For more than 70 years, the Confederate flag was a common and complicated sight at NASCAR races. Through the civil rights era right on through the season opener at Daytona in February, the flag dotted infield campsites and was waved in grandstands by fans young and old.
As the nation — and at last, NASCAR — comes to grips with race relations in the wake of the death of George Floyd, it was time: The flag is no longer welcome in the stock car series.
NASCAR banned the flag at its races and all its venues Wednesday, a dramatic step by a series steeped in Southern tradition and proud of its good ol’ boy roots. It must now convince some of its most ardent fans that it is truly time to keep 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.
The issue was pushed to the forefront 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 it in the sport.
The ban was announced before Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, where Wallace drove 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.
He finished 11th and shifted straight to an interview on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
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, and scores of athletes followed the race on social media. The NAACP applauded NASCAR for taking the necessary step to “remove symbols of hate, racism, and discrimination from their events.”
Floyd, a black man, died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck while Floyd was handcuffed and saying that he couldn’t breathe. His death sparked protests that have roiled the nation for days, and Confederate monuments are being taken down across the South — the traditional fan base for NASCAR.
Enforcing the ban could require added security in the often rowdy, booze-fueled infield filled with fans who may be intent on thumbing their nose at NASCAR. The series declined additional comment.
Fans have not been allowed back at races yet amid the coronavirus pandemic. It won’t be long: 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 posted 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.”
It almost didn’t matter with an A-list show of support from actress Reese Witherspoon.