In announcing the ban, NASCAR issued the following statement: “The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special.”
The move to ban the flag comes amid a flurry of efforts to dismantle contentious symbols and statues as the nation comes to grips with the May 25 death of George Floyd and calls for racial justice after the unarmed black man was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. In Alexandria, Va., city officials directed the removal of a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier “Appomattox,” while in Montgomery, Ala., demonstrators removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee themselves. Similar scenes have played out on college campuses and in public squares of other Southern cities.
Within hours of NASCAR’s announcement, Wallace, 26, a Mobile native, strapped into a No. 43 Chevrolet with a paint scheme that proclaimed “#BlackLivesMatter” to compete in Wednesday’s 500-lap race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
With no spectators allowed at NASCAR races because of precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus, the sport’s officials were not tasked with enforcing the ban or confiscating any Confederate flags Wednesday. The #BlackLivesMatter Chevy and field of 39 other racecars competed in front of a televised audience only, so there was no immediate gauge of fan response.
For NASCAR, banning the Confederate flag, which many of its core fans have flown from their infield RVs and motor homes at several of its Southern tracks, though in lesser numbers in recent years, was a stunning step.
Its brand of stock-car racing sprang from hardscrabble Southern dirt tracks and a tradition of moonshine running in the Appalachian foothills.
Throughout NASCAR’s early decades, the Confederate flag was a proud part of the race-day fabric, particularly at Southern tracks such as Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, where a costumed rebel soldier customarily joined the winning driver and race-day beauty queen in Victory Lane.
In 2015, then-NASCAR chairman Brian France, whose grandfather formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in 1948, urged fans to refrain from displaying Confederate flags at the sport’s tracks following the shooting death of nine African Americans at a South Carolina church.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., then the sport’s most popular driver, spoke out against displays of the flag as well.
“I think it’s offensive to an entire race,” Earnhardt said at the time. “It does nothing for anybody to be there flying, so I don’t see any reason. It belongs in the history books, and that’s about it."
While NASCAR prohibited use of the Confederate flag on its racecars and licensed merchandise, France’s initiative to discourage fans from displaying it lacked teeth and riled many core fans who argued that the Confederate flag was a symbol of a proud heritage rather than a symbol of racism, slavery and oppression.
But the death of Floyd and the subsequent protests throughout the country calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality proved a pivot point for NASCAR.
It is the latest major sport to respond in some fashion in recent weeks.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged Friday that the league had erred in ignoring players who spoke out against police brutality and racial injustice and, in a stark reversal, encouraged players to speak out.
“I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country,” Goodell said. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”
The U.S. Soccer Federation voted Tuesday to repeal its 2017 policy requiring players to “stand respectfully” during the national anthem, following calls from its national teams. That policy was instituted after midfielder Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the anthem before a 2016 U.S. match against Thailand to express her solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of racial injustice and police brutality.
During the broadcast of Sunday’s NASCAR race from Atlanta Motor Speedway, several prominent drivers, including seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, added their voices to the growing number of athletes speaking out for racial justice via videotaped messages.
Wallace was part of that video appealing to NASCAR fans and said, “We are trying to deliver the message across: Listen and learn.”
During the interview Monday on CNN, Wallace called for his sport to go a step further.
“My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags,” Wallace said. “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."
Meanwhile, President Trump said Wednesday that he would “not even consider” growing calls to rename U.S. military bases that honor Confederate generals. “Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with,” Trump tweeted.
For many NASCAR fans, Trump is a hero. He was greeted with rousing cheers at the season-opening Daytona 500 in February, where he served as the race’s Grand Marshal, circled Daytona International Speedway in his black presidential limousine, gave a prerace speech and issued the command, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”