By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — NASCAR has launched an investigation after a noose was found in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the elite Cup Series who just two weeks ago successfully pushed the stock car series to ban the Confederate flag at its venues.
NASCAR said the noose was found on Sunday afternoon and vowed to do everything possible to find who was responsible and "eliminate them from the sport."
"We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act," the series said in a statement. "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."
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 and visitors were barred from the infield. No flags were spotted Sunday, but cars and pickup trucks driving along nearby roads were flying the flag and parading past the entrance to the superspeedway over the weekend. A small plane flew over the track Sunday pulling a banner with the flag and the words "Defund NASCAR."
Wallace's 2013 victory in a Truck Series race was only the second in a NASCAR national series by an Black driver (Wendell Scott, 1963) and helped push him into the Cup Series, where he drives the No. 43 for Hall of Famer Richard Petty and is forced to scramble for sponsorship dollars.
Wallace, a 26-year-old Alabama native, said he has found support among fellow drivers for his stance on the flag. He noted that in his tweet after the noose announcement.
"Over the last several weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the support from people across the NASCAR industry including other drivers and team members in the garage," he said. "Together, our sport has made a commitment to driving real change and championing a community that is accepting and welcoming of everyone. Nothing is more important and we will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate."
NASCAR has spent years trying to distance itself from the Confederate flag, long a part of its moonshine-running roots from the its founding more than 70 years ago. Five years ago, former chairman Brian France tried to ban flying the flags at tracks, a proposal that was not enforced and largely ignored.
This year was different and it was Wallace who led the charge. Over the past month as the nation has been roiled by social unrest largely tied to the death of George Floyd, Wallace wore a black T-shirt with the words "I Can't Breathe" at one race and had a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme at another.
Wallace, whose father is white, was not always outspoken about racism; even after Floyd was killed last month while in police custody in Minneapolis, he was not the first driver to speak out for racial equality. He has said he began to find his public voice on racism after watching video in May of Ahmaud Arbery's fatal shooting in Georgia. He said he now recognizes he must not let his platform as a prominent driver go to waste.
NBA star LeBron James tweeted his support to Wallace, calling the noose "sickening!"
" Know you don't stand alone! I'm right here with you as well as every other athlete," James wrote. "I just want to continue to say how proud I am of you for continuing to take a stand for change here in America and sports!"
Talladega is one of the more raucous stops on the NASCAR schedule, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted the series, like all sports, to ban or sharply limit fans for months. The scene this weekend was a dramatic departure from the Talladega norm with plenty of room for social distancing and fans asked to wear masks.
David Radvansky, 32, of suburban Atlanta showed up Sunday with his wife and boys, 3 and 6. Radvansky, who started coming to Talladega in the 1990s when his father parked cars at races, applauded NASCAR's decision to ban the Confederate flag.
"I don't think there's a place for it in NASCAR, to be honest with you," the 32-year-old said. "That doesn't sit well with all the good ole boys but it is what it is."
Across from the track, Ed Sugg's merchandise tent was flying Confederate flags prominently in a display alongside Trump 2020 banners and an American flag.
"People are disappointed that NASCAR has taken that stance. It's been around for as long as all of us have been," said Sugg, a Helena, Alabama, resident who has been selling wares at NASCAR races for 21 years.
"I don't think anybody really connects it to any kind of racism or anything," he said. "It's just a Southern thing. It's transparent. It's just a heritage thing."
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