The message should have been received through the pre-race images from Talladega Superspeedway, but Darrell Wallace Jr. put it in words at the end of the day.
“The sport is changing,” said Wallace as he stood on the banking in front of cheering fans. Some of them were attending their first NASCAR race in support of the Richard Petty Motorsports driver.
Supporting Wallace and the Black community has been forefront in NASCAR over the last few weeks. But Monday, the industry took a stand to drive home that racism is not going to be tolerated in the sport anymore. In response to the vile act of a noose being left in Wallace’s garage stall, drivers and teams pushed his No. 43 Chevrolet to the front of the grid, hugged him, and stood with him for the national anthem.
Love was stronger than hate, and NASCAR drivers are leading by example. What they have done off track over the last few weeks will establish this as one of the most critical seasons in NASCAR’s history.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been a de facto ringleader. Just as Johnson organized the “I will listen” video ahead of the Atlanta race, where numerous drivers spoke of being a part of change, he was also the catalyst for what we saw before the start at Talladega.
On Monday morning, Johnson used the driver group chat to say he was going to stand in solidary with Wallace during the anthem. Ideas got tossed about, including a suggestion from Kevin Harvick to push Wallace’s car down the frontstretch. Eventually, the ideas and desire to do something grew into all drivers and teams making a powerful statement.
“When I woke up this morning, read the news… anger, pissed off, all of that,” said Johnson on Monday. “My blood was boiling. I could not believe that that had happened. As momentum built and the awareness of the statement the garage was going to make, how many people reached out, how many people wanted to be involved, it shifted to just great pride for our sport.
“From when I woke up… I was up early this morning, went for a bike ride, saw the news, from 5:30 to probably 10:30, everything took place. My emotions just followed that from complete and total anger and disbelief to then just great pride of our sport; how we were going to support that.”
It should go without saying that what was done to Wallace was disgusting and unacceptable. Unfortunately, NASCAR doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to issues of race. Wendell Scott, one of the first Black drivers in the sport, faced racism throughout his career. It took NASCAR officials until this month to officially ban the Confederate flag. For decades, the sport and its drivers went quiet when it came to social issues, and it created a culture that led to it being deservedly perceived as a white man’s sport that was rooted for by rednecks.
Not anymore. NASCAR is trying to be better, and is trying hard to make it known that all are welcome. Drivers and teams are doing their part by showing love and having conversations to educate themselves.
“My immediate reaction was just… speechless,” said Aric Almirola. “I couldn’t believe that somebody would do that. I didn’t know really what to think, other than there’s just a lot of sadness, a lot of hurt people, a lot of sadness. I know just from my 36 years of experience on this earth that hurt people hurt people. Happy people don’t hurt people. You see people lash out, show signs of evil and darkness. It just comes from a bad place.
“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. I feel like as an industry, that’s what we did today.”
Joey Logano posted a great video on his social media channels early Monday. “I cannot believe the hate that someone would have in their heart to put a device that kills people in someone’s garage because of the color of his skin or what he stands for,” he said. “Fix your heart, man.”
Fix your heart. Be a good person. Choose love, as Logano said.
“No baby is born racist, it’s taught,” Logano said. “Just think about that. Fix your heart.”
Race winner Ryan Blaney had just as strong a message in his post-race remarks.
“I don’t want (Talladega) to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR,” said Blaney. “I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we are not going to take it anymore. I’m getting sick of this ****. It’s not something that he (Wallace) should deal with.”
NASCAR is changing and changing for the better. And no-one will miss those who don’t want to change with it.