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Phelps: Noose, Concern For Wallace Is Real

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 26 2020

The noose that was found hanging in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega.

NASCAR’s investigation into the noose found last Sunday in the garage stall occupied by Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, the Cup Series only black driver, had been in-place since the previous race at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2019.

And while that confirmed a two-day investigation into a possible hate crime conducted by the Birmingham Office of the FBI, NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the sanctioning body has been unable to determine who fashioned the noose and the intent.

“The noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba,” Phelps said during a teleconference Thursday, after NASCAR released a photo of the noose. “We’re living in a highly-charged and emotional time. What we saw was a symbol of hate and was only present in one area of the garage _ that of the No. 43 car of Bubba Wallace.  In hindsight, we should have, I should have used the word ‘alleged’ in our (original) statement.”

Wallace drives the No. 43 Chevrolet Camaro fielded by “King” Richard Petty, NASCAR’s first seven-time Cup champion and the sport’s all-time leader in victories with 200.

NASCAR reported the FBI completed its investigation Tuesday and determined that Wallace was not the target of a hate crime.

“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,” NASCAR’s statement said. “This was obviously well before the No. 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.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Richard Petty Motorsports said it “fully cooperated” with NASCAR and authorities during the investigation. “As a result of further investigation by the FBI, it was found that the item was not directed towards Wallace or members of the team. No member of Richard Petty Motorsports nor Wallace had any involvement with the presence of the rope.

“We are thankful for the swift and thorough investigation by NASCAR and all of the authorities involved. We are also appreciative of the support from NASCAR, the motorsports industry and our fans.”

Phelps said Thursday NASCAR since has conducted “a thorough sweep of all the garage areas across the tracks” where the Cup series competes.  “So across those 29 tracks and 1,684 garage stalls, we found only 11 total that had a pull-down rope tied in a knot,” Phelps said. “And only one noose _ the one discovered on Sunday in Bubba Wallace’s garage.”

Phelps said Thursday that upon learning about and seeing the noose, NASCAR’s initial reaction was to protect Wallace. Two weeks ago, NASCAR announced that Confederate flags _ a long-standing symbol of racism _would not be allowed at tracks hosting its races. That decision was made after consultation with Wallace.

NASCAR allowed 5,000 fans to attend Sunday’s GEICO 500, first race at Talladega since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. NASCAR’s policy did not prevent fans from displaying Confederate flags on their vehicles on roads surrounding the Alabama facility on Sunday. In addition, a plane displaying a large Confederate flag and a sign that read “Defund NASCAR” flew over the facility Saturday.

Rain on Sunday forced the race on the high-banked/2.66-mile oval to be run on Monday. Before taking questions from national media, Phelps gave a timeline for procedures that went into the investigation. 

“On Sunday, after initial inspection and prior to the race, a member of the No. 43 team noticed the noose in the garage stall,” Phelps said. “At roughly 4:30 NASCAR was alerted to the presence of the noose.  At that point we did a full sweep of the garage by our security team, and only the rope the No. 43 team saw was a noose; all the others were regular ropes.

“At about 6 p.m., NASCAR senior leadership met and immediately determined this needed to be investigated and began those initial steps of the investigation.  At approximately 7:30 I notified Bubba Wallace of what was found in the garage.  After that we continued to gather facts and conduct our investigation, we thought it was important to put out a statement as quickly as we could, which we did at roughly 10:40 on Sunday evening.

“Early Monday morning the FBI Birmingham Office reached out to us.  By roughly 10 a.m. the FBI arrived with 15 field agents to begin their investigation.  We provided the FBI with a list of personnel with access to the garage, as well as video and images taken from the weekend and the 2019 fall weekend as well.

“During the course of the day the FBI interviewed race team personnel from multiple teams, NASCAR officials, track fire and safety personnel and track custodial staff.  Talladega Superspeedway also provided the FBI with a list of events that had taken place since October 2019, which is when the new garages opened.”

Phelps said the FBI reported its interviews were completed for Monday, but the evidence was inconclusive with further investigation scheduled.

“On Tuesday morning NASCAR received additional video from the team and provided it to the FBI,” Phelps said. “The video corroborated the testimony from one of the interviews that the FBI had conducted that the noose was present in that stall during the fall Cup event.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI informed NASCAR that their investigation had conclusively found this was not a hate crime.

“We were asked to keep this confidential until the release.  Their release went out at roughly 4:10 p.m.  About 4:15 we released our own statement and then we had our NASCAR teleconference.  So those are the events of the day.

“Through the investigation, the examination of the video and photographic evidence, the FBI was able to determine the noose was present in the same garage stall as last fall. It was still our responsibility to find answers to key questions as we had talked about on Tuesday:  How did the noose get there?  Was anyone an intended target?  Was this a code-of-conduct violation?  Are nooses present elsewhere in other garages where we race?”

Again, Phelps reported the only noose discovered during NASCAR’s industry-wide sweep of garage areas was the one found Sunday in Wallace’s garage in Talladega. That garage stall was used last October by the Wood Brothers, one of NASCAR’s pioneering teams based in Virginia.

