DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — For more than 70 years, the Confederate flag was a familiar sight at NASCAR races. During the civil rights era and right on through the season opener at Daytona last February, the flag dotted infield campsites and was waved in grandstands by fans young and old.
But as the nation — and at last, NASCAR – wrestles with race relations in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody, the flag is no longer welcome in the stock car series.
NASCAR banned the flag at its races and all its venues Wednesday (June 10), a dramatic if overdue step by a series steeped in Southern tradition and proud of its good ol’ boy roots. It must now hope to convince some of its most ardent fans that it is truly time to leave the flag at home, leave those T-shirts in the drawer, scrape off the bumper stickers and hit the track without a trace of the longtime symbol to many of racism and slavery.
Policing the policy may prove challenging and NASCAR did not offer details. Five years ago, after the murders of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., NASCAR attempted to distance itself from the flag, but did not ban it outright — and it remained a visible presence at races.
In 2016, messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting passed a resolution encouraging Christians “to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African American brothers and sisters.” Former SBC President James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., spoke in favor of the resolution, which he called a “seminal moment in our convention.”
“This flag,” Merritt said, “is a stumbling block to many African American souls to our witness. I rise to say that all the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race.”
Four years later, the issue was pushed to the fore in stock car racing this week by Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s lone black driver and an Alabama native who called for the banishment of the Confederate flag and said there was “no place” for them in the sport.
The ban was announced before Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, where Wallace was driving Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Chevrolet with a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme. Wallace, wearing an American flag mask, clapped his hands when asked about the decision before the start of the race.
“It’s been a stressful couple of weeks,” Wallace said on FS1. “This is no doubt the biggest race of my career tonight. I’m excited about tonight. There’s a lot of emotions on the race track.”
Wallace wore a black “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt but did not kneel during the national anthem. His Chevy had “Compassion, love, understanding” emblazoned on the hood. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted “#NASCAR, family” after the announcement.
Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis while being detained by police, has been a catalyst for fresh discussions abouta racism. Protests have roiled the nation for days and Confederate monuments are being taken down across the South — the traditional fan base for NASCAR.
“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,” NASCAR said in a statement. “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.”
Enforcing the ban could require added security in the often rowdy, booze-fueled infields, which could be filled with fans intent on thumbing their nose at NASCAR. The series declined additional comment and fans have not been allowed back at races yet amid the coronavirus pandemic. But NASCAR plans to welcome a small number of fans at a race Sunday near Miami and more later this month in Alabama.
The decision had Confederate flag loyalists howling in protest and vowing to swear off the sport.
Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli wrote on Facebook he would quit the sport, writing: “I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl that do and it doesn’t make them a racist.”
NASCAR helmet artist Jason Beam tweeted “ignorance wins again, NASCAR you realize the North had slaves too, lol not just the South, you want to remove the American Flag as well, idiots.” And a publicist for one NASCAR driver tweeted the decision was “a joke.”
The flag issue was front and center for NASCAR in 2015. Dylann Roof, who is currently on death row for the murders in Charleston, had embraced Confederate symbols before the attack, prompting a reappraisal of the role such symbols play in the South.
Brian France, who was the NASCAR chairman at the time, said then the series was “working with the industry to see how far we can go to get that flag to be disassociated entirely from our events.” Tracks offered to exchange Confederate flags for American flags, but there were few takers and flags have continued to be seen at the events.
NASCAR’s checkered history with race took another blow when driver Kyle Larson was fired in April after he uttered a racial slur during a live-streamed virtual race. Led by Wallace, some of NASCAR’s stars have forged ahead ready to create what they hope is a new legacy in the sport. Several drivers — including two-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin — said they supported Wallace in his quest to rid the sport of the flag.
The predominantly white field of drivers united over the weekend for a video promoting social change. A black NASCAR official, Kirk Price, took a knee before Sunday’s race near Atlanta in what may have been a first for the series. NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the drivers before that race and vowed to do a better job of addressing racial injustice in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“Phelps and I have been in a contact a lot just trying to figure out what steps are next,” Wallace said Wednesday night. “That was a huge pivotal moment for the sport. Lot of backlash but it creates doors for the community to come together as one.”