Fifty-odd years ago, they opened the Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Ala.
It was then and remains the spiritual home of NASCAR, in the same way Fenway Park is where baseball lives. It’s not a state-of-the-art facility, but it is the one most steeped in nostalgia.
One of the people most responsible for its construction was then-Alabama governor and frequent presidential hopeful, George C. Wallace.
When he died, the bulletproof Lincoln Continental Wallace used to tour the track in before races was displayed by the nearby Alabama Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Wallace is remembered for two things – NASCAR and segregation. He’s the man who came up with, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.”
So it’s fitting that NASCAR would reckon with its history at Talladega.
A week ago, the racing series banned the display of the Confederate flag at its events. One driver quit in protest.
As NASCAR vaulted to the fore of the debate about racial inequality, all the media focus fell on Bubba Wallace (clearly, no relation), the circuit’s only Black driver.
Every sport is its own ecosystem, but NASCAR’s is the most insular. Even car-racing obsessives can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm for watching guys turn left for hours at a time.
While just about all other pro sports boomed in the late-20th century, NASCAR contracted. It tried to drop its hillbilly trappings and Disney-fy the experience, but that enraged its core fans. So it slipped back into parochialism and cultishness.
Wallace was meant to be the way forward. Born a few hours away in Mobile – so, Southern – but different from the usual good ol’ boy. His very simple task – prove singlehandedly that NASCAR could adapt.
It’s not a fair ask to begin with. As you may gather while watching an out-of-control car cartwheel across a track, racing requires some concentration. Liberating a regional obsession from its past sounds like full-time work.
Upon being “discovered” in 2012, Wallace was at first willing to blend in. He said he’d endured racist insults since “Day 1” of his career.
“It doesn’t hurt me,” Wallace told the New York Times back then. “It bothers my parents more than anything. For me, it’s something I hear through one ear and it goes right through the other and just keep moving along and don’t even dwell on it.”
Which sounds impossible.
Wallace built his resume for several years. By 2017, he’d made it to the show. He’s still only 26 now. He still hasn’t won a Cup Series race. But two weeks ago, he became the most famous active race-car driver in North America.
He was the one who called for the Confederate flag to be removed from NASCAR events. After resisting this change for decades, it took NASCAR less than two days to agree.
He was the one who came up with the idea of emblazoning his ride with a Black Lives Matter stencil. His team owner, Richard Petty, agreed and added a peace sign.
And it was Team Wallace who discovered a noose hanging in their stall at Talladega on Sunday.
At that moment, whatever shift was underway in NASCAR became a seismic event. The usual caution amongst pro athletes – especially those who live on sponsorship – fell away. The whole sport rallied to Wallace in angry solidarity. Before Monday’s race, all the other drivers and crew pushed his car to the start. Petty was the first to embrace Wallace afterwards.
In a statement, Petty – who is the moral conscience as well as the most revered competitor in the sport – declared himself “enraged” by this “filthy act.”
“I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bubba, yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day forward,” Petty said.
In that statement, you heard the unmistakable echo of George C. Wallace’s perverse motto, now bent back in the direction of kindness.
A lot of people were also enraged about this, but I agree with the more nuanced position taken by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.
“If the ignorant have to showcase themselves in order for this to come out of the dark, for me, that’s a cause for celebration,” Smith said.
You can’t properly leech the wound until you drain the pus.
Real change on the most pernicious and divisive societal issues isn’t the result of agreement. People have a way of backsliding on agreements. It’s the result of disgust. Real change happens when one side recognizes its own argument as morally repugnant.
Whomever hung that noose made an intellectually honest debate about the Confederate flag and racism in NASCAR impossible. Because now you’re either with the charismatic public figure who’s trying to find a middle ground so that everyone can feel welcome in the sport; or you’re with the as-yet-anonymous guy whose first instinct is to threaten death.
Once the cops are finished investigating, they ought to scrap George Wallace’s Lincoln and put that noose into the museum’s permanent collection. That’s where the imagined past some people are still revering leads back to in reality.
I’m not sure what you can say for a culture that embraces the idea of murdering its neighbours. I am absolutely sure it’s not something you can build a future on.
Some day soon, they’ll make a movie about all this. This story has everything – good vs. evil, resilience, fast cars, changes of heart, and, most importantly, redemption. Not Bubba Wallace’s. But other people’s through Wallace. He has given NASCAR an opportunity to let go of its past and move forward.
Check back in 10 years to see if it’s turned out.
By that point, Wallace may or may not have realized his potential at his job. Car racing is not like soccer or boxing. A lot of your success is at the whim of the car.
But assuming NASCAR has figured out a way to emerge from its malaise and thrive from this point on, they will say of Wallace that he was one of the greats. Because he created the circumstances in which that could happen.