This week NASCAR announced that the household name made a decision to officially ban Confederate flags from its racing venues. The news came unexpected as anything we’ve seen in sports this year, the racing league 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. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties."
This started because Bubba Wallace took a stand as the only full-time black driver in NASCAR. He challenged the organization to make the flag a relic of its history instead of a defining logo. Wallace would be moved to speak out against systemic racism as Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted in all 50 states and spread around the world after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of an unarmed black motorist named George Floyd.
In a recent interview with CNN Wallace did not hold back he discussed the conversations he had with some of his fellow drivers concerning racism. The fellow drivers released a heartfelt video on racism before last Sunday’s Cup race in Atlanta. When host Don Lemon asked him what more the sport should do to walk the talk, Wallace boldly stated that, “My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags,” he said. “Get them out of here.”
That the sport would bend to Wallace’s demand in barely two days’ time and announce a Confederate flag ban barely two hours before Wednesday night’s Martinsville race – after so many mealy-mouthed statements on the subject from Dale Earnhardt Jr and other star drivers; after team owner Richard Childress threatened to fire any employee who knelt during the national anthem and Wallace’s own team principal further stated that Nascar protesters “oughta be out of the country”; and after the many unarmed black men, women and children have died in hate crime killings in between that 2015 church massacre in Charleston and Floyd’s beastly murder at the hands of Minneapolis cops last month – was a development I certainly did not see coming in my lifetime, even as Black Lives Matter has become the hottest cause for corporate co-opting since breast cancer research.
“I haven’t really slept much thinking about this race—everything that’s going into it and everything going on in the world. Trying to race to change the world here,” said Wallace, just before a race in Virginia for which he painted his car black, with the words Black Lives Matter on each side. “It’s not that we’re saying no other lives matter,” said Wallace. “We’re trying to say that black lives matter, too.”
Wallace hasn’t been alone. A video was released with stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson speaking of the need for anti-racism, with Earnhardt tweeting it out with the statement, “I will listen and learn #BlackLivesMatter.”
To call this a sea change in NASCAR is a profound understatement. The Confederate flag is to NASCAR as soccer is to Brazil or pizza to New York City: a seemingly inextricable part of its branding. People who grew up on The Dukes of Hazzard, who drove their Confederate-flag-covered car, the General Lee, know exactly how deep in the culture this goes.
Already, NASCAR is feeling the heat, with social media posts spewing vitriol at them by the ton and NASCAR driver Ray Ciccarelli announcing that he is retiring in protest of the ban. In a now-deleted Facebook post, he wrote,
I don’t believe in kneeling during Anthem nor taken ppl right to fly whatever flag they love. I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl that do and it doesn’t make them a racist all you are doing is f—ing one group to cater to another and i ain’t spend the money we are to participate in any political BS!!
(If you’ve never heard of Ray Ciccarelli, that’s because he has never won a NASCAR race.)
What’s tragic about this is that NASCAR’s roots are not in bigotry or pining for the lost cause of the enslavement of African people. Stock car racing started with bootleggers who were juicing up their cars to outrun the cops and the Ku Klux Klan (many of whom were interchangeable). The Klan were strong believers in prohibition and ready to enforce it with violence. The stock car bootleggers were true rebels. Not in the traitorous Confederate sense, but in the style of rabble-rousing nonconformity. The original stock car drivers had more in common with the white folks in the streets this month calling for black lives to matter than they did with the Confederate-flag-waving Trump supporters who have been the backbone of NASCAR’s business for so many decades. What they are doing right now honors their true tradition, buried under decades of Confederate sewage.
This is a pivotal moment in sports history—from NBA players marching in the streets to NFL players challenging their league to stand up for black lives, to this remarkable decision by NASCAR. Whether this moment becomes a movement in NASCAR will depend on the drivers themselves keeping up the heat. They can’t be content with woke branding and think that they have done their part. They, far more than the personalities of any other sport, are going to have to challenge their fan base to pick a side. They say you can’t be neutral on a moving train. Can’t be neutral in a car doing 200 miles per hour either.