NASCAR allowed 5,000 people to attend Sunday’s race — which was postponed to Monday by wet weather — making it the first major sports event in the United States with a sizable contingent of fans on hand since widespread lockdowns in March to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
That also made the event in Talladega the first test of NASCAR’s ban on the Confederate flag, including on clothing and other forms of merchandise. There were no initial reports of issues in the stands, but in addition to the airplane, a rolling protest was held outside the Superspeedway grounds that featured numerous Confederate flags.
“Our Southern heritage has been pushed to death, and we are tired of it,” protest organizer Charles Burdette told Kickin’ the Tires. “NASCAR is going to be a thing of the past. They are taking everything out for what it stands for. It was put together by rednecks, moonshiners and hillbillies.”
A man selling Confederate flags, along with “Trump 2020” banners and other wares, near the race site, said they were “doing very well.”
“People are disappointed that NASCAR has taken that stance,” the vendor, Ed Sugg, told the Associated Press. “It’s been around for as long as all of us have been. I don’t think anybody really connects it to any kind of racism or anything. It’s just a Southern thing. It’s transparent. It’s just a heritage thing.”
In a statement June 10, NASCAR said, “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.”
That came two days after Bubba Wallace, the only African American driver in NASCAR’s top-tier Cup Series, called for such a ban. Wallace then drove a car emblazoned with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and Denny Hamlin’s car Sunday replaced its familiar FedEx logos with promotions for the National Civil Rights Museum, located in Memphis.
“I promised to listen and that’s what I’m doing,” Hamlin wrote on Twitter on Sunday. Noting a recent visit to the museum, which he encouraged for “anyone who wants to broaden their perspective on African American history,” Hamlin wrote: “To say that this was informative, humbling eye opening is a huge understatement. … Let’s all come together to make a difference.”
Later in the day, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, Steve O’Donnell, posted to Twitter an image of a black person and a white person shaking hands.
“You won’t see a photo of a jackass flying a flag over the track here … but you will see this,” O’Donnell wrote. “Hope EVERYONE enjoys the race today.”
Earlier in the week, NASCAR announced the first hiring to an executive position of a graduate of its diversity intern program. Brandon Thompson will fill the newly created role of vice president, diversity and inclusion.
“It is with great passion and energy that we will champion our sport as accepting and welcoming of all individuals interested in being part of the NASCAR family,” Thompson said in a statement.
Just after NASCAR announced it was banning the Confederate flag, a driver on its Truck Series said he was quitting the circuit after the 2020 season in protest.
“I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are [people] that do and it doesn’t make them a racist,” Ray Ciccarelli wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post. He added, “I ain’t spend the money we are to participate in any political BS!!”
In comments published Friday, Ciccarelli told TobyChristie.com that he received so much “love and support” for his opposition to the ban that he was planning on trying to race full time, rather than part time, for the rest of the Truck Series season.
Earlier this month, while explaining to the website the motivations behind his Facebook post — which resulted in national headlines for the previously little-known driver — Ciccarelli asserted: “All I was trying to say is how do you take [the flag] from one group and help support the group that it offends and then what do you do to the group that you took it from? Now, they get outraged.”
Asked about Ciccarelli’s complaints regarding the banning of the Confederate flag, Wallace said last week that the opinion of “one driver I haven’t really heard much from in years doesn’t really count, doesn’t really matter.”
“The guys that I’m racing with, that are my peers … have been supportive of the decision by NASCAR and supportive of my stance, and that means a lot,” Wallace added. “I’m proud of NASCAR for stepping up and being a part of change that needed to happen for a really long time.”
Those interested in protesting the ban at Talladega will get another chance Monday; the race was rescheduled for 3 p.m. One of the relatively few fans who attended Sunday said it was a “weird” and “eerie” experience, but he was not unhappy about the lack of Confederate flags.
“I don’t think there’s a place for it in NASCAR, to be honest with you,” said David Radvansky (via AP), an Atlanta-area resident who said he has been coming to Talladega since the 1990s. “That doesn’t sit well with all the good ole boys, but it is what it is.”