Driver Bubba Wallace waits for the start of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series in Homestead, Florida. NASCAR officials are investigating an incident from Sunday where a noose was left in the garage of Wallace. Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Hate, not heritage. Pure hate. What else could prompt a person, or multiple people, to place a noose in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the man who nudged NASCAR into finally outlawing the Confederate flag? For such a racist, there is only one threat greater than a trailblazing black driver with aspirations of change: a trailblazing black driver who succeeds at change.

On Sunday, before bad weather delayed the race at Talladega Superspeedway, fans still angry about the flag ban waved their Confederacy relics as they drove by the racetrack in Lincoln, Alabama. A plane also flew above the event towing both a flag and a banner that read “Defund NASCAR.” The protests were inevitable, but it takes a disturbing combination of bigotry and nerve to try to intimidate Wallace in this manner. And when you consider that Wallace drives the No. 43 Chevrolet of Richard Petty Motorsports, this was also an attack on the sport’s greatest living legend.

Forget the King, though. Gotta put Bubba in his place.

Problem is, it didn’t work. Wallace isn’t scared, and now NASCAR is on a mission to “identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport.” With video surveillance and limited access to key areas because of novel coronavirus precautions, it shouldn’t be difficult to find the scum.

“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,” NASCAR said in a statement announcing the incident.

In this case, the transparency about the incident speaks well of the sport’s sincerity. For decades, NASCAR has been pursuing evolution, moving away from its perception as the favorite Southern redneck pastime and trying to broaden its audience. Few, if any, American sports leagues have gone to NASCAR’s lengths to overhaul its image and create a culture of diversity and inclusion. The sport has incredible strengths, particularly when it comes to technology and fan access, that suggest enormous potential for growth. But it has yet to fully prove its appeal to a broader, more diverse audience.

Now, NASCAR has the biggest story in a barren sports world – and it is as ugly and inflaming as it gets. The extreme limited access to infields right now makes it overwhelmingly likely that someone within the sport is the perpetrator. Anybody want to talk about meritocracy and the lack of racism in sports today?

Anybody want to use the “heritage, not hate” excuse for the Confederate flag today?

This is an important sports moment amid all the protests. Consider it evidence of how symbols and institutions are often used to keep black people down. For at least one person at Talladega on Sunday, it was so necessary to denounce pleas for unity and justice and to defend a flag – not the flag, a flag – that threatening to lynch Wallace felt like the right call. There’s a terrifying level of brokenness in that kind of twisted logic.

Don’t talk to me about a few bad apples, either. The noose may be extreme, but in subtler ways, there is a widespread tendency to dehumanize African Americans who challenge and defy the norm.

NASCAR called the noose incident a “heinous act.” It was also something far more upsetting: expected. From the beginning, there was little doubt in my mind that Wallace would be mistreated for his stance. He put Black Lives Matter and messages of unity on his car and went after a symbol that white Southerners have held onto for a shamefully long time. Some kind of retaliation was coming.

Hate, not heritage. Pure hate.

Racists can’t stand a powerful black sports figure. That’s why people once broke into Bill Russell’s suburban Boston house, scrawled racial epithets on the floor and defecated on his bed. That’s why one of LeBron James’s Los Angeles homes was vandalized with a racial slur three years ago.

When racists feel themselves shrinking, they get all kinds of nasty. They want to show strength, superiority. But it just makes them shrivel more. After a while, all that’s left is a coward.

“Today’s 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,” Wallace wrote in a Twitter post Sunday.

Later, he added: “As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you.’ This will not break me. I will not give in nor will I back down.”

The question now becomes whether all of NASCAR will match his intensity. It isn’t surprising that the sport has a lot of work to do. It can’t graduate to progressive simply by agreeing with Wallace and firing Kyle Larson for using a racial epithet. And it can’t move past this nightmare just by finding the racist possibly in its ranks and throwing him overboard.

Every team and every person associated with NASCAR is going to need to speak up and speak well. The support for Wallace must be overwhelming, and the condemnation of any racist loiterers sullying their culture must be forceful. It is a message that must be sent at the highest levels of the sport, which means owners such as Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske and even Joe Gibbs have to become convincing allies.

It’s either unite to create a stronger voice, or be the sport that gave only perfunctory assistance to its young black star in a time of national racial unrest.

The noose in Wallace’s garage stall should be viewed as an attempt to terrorize the whole sport. For NASCAR, the response will be a defining moment in its long, slow transformation.

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