It was 2015, and NASCAR’s then-chairman, Brian France, was in a bind. The killing of nine African Americans at a Charleston, S.C., church by a white gunman — who had previously posed for a photo holding the Confederate battle flag — left France grappling to find the right response.
A great deal of anger and attention was fixed on NASCAR’s decades-long association with the flag, often mistakenly called the “Stars and Bars.” It had long been barred from display on race cars and merchandise. But many fans in the Southern-born sport had continued to hoist the colors atop their RVs on racetrack infields during races. Alienating those core fans could backfire.
France hedged. He announced that NASCAR would be “working within the industry” to dissociate itself from this “offensive and divisive symbol.”
As someone who has covered the sport for more than two decades, I recall greeting that statement with a “Yeah, right.” NASCAR, I believed, would never outright ban the Confederate battle flag.
But now it has, in a gesture of inclusion that might have been impossible at any moment other than this one, when the coronavirus pandemic and racial strife have thrown the country and its institutions into turmoil.
Longtime fans could tell you why it took so long. The great irony of a sport that originated in the 1940s with rebellious moonshiners outrunning the law is that, in NASCAR, everybody knows their place and keeps to it. The sanctioning body guards its brand; the drivers are marketing-friendly representatives of their sponsors; fans focus on speed and strategy. Beginning in the 1980s, the formula produced periods of unprecedented growth and rich TV deals.
But when Brian France took over the reins from his father in 2003 (he has since given way to his uncle, Jim France), his idea was to grow the sport well beyond its Southern borders. The dream was to be embraced by America without necessarily representing it. Yes, the California-born Jeff Gordon led a slew of non-Southern drivers to the tracks starting in the early 1990s, but the Confederate colors still flew there. A sport so white it makes the Oscars look diverse began a “Drive for Diversity” in 2004, bringing women and people of color into the mix — at the slow speed of a caution-flag run.
But a few years ago, the Drive for Diversity did help bring on board Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, a proud son of Mobile, Ala., and the first African American driver racing in NASCAR’s top tier since 2006.
Yes, that’s right: NASCAR has one black driver in its top division; it has had just four black drivers throughout its nearly 70-year history. That a major sport in the year 2020 even requires a Drive for Diversity program is preposterous, but it is a testament to NASCAR’s brand power that even true fans — I count myself among them — rarely called them on it.
Wallace also loves the sport, and when he came in — knowing that each NASCAR racing generation requires a new Jackie Robinson all over again — he couldn’t have missed the Confederate flags. But he made no waves. If you love the sport, it was just something you had to accept. Or as they say at the track, “That’s racin’. ”
But the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody has set off seismic cultural shifts across the nation. And Bubba Wallace could stay silent no longer.
“No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race,” he said earlier this week. “So it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here.” And NASCAR agreed.
For Wednesday night’s race at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway, Wallace’s No. 43 car was all in black, with #BlackLivesMatter running across the rear quarter panel, and the words “Compassion, Love, Understanding” along the rear. It was a beautiful sight.
But will the flag ban really take? We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and fans aren’t even allowed at the track until the June 14 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the running of the (irony alert) Dixie Vodka 400, with 1,000 South Florida military servicemembers invited to sit in the grandstands. The June 21 race at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway (seating capacity 80,000) will allow 5,000 fans to attend.
When racing resumes, some fans will almost certainly bring the flag to events, and NASCAR will have to back up its vow.
I’m grateful the sport is taking this long-overdue step into the modern age by saying it will ban the Confederate battle flag. But to be honest, I’ll believe it when I don’t see it.