Will NASCAR Survive 2020?

by Michael Satterfield

2020 has been one hell of a year and we are only halfway through it. I was at the Daytona 500 to kick off the racing season, Daytona race weekend is an amazing experience, but this year's race would be history-making and controversial as President Donald Trump would be landing in Airforce One at Daytona Beach International Airport and would give the call to start the engines. The crowd went wild and no matter what your politics, seeing Air Force One and the Air Force Thunderbirds is always an amazing experience. But once POTUS had left the rain started and the race was delayed until the following afternoon.

The Daytona 500 would end with Ryan Newman's dramatic crash on the front straight and his car came to rest directly in front of our seats. Everyone stood watching and waiting as the teams spent what felt like hours cutting Newman out of the car. A few days later he would walk out of the hospital to the elation of NASCAR fans everywhere. NASCAR would only get in a few more races before COVID-19 would cancel all major events for 2020. For the first time in decades, NASCAR wasn't running live races, and like many motorsports, they pivoted to iRacing in April, with full broadcasts and commentators calling all the action just like a live race. But even in iRacing, there were issues, Bubba Wallace was involved with a virtual dual with driver Clint Bowyer when he grew frustrated and simply quit the race which was being broadcast on live television. While Wallace took to Twitter to poke fun at people upset that he walked out in the middle of the race, even a virtual one, sponsors were not laughing.  NASCAR partner Blue-Emu responded on Twitter retracting their sponsorship with  executive vice president Ben Blessing comparing Wallace to a petulant teen. Richard Petty Motorsports reportedly did not invoice the brand for the sponsorship.

But while a racer throwing a tantrum is nothing new, just a week later driver Kyle Larson would do something far more egregious during a virtual event called  Monza Madness. Larson while participating in a Twitch live stream with several other professional drivers, used the N-word, thinking he was only talking to his spotter. Immediately other drivers responded, with racer Anthony Alfredo chiming in that the audience could hear everything: “Kyle, you’re talking to everyone, bud,” said Alfredo. Chip Ganassi Racing immediately suspended and then later fired Larson over the incident, but NASCAR had a bigger problem.

For NASCAR, which had been trying to reshape its image to be more inclusive, Larson was one of their success stories and an alumnus of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity (D4D) program. Larson was always reluctant to promote his Japanese heritage from his mother's side, but NASCAR relished headlines describing Larson as an "Asian American Pioneer" or how he may be "the best hope to bridge the gap between grassroots racing and NASCAR, and perhaps attract new fans." But all of that came to a crashing halt when he said the N-word, the media immediately turned to fellow D4D driver Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's only Black cup driver, for a reaction. Wallace displayed exceptional grace, stating that Larsons should be forgiven and that he should get a second chance.

Larson issued several private and public apologies and is likely taking part in a version of NASCAR's secretive 'Road to Recovery Program' this time focused on  sensitivity training instead of substance abuse. Larson hasn't gotten his second chance yet with NASCAR and instead has returned to race on dirt tracks with the World of Outlaws. NASCAR has a policy of not commenting on drivers who are part of their Road to Recovery Program, but a spokesperson did say they would announce when and if Larson would be eligible to return to NASCAR again.


It would be mid-May before NASCAR would get back on the track, this time without fans in the stands and limited access. The day after the Coca-Cola 600, the killing of George Floyd would take place in Minneapolis sparking immediate protests and unrest across the United States. Just weeks later Bubba Wallace would walk out onto the pitlane at Atlanta Motor Speedway wearing a black tee-shirt that read "I Can't Breath, Black Lives Matter" and an American flag face mask. During the national anthem, NASCAR official Kirk Price took a knee and saluted, in what he described as a "humble protest."

Just a few days later it was announced that Wallace's car would be wrapped in a #BlackLivesMatter themed livery, that would show a black and white hand clasped together on the hood with the words "Compassion, Love, Understand." While being interviewed on CNN about the Black Lives Matter livery, Wallace called for NASCAR to ban the confederate flag, telling Don Lemon: “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. It starts with confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them.”

The next afternoon NASCAR published an official statement banning fans from displaying the confederate flag at all NASCAR events and properties. A historic move for NASCAR which had for years only politely discouraged the flag, but stopped short of a ban. This news was met with the expected push back from a small, but vocal group, but by and large the fans, drivers, and teams all supported the removal of the flag. Banning the flag is not the end to NASCAR's controversies, as always parties on both sides began pointing out what to them were glaring hypocrisies. While some pointed to sponsors like Dixie Vodka and Gunbroker.com  as being problematic, others pointed to NASCAR's own rules on sponsorship surrounding what they deemed political messaging.

NASCAR Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli announced he would be leaving NASCAR over the ban stating  “I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl that do and it doesn’t make them a racist all you are doing is [expletive] one group to cater to another and i ain’t spend the money we are to participate in any political BS!! So everything is for SALE!!” He would later delete the post after backlash. Ciccarelli, who is currently 38th in the Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series, would walk back his comments later in an interview with NASCAR reporter Toby Christie, saying his post was "misconstrued."

