Dick Trickle, Sterling Marlin or Ricky Rudd.
He was just plain old Jeff, a 5-foot nothing tall midwestern kid who didn’t speak with a drawl, didn’t wear a cowboy hat or boots and mostly didn’t know a wrench from a screwdriver.
While guys like Earnhardt and Waltrip actually worked on their cars and had at one point or another built their own racers, Gordon basically just knew how to drive really, really good.
And after he found success – he finished his career with 93 points race wins and 81 pole positions – race car owners in the league spent all their time trying to find guys just like him.
The good old boy network of Winston Cup drivers with grease on their faces who would punch each other out immediately after the race and then get drunk together an hour later was soon replaced by young, slick, corporate sponsored pretty boys who couldn’t find their way around a garage and a tool box but could drive the wheels off of a stock car.
Enter Bubba Wallace.
Now I’m not saying Wallace has never worked on his own car or ever been in a garage. I don’t know the man and I stopped watching NASCAR years ago.
But it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that even if he saw the rope in person – which by all accounts he never did – he would have no idea what it was or what it was for. I would surmise that Wallace, like most of today’s drivers, only sees his car when he gets into it on pit row.
Regardless of how it happened or what Wallace may or may not recognize in a garage, we are living in a strange and dangerous time when saying or doing the wrong thing or even making a mistake can cause emotions to run wild and further separate us from one another.
In this situation, considering the current climate around the country, and around the NASCAR infield since the sanctioning body declared fans could no longer fly the Confederate flag at the races, it isn’t a stretch to imagine Wallace was already on edge when word came that someone spotted what they thought was a noose hanging from the garage door.
And let’s be honest — NASCAR has it is fair share of white red neck fans that probably didn’t care for the edict and have been vocal about it.
That puts Wallace square in the spotlight because as the media loves to point out over and over he is the only full-time black driver at that level of the sport.
It all makes for a combustible situation and, as we saw after the rope incident, an emotional week.
When it was announced by the FBI that it wasn’t a noose and that a mistake had been made Wallace, the media, and everyone involved in NASCAR could should have breathed a huge sigh of relief that there wasn’t a symbol or racism and hatred in the garage.
It should have been an opportunity for somebody – anybody from Wallace to his car owner Petty – to step up to a podium and say, that is a good thing and let’s come together as human beings and move forward.
That’s the message that eventually came out of the Wallace camp, but not before the young driver doubled down on his insistence that no matter what anybody had to say, he knows what he saw – or at least saw photos of.
In a television interview on CNN Tuesday night, Wallace said he never personally saw the noose and was simply reacting to what the head of NASCAR had told him about it.
Having seen images of the rope after the fact, Wallace stated, “It’s a straight up noose.”
“I talked to my crew chief about it. ... I wanted to make sure we weren’t jumping the gun,” Wallace told the interviewer. “ ... It was a noose. Whether tied in 2019, or whatever, it was a noose. So, it wasn’t directed at me, but somebody tied a noose.”
By Wednesday, he had changed his tune a little, telling a Today Show interviewer that he was frustrated that people were calling him out as “fake” and trying to “test him,” which is understandable, but at the same time he was still going with the noose narrative adding, “I was relieved just like many others to know that it wasn’t targeted towards me.”
At the end of the day the truth is the rope was set up in such a way to allow for the proper leverage and grip to pull down a garage door.
It wasn’t a noose.
That means there is a little less hate in the world.