Bubba Wallace on emotional race and show of support: ‘Sport is changing’

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Bubba Wallace said “the sport is changing” in front of a horde of NASCAR fans, many of whom were wearing “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breath” T-shirts, after an emotional race Monday at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black full-time driver, was joined by all 39 other drivers and their crews in a march down pit road as they pushed his No. 43 to the front of the line in the moments before the race. The gesture came one day after a noose was found in his garage stall. When they reached the front line, Wallace climbed out of his car and wept.

If not for a shortage of fuel, Wallace might have had a chance to race for the win. A late stop for gas led to a 14th-place finish but felt like a win for Wallace. He went to the fence and slapped hands through the wiring with a group of fans as they cheered.

He apologized for not wearing a mandatory mask but didn’t put it on because “I wanted to show whoever it was, you are not going to take away my smile.”

“This sport is changing,” he said. “The pre-race deal was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to witness in my life. From all the supporters, from drivers to crew members, everybody here, the bad-ass fan base, thank you guys for coming out. This is truly incredible and I’m glad to be a part of this sport.”

The idea for the gesture before the race came up earlier Monday. Jimmie Johnson said in a drivers chat that he would stand with Wallace during the national anthem. Then, Kevin Harvick had the idea that they should have the drivers push Wallace’s car to the front.

“I’m happy to play a role in it; I want to; I know I need to,” Johnson, who finished 13th, said after the race. “And I feel like to see the garage area stand up as they have as well in the last few weeks, and then again today, is sending a very strong message; and I’m very proud of our sport.”

Standing alongside Wallace for the national anthem was Richard Petty, the 82-year-old Hall of Fame driver known as “The King.” Wallace drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for Petty, who issued a scathing rebuke after the noose was found that called for the “sick person” to be expelled from NASCAR forever — a move NASCAR president Steve Phelps insisted would happen should they be caught.

Sources told ESPN’s Marty Smith that Petty decided to travel to Talladega after the noose was found and that he said the “most important thing for me right now is hugging my driver.” This marks the first race Petty has attended since the sport was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers also painted “#IStandWithBubbaWallace” on the infield grass before Monday’s race, which was postponed from Sunday because of inclement weather.

Wallace said in a statement Sunday that he was “incredibly saddened” by the act.

Authorities said Monday that the FBI is investigating the discovery of the noose, and the governor of Alabama condemned the act against Wallace.

After the race Aric Almirola, who finished third, said he was speechless when he found out what happened.

“So you see people lash out and show signs of evil and darkness, and it just comes from a bad place,” Almirola said. “And I think the most important thing you can respond with that, is light and love. And showing how to stand up and how to show positivity, and have a heart. And I feel like, as an industry, that’s what we did today.

Former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. also took to Twitter to offer his support for Wallace in the wake of Sunday’s incident.

Lewis Hamilton, Formula 1’s only Black driver and its reigning champion, also offered his support via Instagram.

“It’s disgusting that this is happening, stay safe and alert out there bro,” Hamilton wrote. “Supporting you from afar, proud of you.”

Wallace two weeks ago successfully pushed NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its venues, though the sanctioning body has not outlined plans on how it will enforce the restriction. Disgruntled fans with Confederate flags drove past the main entrance to the Alabama race track prior to Sunday’s race, while a plane flew above the track pulling a banner of the flag that read “Defund NASCAR.”

Hours after the race was postponed by rain, NASCAR said the noose had been found. The sanctioning body vowed to do everything possible to find who was responsible and “eliminate them from the sport.”

Talladega County Sheriff Jimmy Kilgore said NASCAR contacted the FBI, which was handling the investigation. The FBI field office in Birmingham did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she was “shocked and appalled” by the “vile act” against Wallace, an Alabama native.

“There is no place for this disgusting display of hatred in our state,” Ivey said. “Bubba Wallace is one of us; 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.”

After the race Monday, Wallace said he’s going to “keep on truckin'” and looks forward to racing at Pocono Raceway next weekend.

“Hey, I’m still smiling. Long week ahead of me — probably a couple weeks, probably a couple months. …So I’ll be ready for Pocono.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.



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