By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — “It wasn’t a hoax. It was real.”
That’s what former FBI su- pervisory agent Stanley Ruf- fin tells viewers in “RACE: Bubba Wallace,” a Netflix docuseries that chronicles the only Black driver at NAS- CAR’s top level and his pro- fessional rise and personal role in social justice issues. The series is targeted to a non-NASCAR audience un- familiar with Wallace’s emer- gence or the facts surround- ing the noose found in his garage stall at an Alabama track.
Wallace had successfully called on NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events in June 2020. Two weeks later, NASCAR told Wallace a noose had been discovered in his assigned stall at Tal- ladega Superspeedway.
The incident occurred at the height of a national racial reckoning following the mur- ders of Black men George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Wallace felt compelled to take a public position for the first time in his life — he was 26 years old, NASCAR’s only fulltime Black driver, and although he drove for icon Richard Petty, Wallace was an underperformer seeking his first career Cup Series win.
The FBI investigated and determined the noose had been in that garage stall for months, since the unit had last been used. Wallace was not the victim of a hate crime.
He faced national ridicule — then-President Donald Trump accused Wallace of perpetrating a hoax — even though Wallace did not discover the noose or even see it. Wallace was accused of orchestrating the entire incident to boost his career.
“Mr. Wallace had nothing to do with the placement of that noose,” Ruffin, who led the investigation, says in the docuseries that debuts Tuesday, two days after the season-opening Daytona 500.
The six-episode series di- rected by Erik Parker docu- ments Wallace’s life and ul- timate shift into a change agent willing to use his voice and platform. Wallace want- ed a show — he had asked for Netflix to create something like its “Drive to Survive” behind-the-scenes Formula One show — to chronicle his first year driving for 23XI Racing.
Wallace learned the project had to include his tumultu- ous 2020.
“I just wanted to go race,” Wallace said. He told The As- sociated Press that “I was a pain in the ass,” to Parker as the director tried to focus on 2020.
Wallace exploded in expo- sure and pulled in millions of
dollars in new sponsorship during 2020 and he parlayed it into the job of a lifetime. The funding helped Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan launch 23XI, and Wallace wanted to chronicle what he believed was his best chance to earn his first career Cup victory.
Parker relies on Wallace in “RACE” to recount the emo- tional roller coaster of Tal- ladega, from the discovery of the noose to Wallace earn- ing his first career victory 15 months later at the same track.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps alerted Wallace to the noose, and the driver in- cluded his estranged father among the first phone calls made. Their relationship has been strained since his par- ents’ 2016 divorce, a theme touched upon as the possible root of Wallace’s admitted struggles with depression.
“They found a noose,” Wal- lace recounted telling his fa- ther.
“You got a gun?” Wallace said Darrell Wallace Sr. re- plied.
“You need to get one.” Parker told AP he found
asking Wallace to relive 2020 conflicted with how Wallace lives.
“It seems like his mantra is moving forward, moving for- ward, moving forward,” said Parker, who added that he felt compelled to accurately document what was “such a traumatic time, not just for Bubba, but for the country.”
“I can see where somebody like Bubba, he was trying in his mind to move on to the next day, he’s already gone past that,” Parker told AP. “So getting him back, it al- ways felt like dragging him back to the past, while he’s running to the future. It
(AP Photo/John Raoux)
wasn’t all easy, but it was an important endeavor.”
That was Wallace’s attitude Wednesday at Daytona Inter- national Speedway, where he deflected questions about his race.
He’s still the only Black driver at NASCAR’s top level, but 34-year-old Jesse Iwuji, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, will be- come the second fulltime Black driver this season with plans to run in the second- tier Xfinity Series.
Iwuji co-owns his team alongside Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, who enters NASCAR a year after Jordan and entertainer Pit- bull joined the ownership ranks. Floyd Mayweather has a car that will attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500, as does NY Racing, a team owned by Black entrepre- neur John Cohen.
Bubba Wallace puts on his helmet as he prepares for NASCAR Cup Series auto race practice at Daytona International Speed- way, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Daytona Beach, Fla.