TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — It's been nearly 16 months since Bubba Wallace was waiting out a rainstorm in his motorhome in the Talladega Superspeedway infield when NASCAR informed its only full-time Black driver that a noose had been found in his garage stall.
Wallace never saw the noose, never even stepped foot in the garage. It wasn't Wallace who called in the FBI — NASCAR did that — and from what he'd been told, Wallace was led to believe he'd been the victim of a hate crime.
When the FBI later ruled that the noose had been fashioned to the end of a garage door pull during NASCAR's visit to Talladega nine months earlier, making it mere coincidence that Wallace was assigned that stall, he was subjected to a barrage of online vitriol that spread to the grandstands at several tracks in the aftermath.
Wallace is used to being booed by now, and on the biggest day of his professional career the trolls came for him again when he darted to the front of the field to win Monday's rain-shortened, rescheduled race at Talladega.
It was rigged, many cried, saying NASCAR called the race only because it would benefit Wallace. That claim was one of the gentler barbs directed at Wallace, the first Black driver since Wendell Scott in 1963 to win at the top level of the sport.
Not even in this pinnacle moment of his career could Wallace escape the doubters who somehow believe he cooked up the noose as a hoax in June 2020 to garner support during the nationwide racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd.
Wallace was not a victim of a hate crime, but the hate has followed him since he became vocal in matters of social justice and successfully called on NASCAR to ban the display of the Confederate flag at its events.
Denny Hamlin, a fellow driver and now Wallace's boss as co-owner along with Michael Jordan of the 23XI Racing team, encouraged Wallace to get off social media for his own mental health.
“People just automatically dislike me because I hired Bubba Wallace," said Hamlin, a first-year team owner also who scoffed at the notion the race was fixed.
“I spend way too much money and these teams spend too much money to fix it,” he said. “Any time there’s unique circumstances, it’s fixed. When a team is close to winning a football game, they fumble on the one yard line, it’s fixed. It’s just (criticism from) someone that’s having a bad day.”
Wallace said after Monday's race he had followed Hamlin's advice several months ago and stopped reading social media.
“It’s helped out a ton. I would go and read the comments (and) after a bad race I would become one of those haters that doesn’t know anything. I would become one of them. Just start telling myself a bunch of dark thoughts,” Wallace said. "In high school, I was always worried about what other people thought of me. I finally let that go.
“I’m not going to be able to please everybody. Doesn’t matter if I won by a thousand laps or won a rain-shortened race, not everybody is going to be happy with it,” he said. “That’s OK because I know one person that is happy and that’s me because I’m a winner and they’re not.”
There's no telling what this victory, the first for Wallace in the Cup Series in 143 starts spanning four seasons, will do for his own confidence. Wallace has admitted to previous bouts of depression and the day before the rescheduled Talladega race Hamlin revealed that teaching Wallace “emotional regulation” will play a pivotal role in Wallace's development.
“Dealing with adversity, and these are things that he'd probably tell you, it's just getting too high, too low, having super high expectations and when things don't go perfectly as planned, how do you respond?” Hamlin said Sunday. “Every driver goes through some sort of adversity through the course of a race and how you respond to that is what dictates usually how you finish. I just think he needs to learn that emotional regulation because he wants it really, really bad.”
Little did Hamlin know he'd be celebrating with his driver the very next day in the first victory for 23XI Racing, a team that didn't even exist until last November but was built around Wallace and the eight figures in sponsorship he'd landed as companies new to NASCAR rushed to support him last season.
Wallace said he knew he'd win at Talladega and that he has witnesses he told ahead of time he'd be taking the checkered flag. But when the race was rained out Sunday and he sat in the infield the same way he did 16 months earlier, Wallace admitted it was “just like, man, déjà vu.”
He considered reaching out to NASCAR President Steve Phelps, who was the one who came to Wallace's motorhome last year to inform him of the noose.
“I was close to texting Steve Phelps saying ‘I don’t want (another) phone call,’” Wallace said. “It was basically the same thing that happened. Rain delay, called the race, going to race on Monday. You think about those things when you come to this place.”
Wallace is working through the challenges that come from being Black in a predominately white sport with a past rooted in the Deep South. It can be hard: then-President Donald Trump last year falsely accused Wallace of making up the noose, and all four race weekends at Talladega since the flag ban have been marked by a convoy of vehicles parading past the main entrance to the track with their own Confederate flags.
Wallace, who turns 28 on Friday, credited his mother and his new fiancée, Amanda, for helping him hold it all together. Neither was at the race; Amanda had returned to North Carolina for work on Monday, Wallace's mother has started a new life in Atlanta.
His mother sends him daily encouragement, he said, scriptures and “always is holding that positive light.” When he finally got his mother and fiancée on the phone after his win, the tears flowed freely.
“I was one of those people that was telling myself that I haven’t won. It’s tough to kind of get out of that mentality,” Wallace said, who admitted the toll the last two years has led to “some sleepless nights” that led him to seek help.
“Talking to professionals to help me stay focused on the task at hand. Really listening to my family. Amanda being there pushing me,” Wallace said. "I go into some of these races and I just have a negative attitude. She rips me... to get in shape and to show up with some positivity.
“It’s my family pushing me and knowing that as I’m being the realistic — sometimes pessimistic — person, they hold the optimism for me and help me show back up at the racetrack with a good mindset.”
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