Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., the only full-time NASCAR driver who is Black, was not the victim of a hate crime, federal officials said Tuesday, concluding their investigation into the discovery of what appeared to be a noose in his garage stall at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
NASCAR officials said in a statement that the noose was actually a "garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose" and that photographic evidence showed it had been in the garage since as early as last fall. Wallace was assigned the garage last week.
The racing officials expressed relief that "Wallace was not the target of a hate crime."
“We appreciate the FBI’s quick and thorough investigation and are thankful to learn that this was not an intentional, racist act against Bubba,” NASCAR said on Twitter. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all who love racing.”
After the announcement by federal authorities, Twitter erupted with criticism that NASCAR and the media should not have rushed to judgement.
In an interview on CNN late Tuesday, Wallace said he believed that his team and NASCAR had acted appropriately in taking the incident seriously and referring it to federal authorities.
He said that in his years of racing, he had never seen a garage pull like the one in question.
"It was a noose," he said. "Whether it was tied in 2019 or whatever, it was a noose."
Its discovery at the famed NASCAR track Sunday by one of Wallace’s team members roiled the stock car racing world and made front pages across the country amid nationwide protests over police brutality and racism.
Just days before, Wallace had driven a car decked out in Black Lives Matter livery and successfully pushed NASCAR to ban Confederate flags at its races.
In the supercharged environment following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, reports about the noose brought swift and widespread condemnation.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey called the incident a “vile act” and a “disgusting display of hatred” while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley urged people to stand against “the cowards who secretly put the noose in his garage stall.”
One sports columnist called it “one of the most repugnant acts in the sport's history.”
Another said: “The noose was meant to put Wallace in his place, to let him and every other Black person know that while they might be allowed in NASCAR, they will never be accepted.”
Wallace, 26, denounced the hanging of the noose as a “despicable act of racism and hatred” that served as a “painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society.”
“As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you,’” Wallace said in a statement on Twitter. “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.”
On Monday, as more than a dozen FBI agents conducted interviews, a parade of drivers and pit crew members united in support of Wallace, walking behind him in his No. 43 car on their way to the front of the field before the NASCAR Cup Series Geico 500 race at the racetrack.
After his Chevrolet came to a stop, Wallace climbed out and bowed his head against his car door, sobbing.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps told reporters Monday that the organization contacted the FBI early Monday after a member of Wallace’s team reported discovering the apparent noose Sunday afternoon in Wallace’s garage stall. NASCAR, he vowed, would permanently ban whoever hung it there.
But on Tuesday, Jay E. Town, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, and Johnnie Sharp Jr., head of the FBI’s office in Birmingham, Ala., upended the narrative.
"After a thorough review of the facts and evidence surrounding this event, we have concluded that no federal crime was committed,” they said in a statement.
Video footage confirmed by NASCAR showed the rope found in garage No. 4 was present there as early as last October, they said.
"Although the noose is now known to have been in garage number 4 in 2019, nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned to garage number 4 last week," they said.
NASCAR and federal officials did not offer any information on where exactly the rope was found or who might have fastened the knot.
Wood Brothers Racing, a team that campaigns in the NASCAR Cup Series, said in a statement that it had alerted NASCAR Monday after one of its employees recalled that last fall he had seen “a tied handle in the garage pull-down rope.”
Wallace, who was born in Alabama but grew up in North Carolina, entered NASCAR in 2010 through its Drive for Diversity program, which aims to promote participation of minorities and women. By 2013, he had become the second Black driver to win a national NASCAR touring series race.
NASCAR, founded in the late 1940s, has long had an association with the Confederate flag. Its Talladega Superspeedway owes its existence to the segregationist Alabama governor, George C. Wallace, and the flags have long flown from its race track, parking lots and camping sites.
In 2015, after the massacre of nine Black worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., NASCAR’s former Chairman Brian France attempted to purge the Confederate flag from its tracks and grounds. His plea was widely ignored.
After renewed pressure this month from Bubba Wallace, who said no one should feel uncomfortable at a NASCAR race, NASCAR banned the flag from all its races and facilities.