COLUMN: NASCAR's worst nightmare raises its ugly head

COLUMN: NASCAR's worst nightmare raises its ugly head

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Souvenier vendor Ed Sugg, left, talks with a customer at his facility near Talladega Superspeedway.

This was never going to be easy.

NASCAR has long ignored the undercurrent within the sport, choosing to look away for decades as jackasses and racists walked among the multitudes who work in the racing business or follow it as a fan.

A statement on Black Lives Matter, the banning of the confederate flag and the promise to bring change to the sport were honorable and necessary. But there was always going to be backlash.

And you could almost predict it coming from Talladega.

The noose found in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall Sunday was likely placed there by someone in or hired by the sport itself. Talladega Superspeedway is owned by NASCAR’s speedway corporation.

So this sickening episode that is playing out in real time seems to be an inside job, and NASCAR already has a short list of potential suspects. Not just anyone can walk into that garage. Hopefully, the investigation into the incident ends quickly with an announcement and then an exorcism.

The man who did this will pay dearly.

This has been a wild news cycle for the sport of stock-car racing, from the bold decision to restart the sport in the midst of a pandemic to the slow return of fans to the tracks. And in the shadows, we’ve seen protests and civil unrest from short-track fans flaunting law and common sense, trying to make statements about freedom and who knows what else.

That happened right here in North Carolina.

And, of course, Alabama.

The banning of the confederate flag made worldwide news, and Wallace, an Alabama native, became one of the best-known people in all of sports, almost overnight. You just knew the first test of the flag ban would come at Talladega.

Sure enough, lines of pickup trucks paraded up and down Speedway Boulevard in the hours before Sunday’s race, which was postponed until today. Concession stands were set up across the street from the track where rebel flags and Trump flags were being flown and sold.

An airplane flew overhead pulling a big confederate flag and the words "DEFUND NASCAR."

None of that was shown on television, and as the rain came down Sunday, another statement was released on Twitter.

“You won’t see a photo of a jackass flying a flag over the track here,” NASCAR’s executive vice president Steve O’Donnell tweeted. “But you will see this.”

He tweeted it under a photo of a white hand shaking a black hand.

Several hours later, NASCAR was releasing yet another statement, a numbing and troubling statement about a noose found in the garage stall of the sport’s only African-American driver.

NASCAR opened an immediate investigation to find the person or persons responsible and promised to “eliminate them from the sport.”

This wasn’t a yahoo fan, and NASCAR has a history of those. This certainly must be someone inside the sport itself, a team member, a NASCAR official or a track and safety worker. Not even drivers are allowed in the garages now that the sport is under COVID-19 protocols.

It’s not clear whether surveillance cameras are in the garage area. But it is clear who came and went inside the sprawling garage area Sunday. Only a certain number of people had the credentials to be there.

NASCAR needs to find who did this and quickly. Until it does, a cloud hangs over the sport that had done everything it could to cleanse itself from its past. Everyone there Sunday is a suspect until the culprit is found and exposed.

The sickening fact, though, is that NASCAR still has a problem with blatant racism, not just across the speedway or in the air but in its culture. Talladega has always been a place for wild and controversial expression, and for years NASCAR turned its head and looked away.

The past was waiting for the sport Sunday. The past is always waiting for NASCAR, and now that the sport is in the spotlight unlike at any time in its history, the images and painful memories are boiling to the surface.

NASCAR is in the midst of the worst day of its life. It’s worst nightmare has come to light.

And the worst thing about it is that the cancerous past is still there, not in the stands but in the sport itself.

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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