A NASCAR fan was bullied for being LGBTQ+ ally. Then he designed Jimmie Johnson's car.

©The Charlotte Observer

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, poses with his helmet prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 18, 2020 in Kansas City, KS. - Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America/TNS

Noah Sweet remembers getting in the car and feeling like he needed to drive away, to suppress his racing thoughts, but he doesn’t remember exactly where he went the evening of Sept. 2. Those hours are a blur.

He was later told by his mother, Becky Southwell, that his credit card transactions showed him stopping at a KFC, then at a gas station for coffee. At one point, he made it to Grass Lake, a spot familiar to him and close to Southwell’s home in southeast Michigan. Police officers determined Sweet had driven back-and-forth on I-94, using cell towers to track his phone, which he turned off.

Had it been on, it would have been ringing nonstop. Calls and texts from his family members, friends and numbers he didn’t recognize, but Sweet wasn’t checking his messages after posting an ominous tweet that read, “I’m doing everyone a favor. No one will miss me years from now.”

“I got to a point where I just wanted to be gone,” Sweet, 19, told The Observer. “I just wanted to disappear. Not necessarily attempt suicide, but I just wanted to remove myself away from everything.”

The tweet quickly spread throughout the NASCAR community as Sweet’s followers tried to track down someone who was in touch with the budding graphic designer known as “Lefty.”

Southwell said she got a call from her niece as she was driving home that afternoon. She said her niece received a message through Facebook saying that Sweet posted an alarming tweet, and she informed Southwell. Realizing the implications, Southwell turned her car around and headed to her ex-husband’s house half an hour away in Saline, where Sweet lives, but she thought it was too late.

It was a mother’s worst nightmare.

“I thought he had committed suicide,” Southwell said. “I can’t tell you how dry my mouth was. I just couldn’t get my car to go fast enough.”

When she arrived, Sweet’s father, Chad, had already returned home from work and was searching for their missing son. They called the police, and officers from the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office arrived to aid in the search efforts. Sweet was found a few hours later by Southwell’s husband, Vern. Sweet was walking on the side of a road near their home in Grass Lake, unable to speak due to his almost paralyzing anxiety.

By then, Sweet said he had turned his phone back on to see a message from his 18-year-old brother, Gabe. That was the text that broke Sweet. Gabe has autism, and Sweet had been trying to be a role model but felt like he was “failing him” by putting everyone through such a scare. He braced himself to return home and apologize.

But Sweet hadn’t turned his phone off to hide from his family, he explained. He just couldn’t stand to look at it anymore.

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Sweet described himself as a “straight, white male” from a “slightly conservative-leaning” family. He fits the profile of a lifelong NASCAR fan who grew up in a house visible from Turn 4 at Michigan International Speedway, attending races with his grandfather and idolizing Jimmie Johnson.

But the teen also grew up with emotional sensitivities that fed into his creative capabilities and contributed to bouts of depression throughout high school.

“I always felt like I had an issue,” Sweet said.

He started drawing pictures of race cars when he was younger, which morphed into creating paint schemes through graphics programs and posting the designs on an online racing forum called Stunodracing.net in his early teens. Sweet had been posting his designs online for a while before April, when he was contacted by more recognizable members of the NASCAR community as the sport pivoted to virtual races during the early months of the pandemic.

He was tapped by a marketing officer at NASCAR to design virtual cars for Blue-Emu-sponsored drivers Bubba Wallace and Landon Cassill. (Wallace was running Sweet’s paint scheme when he infamously “rage quit” at virtual Bristol.) Sweet’s list of clients includes Xfinity drivers Ryan Vargas and Tommy Joe Martins.

“One of the nicest, most creative people I’ve met in racing & did an AMAZING job designing some of the gear in my shop,” Martins tweeted about Sweet in September.

The young designer’s popularity was rising when he found his next source of inspiration in June: A post from NASCAR’s official account supporting the sport’s inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. The tweet included the hashtag #PrideMonth and the phrase “I AM NASCAR” with its name colored in a rainbow gradient.

“I was extremely happy to see that,” Sweet said. He said he educated himself about the LGBTQ community and his privilege after queer and bisexual friends, and a close family member, confided in him about the struggles of openly expressing their sexuality.

“I want to further educate others and make people in that community feel more comfortable, feel like they’re welcome,” Sweet said. “So when June rolled around and I saw that post by NASCAR, I told myself, ‘I want to be part of this. I want to use my platform to spread this message.’”

He said he researched sponsors and discovered that Ally Bank, the primary partner for Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, was active in promoting the message of inclusion. Sweet said he also liked the fact that the name was a term he considered himself: An ally to marginalized groups.

Sweet used Johnson’s car as his canvas, outfitting the No. 48 with its Ally sponsor name on the hood and accenting it with rainbow-colored marks and the words “Ally Pride” on the quarter panels. He posted images of two similarly designed schemes — one with a black base and one with a white base — months apart on his public Instagram page, which was a shared personal and professional account before September.

Many followers messaged Sweet thanking him for his work, but their words of encouragement were drowned out by the fewer, but more potent hateful remarks. The insults hurled at Sweet, primarily through Instagram and Twitter, and vetted by The Observer, shattered him; some attacked his support for the LGBTQ community — “I wish there was (a) dislike button,” one comment read. “This should NEVER be on a NASCAR race car.”