“We further determined that the noose was not in place when the October 2019 race weekend began but was created at some point during that weekend,” Phelps said. “Given that timing and the garage access policies and procedures at the time, we were unfortunately unable to determine with any certainty who tied this rope in this manner or why it was done.

“We know it brings up another question:  How could it have gone unnoticed by so many people in October 2019 and for the morning on June 21, 2020? 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.

“Moving forward we’ll be conducting thorough sweeps of the garage area to ensure nothing like this happens again, and we are installing additional cameras in all of our garages.  We’ll make any changes necessary to our sanctions and our code of conduct and we will mandate that all members of our industry complete sensitivity and unconscious bias training with specifics and timing forthcoming.

“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 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.”

Phelps was referring to the dramatic and emotional show of support Wallace received prior to the green flag shortly after 2 p.m. (CDT) Monday.

Wallace was seated in his No. 43 Chevy as it was wheeled down pit road surrounded by drivers and crew personnel from competing teams. Wallace climbed out of the seat at the end of pit road, propped himself on the driver’s door and leaned onto the roof as Petty hugged him. Wallace later exchanged handshakes with a number of drivers _ most wearing masks_ prior to the invocation and national anthem.

“We want everyone with a love for racing to feel welcome and a part of our NASCAR family, and our industry is going to protect our own against anyone that feels differently,” Phelps said. “My hope is that the fortunate results of the FBI investigation should not diminish the impact of that moment nor the message our sport sent.  The world saw our true colors and it made us all incredibly proud.

“Let me reiterate two things.  Bubba Wallace and the No. 43 team had nothing to do with this.  Bubba Wallace has done nothing but represent this sport with courage, class and dignity.  It is offensive seeing anyone suggest otherwise, and frankly it’s further evidence as to how far we still need to go as a society.

“Secondly there’s been discussion and criticism on how this was handled and characterized.  Some feel that the phrasing or words used were not right.  That comes with the territory, and I will take full responsibility for that and for the emotion that was attached to it.  Based on the evidence we had, we thought our drivers _ that one of our drivers had been threatened, a driver who had been extremely courageous in recent words and actions.  It’s our responsibility to react and investigate, and that’s exactly what we did.”

Following is an edited transcript of the Q&A with national media:

QUESTION:  Some NASCAR fans have said they feel hurt, maybe even embarrassed, because of non-fans reacting maybe make them look bad or stupid.  Do you have a message for the fans who maybe feel that way right now?

STEVE PHELPS:  “Here’s what I would say to the fans. I don’t think anyone, those people who are not part of our sport and are making comments about what we should or shouldn’t have done or it was a hoax and this is all fake, I can’t speak to that. But I would say, again, NASCAR showed its true colors on Monday, our drivers, our crews, anyone at the racetrack, but more importantly, all the fans that watched it on TV.  I watched it on television, and I’m not embarrassed to say, I cried.  It was an emotional, moving moment for our sport and I think an important one that suggests that NASCAR is welcome to all.”

QUESTION: What was the origin of the photo, when and how was it taken and who captured that photo, for anybody that doesn’t believe it’s authentic?

STEVE PHELPS:  “Yeah, that was captured by NASCAR Security as part of our investigation.  I think it speaks volumes for why we reacted the way we did.”

QUESTION: You said you couldn’t determine who put the rope in the garage, so a couple questions.  One, have you talked to the Wood Brothers and what was their explanation on why that was in their garage stall last year?  Secondly, if the Wood Brothers say they didn’t do it that would seem to infer this was done in a manner that wasn’t intent to pull down the garage stall and that there might be a deeper meaning there. Is that correct?

STEVE PHELPS:  “We did have a lot of conversations as part of our investigation with the Wood Brothers, as we did with others in the industry.  We could not determine whether it was someone on their team or someone else, but extensive conversations there.  And to your point, we have no idea what the intent was at all, whether there was any malice in it or whether it was just fashioned as a noose for a pulley.  We don’t know that.”

QUESTION: I’m wondering how the circumstances surrounding the weekend _ the Confederate flag parade, the plane flying over the speedway the day before _ added to a confluence of various circumstances, in addition to what already was going on in the weeks prior to the race weekend?

STEVE PHELPS:  “I would say it absolutely was a factor in it.  I think that being at the racetrack and someone’s ability to protest peacefully outside of our facility, we were all for, right?  A guy flying overhead in a crop duster with a Confederate flag, saying “Defund NASCAR,” you know, and frankly all the points to your points, things that have led up to that, including the banning of the Confederate flag, something that we were enforcing for the first time that weekend and fortunately we didn’t see any incidents of the Confederate flag on the property and our fans respected that.  And it was a great first step on that front. 

“But were there heightened emotions and what has gone on over the past two and a half weeks in our country and then in our sport?  I think it absolutely was emotionally charged for a lot of people, and I’ll include myself in that.”

