KERCHNER: Standing With Bubba

Bubba Wallace gives a thumbs up as he is surrounded by his fellow competitors prior to Monday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images Photo)
Bubba Wallace gives a thumbs up as he is surrounded by his fellow competitors prior to Monday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images Photo)
Haven Kerchner

CONCORD, N.C. — Outraged! Enraged! Appalled! Saddened. Heartbroken. #IStandWithBubba!

These were the statements circulating on the NASCAR Twitter feed Monday morning after it was announced that NASCAR and the FBI were investigating a noose left in the garage stall of Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 driven by Bubba Wallace.

Those feelings all swirled in my heart.

I met Bubba Wallace for the first time when he was 8 years old. He was a smart, funny and engaging little guy with immense talent behind the wheel of his little blue Bandolero. He had everything going for him except, maybe, the color of his skin.

I watched him progress from Bandoleros to Legend Cars and late models. I saw him go from a tiny little kid who probably didn’t weigh 40 pounds to an almost-grown teenager.

I was privy to an on-track incident where after crashing with another driver, that driver referred to Bubba with a racial slur. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time Bubba had heard that word and I knew it wouldn’t be the last, but it still broke my heart.

We all thought he may get some opportunities because he was a rare African American race car driver, but the challenges he would face would still be taller and more difficult.

But I always thought he had the talent and the personality to make it to the top of our sport. And he has.

Bubba Wallace stood up for what he believes in and for a group of people lacking a voice in his arena. He gave them a voice, even though he knew it would be hard and there would be a great deal of backlash from some “hardcore” fans.

That is what being a leader is. That is what effecting change looks like — doing hard things and risking the status quo.

There are not enough words to express how deplorable this act was, and I have no doubt that is shook Wallace to his core.

To know someone could hate him enough to evoke the imagery of lynching because they don’t like what he says or because of their feelings toward the Confederate flag, which NASCAR banned from its events on June 10, is unfathomable.

But while I am sickened by what happened at Talladega on Sunday, pride is the predominant feeling I have following the solidarity shown by NASCAR and its competitors Monday afternoon. I have pride in the way the industry as a whole has responded to this situation.

The images of all the drivers pushing Wallace’s car to the front of the pit lane on Monday with the entire garage community marching behind them in solidarity was a watershed moment. The sanctioning body, its drivers and crews demonstrated they have Bubba Wallace’s back.

They stood beside him and propped him up because they were horrified by what happened.

Bubba Wallace is making a difference. He is leading our sport forward, leaving behind the idea that NASCAR is a southern, redneck and racist sport.

I am proud to have watched Bubba Wallace grow up. I am proud to see him standing for what he believes in.

And Monday, I ugly cried as this sport that he’s always wanted to be a part of — showed him exactly how much he means to it.

When Richard Petty says, “I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bubba, yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day forward” — that means something. Our sport is changing for the better.

“Look at this,” Wallace said as he looked to a group of first-time fans following his 14th-place finish on Monday. “Is this the first time you’re here? From Atlanta?”

After the group’s enthusiastic response, Wallace said humbly, “That is so cool. The sport is changing.”

And for those who don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.