Others attacked his sexuality and weaponized his personal life: “I can’t believe you have a girlfriend you queer,” one user wrote, adding that his girlfriend needed a straight man “f — -ing” her.

“Maybe I can make you disappear f — — t,” the message said.

The most damaging comments, Sweet said, were the posts claiming he was “doxing” Christians by reposting the hateful content, along with messages calling him a pedophile and DMs baiting him to kill himself.

“Obviously, I should have known,” Sweet said. “That the hatred, the backlash was going to happen. I was willing to accept that, but not to the degree I ever thought it was going to get to.”

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On Sept. 2, the hate became too much. Sweet’s family members and friends said he did not “seem well” in the weeks leading up to the public Twitter scare. Sweet was battling untreated depression and anxiety, which was compounded by the vitriol in his inbox.

The comments were getting to him. Southwell, who had previously followed her son on social media, stopped following him long before September because of the growing harassment, which increased after he posted paint schemes supporting Wallace and Black Lives Matter.

“I didn’t know how bad it was,” Southwell said.

Around 2 p.m. on the first Wednesday of September, Sweet said he reached a breaking point after reading the lies shared about him. Thinking that his reputation was irreparably damaged, he posted a tweet, turned off his phone, got in his car and drove away.

“I just didn’t want to see anymore messages that people were sending me,” Sweet said. “Anymore comments under the Pride post. And I just wanted to remove myself and I wanted to disappear.”

His mother said she initially fumed as she drove in search of her son, thinking he had hurt himself.

“And I was so angry,” Southwell said. “I was angry at Noah because I was like, ‘Why can’t you just get past this? Why is it so hard for you to stomach what people are saying? Don’t worry about it.’”

She said she knew her son was sensitive and eager to please others — “I spend too much time trying to make people OK with me,” Sweet said — But Southwell didn’t know the full extent of the bullying, nor her son’s mental health issues.

When his stepfather found him later, Sweet said he couldn’t speak because he was so anxious. He was admitted to a hospital in Chelsea, Mich., overnight, then voluntarily checked in to an inpatient program in Marshall for a week, where he worked with doctors, counselors and other patients to learn healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the episodes. Without his phone or computer, he unplugged from social media, which he said had developed into an addiction.

“I was just sitting there not being able to go without social media for like five minutes, which was really eye-opening for me,” Sweet said. “I spent a lot of time in there just re-evaluating everything.”

Sweet now regularly takes Zoloft, he said, to help keep him stable. He said the therapy has made him feel “a lot stronger,” and while the online harassment continues, the negative messages are drowned out by the thousands of posts supporting him and his work, unified by the rallying hashtag #WeLoveLefty, which was at one point was trending in the United States.

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The hashtag and its story became so popular in NASCAR circles that Jimmie Johnson and Ally’s chief marketing officer Andrea Brimmer took notice. They each responded to an update Sweet posted on Twitter after he was released from his inpatient program.

“Stay strong and head high,” Brimmer wrote. “The world needs more amazing talents and people like you Noah.”

Johnson followed: “Stay strong Noah!”

Brimmer then messaged Sweet to set up a call with Johnson and herself, and Sweet was able to virtually meet his lifelong hero. He said Johnson offered advice for dealing with ridicule as a public figure, then Brimmer offered something else: The opportunity to design Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy paint scheme for NASCAR’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

“Introducing Noah to his idol was my best Zoom meeting of the year,” a statement from Brimmer said. “Jimmie has touched the lives of so many fans and it’s really powerful to witness that at a personal level.”

Ally released the Lefty-designed scheme on Twitter on Tuesday. “That’s gonna be the cover of my portfolio,” Sweet said.

The design includes elements of Ally’s traditional white-and-purple color palette combined with Sweet’s personal touch of edgy lightning-bolts on the sides and a bright yellow-green No. 48.

“We gave a young artist a big opportunity and he delivered a striking and fresh design linking Jimmie’s past and present,” Brimmer said in a statement.

Brimmer said she is proud that Sweet’s first paint scheme to run on a live track will be on the No. 48 Ally car. Johnson, a seven-time Cup champion, called it an “honor” to run a Lefty Designs scheme for one of his final races of his full-time NASCAR career.

“Noah is talented and brave and I was able to spend some time with him (virtually) to talk about overcoming these obstacles,” Johnson said in a statement Wednesday. “He did a great job with the paint scheme, it looks really sharp and I would love to put it in Victory Lane for him.”

While Sweet said it was an unbelievable opportunity to meet his idol and design his paint scheme, he doesn’t want that to be the message others take away from his experience; It’s not OK to have a traumatic and public breakdown like he did, he said.

“The first step in getting stronger is asking for help,” Sweet said, encouraging those struggling with mental health issues to not wait to reach out for support.

He also said he’s still making mistakes and learning what it means to be a “good ally” as someone now known as “the guy who made the Pride car,” as well as learning how to deal with public ridicule by blocking or ignoring messages, and calmly stepping away from his phone at times.

But Sweet, who Southwell said continues to “wear his heart on his sleeve,” is no longer trying to disappear. With his car design carrying his favorite driver on center stage this weekend, he said he’ll let the positive voices influence him more than the negative ones.

“Before I freaked out on social media and people started bringing attention to me — before all of that — it was the part where I was looking out for others and doing things for others that brought me to this point, “ Sweet said. “These are people who want to see me succeed.”

“There are people who believe I do deserve it,” Sweet said. “And that’s what matters.”

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)