QUESTION: In regards to Bubba, in terms of the discovery of this (he) had nothing to do with it. Yet on social media and on across TV and so forth he’s bearing a lot of undeserved negative connotations. Wondering if you had a chance to speak with him again since then and how he was holding up?

STEVE PHELPS: “I’ve spoken to Bubba a couple of times.  You know, I think it’s hard.  The kind of twists and turns that happened on Tuesday, it was surprising for me.  I know it was surprising for Bubba.  It was surprising for our entire industry that we’re trying to point towards solving for what we believe was _ it was an alleged hate crime, right?  So that’s what we were solving.  And then to have it be, hey, this is something that actually was coincidental, that’s a very difficult thing to try to get to.  But, listen, Bubba is a warrior, he is strong, he’s resolute in what he thinks is right.  I just find it incredibly disturbing and that there are those out there that just feel the need to spread the hate or to spread false things. I just, I don’t understand it, I really don’t.”

QUESTION: Did you get any explanation, or do you have any sense of why nobody reported (the noose) or nobody was startled or that it just didn’t register or anything like that?

STEVE PHELPS:  “I’m not sure.  I will go back to the idea that our industry, all of our employees in our industry broadly need to go through sensitivity and bias conscious training.  It’s an important thing to do because I’m sure some…I’m not sure; odds are that someone saw it and didn’t react negatively to it.  So we need to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future.  So we can sweep garages for nooses, which we will do, but we’re not going to _we need to be better as an industry.”

QUESTION: Considering all that’s happened and all the things that have been said, will you have additional security at Pocono Raceway (this weekend) in general and specifically for Bubba?

STEVE PHELPS: “I think during this entire time, because, even before kind of the goings on at Talladega, Bubba has put himself out there and I know there’s been a lot of hate that has been spread his way, social media and other places. So it’s important for us to increase his security and we have done that.  We need to keep Bubba safe. We need to keep a member of our family safe.”

QUESTION: Considering the pushback you’re still getting about the Confederate flag ban, do you need to be more aggressive about the reasoning behind all that?

STEVE PHELPS:  “We have made a statement that we’re going to ban the Confederate flag at all our facilities.  And when I say all of our facilities, I’m not talking about the just the racetracks that we (NASCAR) own, but Marcus Smith at SMI, he’s resolute that they will do what is necessary to make sure there are no Confederate flags on their properties.  The three independent tracks at our top series that we race at _ Dover, Pocono and Indy _ they also are very supportive of what we’re doing, so we are not going to back off of that policy. We have made the statement and we’re going to follow through to its fullest.

“So ultimately, when we get back to full grandstands, everyone who walks through the gates or onto our property or one of our tracks or where our races are being held will understand that they will not see the Confederate flag.”

QUESTION: I understand what you’re saying, that you were unable to determine who tied it or why it was done.  But one, do you believe it was a team member who did do this and two, if so, did you get any rational explanation for why a team member would have tied a knot that way?

STEVE PHELPS:  “I really don’t know.  I could speculate, but it wouldn’t do any good.  And I don’t know the intent of what it was as well.  So it’s hard and I know that’s, we’d like to have complete resolution here and have all the answers.  Based on all the video and photographic evidence and all the interviews we have done we were not able to determine who crafted the noose.  I know that’s unfulfilling but there’s nothing…I wish there was more we could do, but we can’t and so we have drawn this matter to a close.”

QUESTION: You also said that you would have added “allegedly” to your statement Sunday and Monday.  You said in those statements that a “heinous act” had been committed, presumably you mean last weekend, before it was confirmed by the FBI that no hate crime was committed this past weekend.  Do you have any regrets about saying that a “heinous act” had been committed before it could be fully vetted that didn’t occur last weekend?

STEVE PHELPS:  “Well, I think to your point, if we had said ‘alleged’ _ yes, you know, I’ll go back to the emotion of the moment and I’ll take responsibility for that.  And should we have toned that message down slightly? Maybe we should have.  And I’ll take responsibility for that.  I stand by the actions that we took and I think they were the right ones.  And as I said before, given the evidence that we had, we would do the same thing, we would investigate it the same way.  If it comes to where we need to craft a statement differently, and I need to take a little less emotion out of it, that’s something I’ll do, I’ll take responsibility for that.

I do want to say a quick close, because I think it’s important, I want to reiterate something.  I want to thank Bubba Wallace and everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports.  Specifically thank Bubba for his leadership over this past three weeks.  Bubba has done nothing but represent this sport with courage, class and dignity and he stood tall for what he believes in.  And we all need to stand with him, I know I’m going to. 

“As we pivot now and look forward to racing this weekend at Pocono, I think it’s important to make sure that we are getting back to something that helps take, people take incredible comfort and enjoy so much, which is our racing and that’s what we need to try to get back and doing.  We had a phenomenal race at Talladega with a ton of emotion and we’re looking forward to getting to this quadruple weekend of racing in Pocono and I just want to thank everyone for their support.”

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 26 2020
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