NASCAR took an important step forward last week, when the stock car racing sanctioning body stated that when fans return to the stands at races, the Confederate flag will not. In a statement released Wednesday, NASCAR said that, in the spirit of “providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our fans, our competitors, and our industry….the display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
The move came on the heels of public statements by Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., the sport’s lone African-American driver, calling for the flag’s removal. Wallace said that while the Confederate flag had never bothered him previously, he recognized that it makes many feel uncomfortable. NASCAR’s move not only makes stock car racing more welcoming to all fans, it will also help the sport transcend regional boundaries.
As a sport created in the South, NASCAR, race, and the Confederacy have had a fraught history. From 1957 to 1993, the spring race at South Carolina’s historic Darlington Speedway was known as the Rebel 400. That race, and others like it, frequently featured Confederate flag motifs. Wendell Scott, the first African-American racer in stock car’s premier series, faced discrimination from fellow drivers and track owners in the 1950s and 1960s, although Scott said series founder “Big Bill” France treated him as just another driver.
NASCAR considered banning the Confederate flag after the Charleston church shooting in 2015, in which the attacker posted both Confederate and white supremacist images prior to the shooting. At the time, the sanctioning body said it supported Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R-S.C.) removal of the flag from the South Carolina State House, and would not allow its use “in any official NASCAR capacity.”
But while many tracks would not sell Confederate-themed merchandise, the sport did not prohibit fans from displaying flags they had purchased elsewhere. This left many such flags flying over motor homes and campers parked at races.
‘Heritage versus Hate’
To some, the Confederate flag echoes NASCAR’s history as a sport full of renegades. From its origins among moonshiners trying to outrun the law in prewar Appalachia, stock car racers and fans have always embraced an outlaw image. Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s iconic nickname, “The Intimidator,” perfectly spoke to the ways the sport’s working-class, often Southern fans support independent, slightly rebellious drivers.
But as Earnhardt’s history demonstrates, it doesn’t require worshipping a symbol that offends millions of other Americans to win races and public support. According to his daughter Kelley, when Dale Sr. (who tragically died in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500) heard his African-American housekeeper took offense to a Confederate flag logo on his truck’s bumper sticker, he slashed the logo away: “He didn’t want to offend anybody or make anyone mad in that manner. He had a good heart.”
Likewise, Earnhardt’s son and namesake raised objections to the Confederate flag years ago. During his racing career, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. told fans the flag means “something different to me than it does to y’all”—a subtle but distinct way of distancing himself from the Stars and Bars.
Both Earnhardts realized symbols can take on loaded meanings. Most notably, the swastika, a name that derives from Sanskrit, has appeared frequently in Indo-European religions and culture, from Hindu temples to the tombs of medieval British bishops. But its modern appropriation by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party has made the swastika largely a forbidden symbol. To most people, it now stands for war, hatred, and genocide.
ESPN writer Ryan McGee used that example in addressing critics of NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag: “You wouldn’t fly that [a Nazi flag] over Talladega [Superspeedway], would you? Because to millions upon millions of Americans, that’s what they see and what they feel when they see the Confederate flag.” That McGee, a NASCAR fan (like this author) and a Southerner descended from slave owners, would use that analogy speaks to the visceral reaction the flag receives in many quarters.
Another analogy hits even closer to home. It seems rather ironic that, even as President Trump criticizes those who kneel for the National Anthem as disrespecting the American flag, some who support his position want to display an object symbolizing people who rebelled against that very flag.
Flags versus Statues
The debate over the Confederate flag at NASCAR events differs from the ongoing turmoil regarding historic statues and monuments, in several respects. On one fundamental level, it seems much simpler to address what NASCAR fans display at tracks today than monuments erected decades or even centuries ago.
Examining history also takes a degree of nuance, because every human being by definition will have character flaws. Even beyond the question of what to do regarding Confederate politicians and generals, more recent historical figures also have stains on their records: Franklin Roosevelt imprisoned tens of thousands of American citizens based on little more than their ancestry, while Martin Luther King, Jr. plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and has faced numerous charges of adultery.
Assessing, and re-assessing, history requires thought and deliberation, but in recent weeks, demonstrators have exhibited little of either. In some cases, groups have defaced statues of abolitionists who fought to end slavery as a way to “protest” racism.
In addition, an obvious contradiction exists between lawmakers working to pass an anti-lynching bill to fight racism, while mobs in the streets take it upon themselves to pull down statues unilaterally in the name of the same cause. Of course, people matter more than statues, but vigilante justice against the latter ultimately threatens the former.
Drivers Support the Change
Rather than relying on the brute force of a crowd of demonstrators to make a change, NASCAR’s decision on the Confederate flag reflected frank conversations within the racing community. Wallace appeared on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s podcast earlier this month for a candid discussion about racing and race. The conversation, in which Wallace described an incident during his youth when police shot and killed his cousin, opened the eyes of Earnhardt, who while retired remains perhaps the sport’s most-loved driver.
Numerous NASCAR drivers, including seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, have spoken out in support of the new Confederate flag policy. Only one, Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli, opposed it, saying he would retire at the end of the year due to the change. (To put his decision in perspective: This longtime NASCAR fan barely recognized Ciccarelli’s name, and certainly couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.)
In April, driver Kyle Larson received a suspension from NASCAR—and was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing, his ride in the sport’s premier series—for uttering a racial slur during a live virtual race broadcast. Two months later, the sport’s statement on the Confederate flag finally sends the right kind of welcoming message to auto racing fans—and could win it more fans in the future.