Shortly after the Dixie Vodka 400, NASCAR announced that they had created the new position of 'Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion' which would be filled by long time NASCAR employee Brandon Thompson. Along with Thompson, a team of employees will be responsible for multicultural programs, including Drive for Diversity, they will also work with the Institute for Sport and Social Justice and the Diversity and Inclusion Sports Consortium. This new department and the formal ban on the confederate flag were tangible changes that the public could see and were widely praised.


After everything that had happened, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that many at NASCAR saw Talladega as a chance to reset, move away from all the controversies, and to focus on racing. The flag ban was largely accepted, Bubba Wallace had earned a reputation for being an eloquent spokesman for equality in NASCAR and beyond, and NASCAR had made changes at the institutional level. But Talladega wouldn't be the beginning of the end of NASCAR's problems, what would unfold in Alabama would be the biggest story of the year.

More national press attention was on NASCAR than ever before, Talladega would be the first time fans would be allowed in the stands, making it the first time NASCAR would be policing its flag ban with the general public. The fans were not the problem, but a plane flew over the speedway with a large confederate flag with a banner that read "Defund NASCAR" and a parade of trucks and motorcycles cruised up and down Speedway Boulevard flags flying. But inside the speedway, another drama was about to play out and push NASCAR back into the national spotlight.


On Monday morning, June 22, 2020, NASCAR Tweeted out a statement that read: "Late Sunday afternoon, NASCAR was made aware that a noose was found in the garage stall of the 43 team. We are angry and outraged, and cannons state strongly enough how serious we take this heinous act. We have launched an immediate investigation and will do everything we can to identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport. As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all."

Immediately the story went viral and long essays from writers at ESPN and USA Today excoriated "white people" and "rednecks" for committing a hate crime against Bubba Wallace. Thousands of stories made the rounds, parroting the NASCAR statement with few publications used terms like "allegedly" to qualify the fact that the investigation had yet to be concluded by NASCAR or the FBI. Operating under the assumption that NASCAR wouldn't release an unverified statement in these already tumultuous times, the response from NASCAR teams and Wallace's fellow drivers reflected an amazing stance of unity against such an ugly act. #IStandwithBubba was added to the field and trended on social media, NASCAR as a whole was saying no to racism.

But not everyone was so quick to accept the official NASCAR statement as fact. Many questioned why there wasn't a photo of the alleged noose? Who found it? Why was the statement made before the investigation was completed? Soon fake reports and conspiracy theories started popping up on social media, prompting Bubba to tell ABC's The View that people who think the story might be a hoax are "simpleminded" and "afraid of change." Later that day the FBI would conclude its investigation into the possible hate crime, the noose discovered in the garage, was a loop in the rope pull for the garage door and it had been tied that way since at least October of 2019.

"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. 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," NASCAR said in its statement.

Suddenly all of the essays and reports criticizing the "rednecks" who must have been behind this hate crime had to issue retractions or add disclaimers that the alleged noose was identified as a door pull. Supported by numerous still photos and even video footage showing the rope attached to the garage door at Talladega Speedway, a few still attempted to carry on the narrative that it was a racially motivated attack.

Instead of everyone taking a collective sigh of relief, the tide quickly turned on Bubba Wallace with many on social media comparing him to Jussie Smollett, the actor who is charged with staging a fake hate crime and has become the source of countless online memes. #BubbaSmollett was briefly trending on Twitter, with many attributing the trend to a tweet by former MLB star  Curt Schilling who would eventually delete his Twitter account amid backlash for the comparison. Even after the FBI and NASCAR had made their statement Wallace went on CNN  to state that while “It wasn’t directed at me, but it was a noose” which many people considered as doubling down on the story.

Bubba Wallace's Statement on Twitter
NASCAR went radio silent only retweeting statements from Richard Petty Motorsports and Bubba Wallace regarding the incident. Then as if nothing happened NASCAR went right back to its usual content sharing a Tweet with the contest winners from the GEICO Restart Zone. Wallace's statement seemed to be a reset: "It's been an emotional few days. First off, I want to say how relieved I am that the investigation revealed that this wasn't what we feared it was. I want to thank my team, NASCAR, and the FBI for acting swiftly and treating this as a real threat. I think we'll gladly take a little embarrassment over what the alternatives could have been. Make no mistake, though some will try, this should not detract from the show of unity we had on Monday, and the progress we've made as a sport to be a more welcoming environment for all."

While social media users and fans may be divided on Bubba Wallace's motivations or role in this story, the blame falls squarely on NASCAR President  Steve Phelps. Phelps made the call to release the statement before the investigation was complete, to hold a press conference vowing that the perpetrator(s) would be caught and dealt with severely, he also threw members of the NASCAR family under the bus implying that it was inside job. When an unnamed reporter raised the question about the possibility that the noose was staged, Phelps said he was "personally offended."  He continued: “This is a terrible, terrible act that has happened. For those who would think that this is staged, I wouldn’t know where to go with that.”

