Long: Drivers unite for Bubba Wallace on a day the sport won’t forget

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As he stood near Bubba Wallace and looked at the drivers and crew members behind them on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson welled with pride.

The vivid collection of uniforms featured people of different color and different backgrounds united to support Wallace a day after a noose was found in his team’s garage stall at the track.

While the FBI investigated, the Alabama governor pledged support and NASCAR President Steve Phelps decried the “terrible, terrible act,” drivers found a way to show, as Johnson said, that “whoever did what they did is hopefully watching and realizes that not here, not in our sport.”

Change is sweeping NASCAR. No longer are fans being asked not to bring the Confederate flag to the track, they’re being told not to do so. Drivers are speaking up about social injustice more than they have. They’re listening and learning.

Monday, they stood with Wallace.

They gathered at Wallace’s car on pit road before the race. Johnson said on a group chat for drivers that he planned to stand with Wallace for the national anthem and invited his competitors to join him.

Kevin Harvick suggested they push Wallace’s car from its 24th starting spot to the end of pit road and the front of the field. Crew members walked with them. Joining them was 82-year-old team owner Richard Petty, who made the No. 43 that Wallace drives famous but never saw a day like Monday.

As Wallace started to climb from his car after being pushed by his competitors down pit road, he buried his head. Petty, who had not attended a race since the COVID-19 pandemic, comforted Wallace.

The day before had all seemed well to Wallace until Phelps told him about the noose in the garage stall. Wallace’s mother, Desiree, said on SiriusXM that when her son told her what happened, “at first he looked defeated.

“I said, ‘Look, that was an act of fear. I said they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. I said it was a cowardly act. I said and, at the end of the day, you don’t allow them to strip away your character or your integrity.”

Later Sunday night Wallace told Ryan Blaney, one of his closest friends what happened.

“I couldn’t find the words to describe how I felt,” said Blaney, who won Monday’s race. “I felt a mixture of anger and sadness for him, confused how anybody could do something like this. I just felt all these different emotions. I know he went through a big range.

“You hate to see your buddies or anybody you love be sad and be hurting. I tried to support him the best I could. Gave him a big hug before he left. I think it was just a multiple range of emotions. Last night I was really angry. I couldn’t fall asleep.”

Some drivers weren’t aware of what happened until Monday morning.

“My immediate reaction was just speechless,” Aric Almirola said. “I couldn’t believe that somebody would do that.”

Almirola, who says he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to compete in NASCAR’s highest levels had he not been a part of a diversity program set up by Joe Gibbs and the late Reggie White, finished third in Monday’s race.

“So growing up trying to race as a Cuban American, sure, I’ve had things said to me, things that were offensive, that hurt,” Almirola said. “I actually told Bubba (Monday) morning that on a very, very small scale I can relate and I can empathize. I have never had to go through what he’s had to go through in the last couple weeks, and especially in the last 24 hours. I feel for him immensely.

“I think that the sport has worked so hard since I got my opportunity in 2004 to adapt. I think forever NASCAR has been considered an All‑American sport. All of America has changed and evolved a lot over time. I think that NASCAR has done an incredible job of being inclusive and making sure that the garage area, the spectators, the fan area, that they all resemble all of America.”

That was evident Monday. Talladega was allowed to have up to 5,000 fans and Wallace, who finished 14th, walked to them and slapped hands through the fence. A few fans wore Black Lives Matter shirts.

“Look, first (time) fans right here, from Atlanta,” Wallace said in an interview with Fox after the race. “That is so cool. This sport is changing. The deal that happened (Sunday), sorry I’m not wearing my mask, but I wanted to show whoever it was you’re not going to take my smile and I’m going to keep on going.”

It’s not just him that will keep going but all of NASCAR.

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