“It does nothing for anybody to be there flying, so I don’t see any reason,” the star driver said at the time. “It belongs in the history books and that’s about it."
But it soon became clear that NASCAR’s request had gone nowhere. Confederate flags were still flying high on campers in the infield and at nearby campsites, especially at racetracks in the South. Despite pleas from officials, there would be fans in the crowd who denied it was a sign of racial oppression.
So NASCAR’s announcement Tuesday that it was banning the flag outright marks a stunning step for the racing world. The story of how the sport came up short just five years ago shows how much the consensus has shifted in the wake of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality following George Floyd’s death last month.
Since the sport’s early days on hardscrabble Southern dirt tracks, stock-car racing has been irreversibly linked to the Confederate flag. Nowhere was that connection more visible than the speedway in Darlington, S.C., a historic track where the segregationist politician Strom Thurmond once cut the ribbon.
For decades, the Dixie flag was used as the logo on Darlington’s poster merchandise, including for a spring race known as the Rebel 300. “Dixie” played over the speakers ahead of starting ceremonies, and a costumed rebel soldier joined the winning driver to celebrate in Victory Lane.
Then, in 2015, nine black churchgoers were killed in Charleston, a little more than two hours away. The massacre made waves across the South, but it plunged South Carolina in particular into a summer of reckoning.
NASCAR was not spared from the soul-searching. After Earnhardt Jr. said the flag was “offensive to an entire race,” the association’s head promised to go as far as he could to strike it from the racetrack.
“I personally find it an offensive symbol, so there is no daylight how we feel about it and our sensitivity to others who feel the same way,” Chairman Brian France, whose grandfather formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in 1948, said at the time.
Amid a massive backlash from fans, he stopped short of banning the Confederate flag entirely. NASCAR would ban its use on racecars and licensed merchandise. But the association decided just to ask fans to stop displaying the Civil War symbol, rather than ordering them to do so.
Later that summer, as the Southern 500 was set to return to its original Labor Day weekend date for the first time in years, France’s request was put to the test. The announcement had not helped the sport’s already fraying relationship with its core fan base, and officials wanted to win them back.
In a nod to its regional roots, NASCAR billed the weekend as a “throwback” event. Any official images of the Confederate flag had been wiped from the Darlington racetrack, and track officials even offered fans a flag trade: Anyone who gave up a Confederate flag would get an American one in return.
No one, it seemed, took them up on that deal.
Confederate flags “flew on 20-foot-high poles, they flew nailed to 2x4s sticking out of the back beds of pickup trucks, they flew on plastic window clips,” Jay Busbee wrote in Yahoo Sports at the time. “They were everywhere, in large part because everyone outside Darlington says they shouldn’t be.”
One fan told the State he would keep flying a Confederate flag, just as he had for the past quarter-century. Down the line of RVs, another said NASCAR’s request was an insult to his heritage and his Civil War veteran relatives.
“They’re forgetting what put them where they are,” one spectator said to the newspaper, holding a 1976 program emblazoned with Confederate flag. “This is my roots, and this is Darlington’s roots.”
Nearly five years later, the new announcement from NASCAR points to what may be a tipping point for America on the issues of race and its own history.
Following widespread protests of racial injustice and police brutality, Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in the sport’s elite Cup Series, called this week for NASCAR to ban displays of the flag.
“There’s going to be a lot of angry people that carry those flags proudly, but it’s time for change,” he said during an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon on Monday. “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. So it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them.”
Over the past week, Confederate statues have come down in cities across the country, and even the Army said it would consider renaming bases named for Confederate leaders. (The plan was later shot down by President Trump.) Now, it was time for the flag to go, too, Wallace said.
“We should not be able to have an argument over that,” he added. “It is a thick line we cannot cross anymore.”
Hours after NASCAR announced the ban Wednesday, he strapped into his racecar for a 500-lap race at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway. His No. 43 Chevrolet had been covered in a dark coat of paint, with a black fist and a white fist clasped in a grip on the hood.
The message printed above the wheels rang loud and clear: “#BlackLivesMatter."