The NASCAR driver says the past month has "been a roller coaster, but it's been cool to see the positive outreach from fans and other athletes"

By Lindsay Kimble
July 08, 2020 10:00 AM
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On June 21, NASCAR was rocked by the news that a noose was found hanging in the Talladega Superspeedway garage assigned to driver Bubba Wallace for a Cup Series race.

NASCAR notified Wallace — the only African-American top-tier driver — of the discovery and an FBI investigation followed. The FBI ultimately determined that months earlier someone had fashioned a noose out of the pull-down rope for the garage door, but the agency declined to describe it as an intentional racist act.

Wallace, 26, has dealt with a rash of public criticism since then, including a tweet from President Donald Trump calling the incident a "hoax."

"I knew how it was going to be received. ... I'd never even seen the image until Tuesday morning," he tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, referencing the image of the noose released by NASCAR. "I'm not even allowed in the garage because of COVID-19, I have strict orders to stay out of the garage. So, I'd never seen it. And so, I knew how it was going to look and that's the unfortunate side of how people are magically going to take that and place the blame on me."

Bubba Wallace
Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty

Wallace — whose father is white and whose mother is African-American — says, however, "that's okay."

"I'm done trying to stand up against them because they're simple-minded and they're not going to change in their ways," he says of his detractors. "I'll continue to help educate others that want to be a part of the change and maybe one day the naysayers will understand the real message that we're trying to push."

Bubba Wallace takes a selfie with other drivers that pushed his car to the front in the pits of the Talladega Superspeedway prior to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series auto race.
John Bazemore/AP/Shutterstock

And Wallace had a similar message for the president, tweeting back "love over hate every day ... even when it's HATE from the POTUS."

The athlete — a teenage racing prodigy who now drives the No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports — tells PEOPLE the past month has "been a roller coaster, but it's been cool to see the positive outreach from fans and other athletes."

He was also heartened by the support he received from the organization and other drivers, who, in an act of solidarity, pushed his car to the front position for the race.

For now, Wallace says he's going to "just keep fighting the good fight for me and continue to stand up for what I believe in; it's probably the most positive thing I can do."

And the activism "hasn't detoured" Wallace's focus on the track, he says.

"I'm still able to [drive] with a clear mind, so it's been good," Wallace tells PEOPLE. "It's been good to showcase my talents and what we're going through as a race team and trying to get better and better."

For more on Bubba Wallace, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.