In a press conference after the investigation, Phelps thanked the US Attorney's Office and FBI but took no responsibility for creating the situation by involving the media before any conclusion had been reached. By making definitive statements about the nature of the situation reporters had every reason to believe that the president of NASCAR. Surely he wouldn't hold a press conference about a loop in a garage door pull unless some evidence existed. Phelps went on to say that the investigation is still ongoing and that NASCAR will release more information. But seeing as tracks like Tallidaga host events ranging including local track days, SCCA club racing, and even NASCAR driving experiences, answers to who tied a loop in the rope or why may never be answered.

As someone who is a fan of  NASCAR, I still stand with Bubba, the idea that he should be held accountable alone for a series of events he didn't ask for or set in motion is crazy. Understanding that the events that unfolded at Talladega didn't happen in a vacuum and that death threats are a very real possibility for public figures taking a stand for anything. The fact that Wallace even had to ask for the ban on the confederate flag shows that the culture within NASCAR still has a long way to go. I am hopeful that we will see a stronger better NASCAR come out of 2020, but we still have six months to go.

UPDATE:

NASCAR officially released an image of the 'noose' (above) that was discovered at Talladega and has closed their investigation, with the focus on making sure that such a knot is never seen at a NASCAR event again. “Our ultimate conclusion for this investigation is to ensure that this never happens again, that no one walks by a noose without recognizing the potential damage it can do. Going forward, our efforts are best spent on making sure every competitor feels safe and every guest feels welcome. I would also like to reinforce that what we did see at Talladega in pre-race on Monday, our drivers, crews and officials proudly demonstrated that we are united in the belief that there is no place for racism in our sport.

"In hindsight, we should have -- I should have -- used the word 'alleged' in our statement. ... As you can see from the photo, the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba. With similar emotion, others across our industry and our media stood up to defend the NASCAR family -- our NASCAR family -- because they are part of the NASCAR family too. We were proud to see so many stand up for what's right." Steve Phelps, NASCAR President.

Read the full statement HERE.

15 Comments

  1. A lot of info

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  2. Even if they made the cars stock and went back to the old points system you still have too many silverspoons in NASCAR now. The last full season I watched was 2014. Kevin Harvicks Championship run. I loved his run to the championship! I watched after that but slowly stopped watching mid 2015. Basically because of the silverspoons. Watching spoiled rotten kids take over the sport was too much for me. With these events going on now it’s obvious NASCAR has not learned anything. To create a PR stunt like they did with Bubba is ridiculous and NASCAR should be held accountable! They did it to get a boost in ratings plain and simple. I do think this is the last nail in the casket. I don’t see NASCAR making it much longer after this. I for one hope it’s sooner than later. Time for NASCAR to take a dirt nap!

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  3. I hope they don’t make it to be honest, after the past couple of weeks and the stunts they did I’ll never watch again anyways

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  4. Maybe if they start a donk class

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  5. This is 1000% correct: “While social media users and fans may be divided on Bubba Wallace's motivations or role in this story, the blame falls squarely on NASCAR President Steve Phelps. Phelps made the call to release the statement before the investigation was complete, to hold a press conference vowing that the perpetrator(s) would be caught and dealt with severely, he also threw members of the NASCAR family under the bus implying that it was inside job. When an unnamed reporter raised the question about the possibility that the noose was staged, Phelps said he was "personally offended." He continued: “This is a terrible, terrible act that has happened. For those who would think that this is staged, I wouldn’t know where to go with that.”

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  6. Very good read, I had no idea about all the build up earlier in the year. It's been tough to see some people more outraged by a mistake than a possible hate crime. Bubba Wallace does not deserve the blame.

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    1. I think many, including myself, were concerned that the lack of photos being released meant that it was likely being hyped by NASCAR's President and as we have seen in the past, the backlash from crying wolf is always worse.

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    2. Agreed. They made it seem like there could be no question as to what it was and unfortunately now Wallace is paying the price.

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  7. I am really disappointed with many all over the racing community for the backlash at Bubba. I think that there is more racism in the racing world than just the NASCAR Confederate Flag wavers, including many I thought were friends and that saddens me. We are better than that, or so I thought.

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  8. We shouldn’t give an inch to the demands of a mob. They will not stop till they have taken everything. Those who lead and are funding the mob want communism and the destruction of our constitutional republic. They would burn the nation to the ground just so they can rule the ashes.

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  9. The so called "fans" who claim that Bubba owes everyone an apology are the ones who can't bring themselves to accept that the king of NASCAR has a black man driving his car.

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  10. The people running the sport are running it into the ground by trying to be PC Principle from South Park.

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  11. Are you kidding me. Soooo What.
    Your making a mountain out of a mole hill. Soooo let’s move on & race & quit stirring the pot over dumb $&#!
    If you would quit advertising it that would help.

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  12. Steve Phelps needs to make a public apology for not knowing the facts before he opened his pie hole. Bubba needs to get rid of his cry baby attitude and replace his mask with all lives matter, not black lives matter which is racist too!

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  13. Thomas BroadheadJune 28, 2020 at 2:46 PM

    I believe Nascar played bubba. Look at all the publicity they got out of this.

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