Federal Authorities Investigating Noose in Bubba Wallace’s Garage

Federal Authorities Investigating Noose in Bubba Wallace’s Garage

Federal Authorities Investigating Noose in Bubba Wallace’s Garage

Federal Authorities Investigating Noose in Bubba Wallace’s Garage

TALLADEGA, Ala. — The Justice Department said Monday that it was investigating the placement of a noose inside the Alabama garage stall of Darrell Wallace Jr., the lone black driver in NASCAR’s top racing series.

U.S. officials acknowledged that it was not clear whether the government’s inquiry, which involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation and lawyers who work on civil rights issues, would lead to a prosecution. But the government’s role signaled the gravity of Sunday’s episode at Talladega Superspeedway, which came after NASCAR banned the Confederate battle flag from its events and properties at the urging of Wallace, who is known as Bubba, this month.

In a statement on Monday, Jay E. Town, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said federal officials were “reviewing the situation surrounding the noose that was found in Bubba Wallace’s garage to determine whether there are violations of federal law.”

“Regardless of whether federal charges can be brought, this type of action has no place in our society,” Town said.

The Justice Department acknowledged its review hours before Wallace was scheduled to drive at Talladega, where Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race was postponed until Monday because of lightning and heavy rain.

“This will not break me,” Wallace said in a statement on Sunday night. “I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in.”

Richard Petty, the celebrated driver whose racing team employs Wallace, said Monday that he was “enraged” by what had happened in Alabama.

“The sick person who perpetrated this act must be found, exposed and swiftly and immediately expelled from NASCAR,” Petty said. “I believe in my heart this despicable act is not representative of the competitors I see each day in the NASCAR garage area. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bubba, yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day forward.”

The federal inquiry is being conducted in parallel to one that NASCAR opened on Sunday. Steve Phelps, the NASCAR president, said Monday afternoon that officials “don’t have a lot of answers at this moment.”

The garage was fitted with surveillance cameras, NASCAR officials said, though Phelps declined to say how many had been installed or whether they were working at the time of Sunday’s episode.

But Phelps said that access restrictions that officials imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic were aiding the investigation. People are largely barred from the infield, with racing teams and a handful of essential workers the only people permitted.

Despite NASCAR’s palpable fury — Phelps said that any wrongdoers would banned for life — the episode was another troubling moment for the motor sports empire, which has tried to distance itself from a past in which it cultivated ties with segregationists and harbored racists and their tropes.

For decades, the Confederate battle flag was a common sight at races, especially at Talladega, and NASCAR was closely connected to figures like George C. Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor and an influential force in the development of the Talladega track.

The speedway, which opened in 1969, has seen few professional black drivers across the decades.

Willy T. Ribbs, who drove a handful of NASCAR races and was the first black man to compete in the Indianapolis 500, recalled in an interview last week how he had received a hostile reception, including from other drivers, when he first visited Talladega in 1978.

“People were spitting all around my feet,” he said. “I was in the pits just to meet some of the drivers — only one or two would even say anything to me.”

But in recent years, NASCAR, which has seen attendance and television ratings decline, has sometimes sought to step away from its history. In 2015, after a white supremacist killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., officials at top tracks urged people not to fly the Confederate flag at competitions, and some of the sport’s top drivers, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., spoke out about racism and their opposition to the battle flag.

It was only this month, though, after Bubba Wallace spoke out in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, that NASCAR announced a ban of the battle flag. The decision enraged some fans, as well as some drivers, and on Sunday, hundreds of cars adorned in battle flags assembled near Talladega before forming a two-mile caravan and driving past the track entrance in protest.

By Monday, many people in Alabama were expressing disdain and embarrassment over what had happened inside Talladega’s gates.

Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican who in 2018 campaigned on her record of having protected Confederate monuments, said Monday that she was “shocked and appalled” by the episode, which she described as a “disgusting display of hatred.”

“Bubba Wallace is one of us,” the governor said in a statement. “He is a native of Mobile and on behalf of all Alabamians, I apologize to Bubba Wallace as well as to his family and friends for the hurt this has caused and regret the mark this leaves on our state.”

Matthew Teague reported from Talladega, and Alan Blinder from Atlanta.

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