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The Confederate flag long has flown in the face of NASCAR’s hopes for broader appeal

Driver Bubba Wallace is interviewed before a NASCAR Cup Series race Wednesday in Martinsville, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

More than any other sport, auto racing is driven by corporate sponsors, whose investments fund high-priced race teams in exchange for using their racecars as rolling billboards. From the time NASCAR set its sights on becoming a major league sport with national reach, the Confederate flag has been part of a Southern heritage that the sport’s executives have tried to shed.

Until this week, NASCAR had tried to walk a fine line between discouraging the contentious symbol, which offends many potential fans and corporate CEOs, without driving off a segment of its core fans, who view the flag and their right to fly it as proud declarations of heritage. But on Wednesday, the sport took its strongest stance yet on the issue, prohibiting anyone from displaying the flag at its events.

NASCAR executives haven’t spoken publicly about the process by which they reached their decision. The announcement came 48 hours after Bubba Wallace, the lone full-time African American driver in its elite ranks, called for the change on CNN amid the third week of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

NASCAR’s three-sentence statement announcing the policy change made no reference to Floyd, the unarmed black man whose death was captured on video as a Minneapolis police office knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. It did not mention Black Lives Matter or allude to racial justice, nor did it characterize the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate or oppression.

The statement in full: “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 display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

NASCAR bans display of Confederate flag at all events and properties

According to a person familiar with NASCAR executives’ deliberations, banning the flag outright was the logical and necessary next step. If NASCAR truly wants all potential fans to feel welcome at its tracks, as its rhetoric and diversity initiatives have suggested over the past two decades, the consensus was that it was time to “walk the talk” in a more emphatic way.

Amid stock-car racing’s boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the sport abandoned short tracks in the South for gleaming new superspeedways in Las Vegas and suburban Los Angeles, NASCAR banned images of the Confederate flag on its racecars, drivers’ uniforms and official merchandise. Following the 2015 slaughter of nine African American churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., NASCAR went further, asking fans not to display the flag at its tracks. But it stopped short of an outright ban, deeming that a step too far.

Ramsey Poston, who was NASCAR’s managing director of communications from 2004 to 2011, was part of several closed-door conversations about how the sport could strike that balance.

“We had very frank conversations internally at NASCAR in the early 2000s, and there was really no resistance [to dissociating from the flag],” recalled Poston, now president of Tuckahoe Strategies, a D.C.-area crisis communications firm. “The executives got it; they understood. The sport was transitioning. It wanted to be more attractive to corporate sponsors. The one eyesore continued to be the flag that some fans had.”

“We talked a lot about, ‘What do we do with fans?’ ” Poston added. “The thinking was: ‘If NASCAR loses some fans because of its position on banning the flag on [racecars, uniforms, merchandise and other] things it controls, then so be it.’ They were absolutely comfortable with that.”

Poston recalled an instance in 2012, when Phoenix International Raceway officials invited golfer Bubba Watson to take a prerace lap in the “General Lee,” the car — which has an image of the Confederate flag on its roof and which Watson had recently purchased — from “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show. NASCAR shut down the idea, citing its policy, and was castigated by former U.S. Rep. Ben Jones (D-Ga.), who played the character “Cooter” on the show.

“He gave them hell, but NASCAR stood their ground,” Poston said.

Shut out at Bristol Motor Speedway, NASCAR fans set up camp next door

No doubt, the decision to ban any display of the flag will come at a cost that’s difficult to quantify beyond the heated rhetoric on social media. NASCAR’s moves this week were endorsed by several star athletes and celebrities, including LeBron James, Deion Sanders and Reese Witherspoon.

TV ratings for Wednesday’s 500-lap race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway were up 104 percent, more than doubling the audience that tuned in for the “comparable race last season,” a Fox Sports executive said. It’s an imperfect comparison; there was no midweek race in June 2019, nor was there a pandemic that stripped the airways of other sports broadcasts.

But Facebook and Twitter teemed with blowback for NASCAR, including a screed from the wife of a part-time Truck Series driver from Ellicott City, Md., who wrote that her husband was quitting the sport at season’s end in protest.

Nonetheless, NASCAR executives concluded that the upside of banning the Confederate flag outright was worth it — whether because it meant standing on the right side of history, reflecting prevailing sentiments as the nation reexamines its legacy of racism, sending a message that all are welcome at its tracks, appealing to a broader array of corporate sponsors or some portion of all of that.

In the view of brand strategist Paul Jankowski, CEO of the Nashville-based New Heartland Group, NASCAR’s action is worth applauding.

“It’s a bold statement for them as a brand to show what they really believe and align with their stated core value of inclusion,” Jankowski said. “If you talk about the value of inclusion, well, you know what? It’s time to stand up.”

But if it was taken only after a risk-vs.-reward analysis, he said, it was for the wrong reason.

“This decision shouldn’t be based on calculating the downside; it should be based on staying true to your brand values,” said Jankowski, who believes that’s what NASCAR did. “You will lose people, but you will gain people by taking a stand — an overdue stand — on this issue.”