I have loved NASCAR for as long as I can remember. I saw the fatal race when Dale Earnhardt was killed, and I saw the last races of Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, and Dale Jr. I used to hang a big NASCAR flag on my porch every race day–until the flag was stolen. That was a surprise! I did not think Hollister, California, was a big NASCAR town.
When Covid-19 came, there were no more races to watch. Just like for all sports, fans were saddened. NASCAR tried to help–they came up with a hare-brained idea (my opinion) called “i-racing.” That is when regular NASCAR drivers play car race video games, and we watch them on TV. I-racing is where it all began for NASCAR’s current stance on race relations. A former driver, one of the younger ones, was taped using a racial slur. He dropped an n-bomb during a virtual race on Easter Sunday, apparently not realizing his audio was streaming out to thousands of people on Twitch. It couldn’t be taken back. It was out there for all to hear. The results?
After much consideration, Chip Ganassi Racing has determined that it will end its relationship with driver Kyle Larson. As we said before, Kyle’s comments were both offensive and unacceptable, especially given the values of our organization. As we continued to evaluate the situation with all the relevant parties, it became obvious that this was the only appropriate course of action to take.
Not only did the driver lose his ride, but he also lost his career and maybe his existence. His name is never spoken, and no one mentions the incident. That was when I thought that perhaps something was going on in one of my favorite sports that bore further observance. I was correct.
As a Civil War historian, I am not unaware that NASCAR originated in the southern states. The history of NASCAR can be traced back to the 1920s and early in the 1930s during the Prohibition era. Although the secret manufacturing of whiskey–moonshine– was a big deal, the secret transportation was an even bigger deal. Moonshine runners were known as bootleggers who illegally transported whiskey from hidden stills to markets all across the South. Drivers drove at night, at very high speeds, and in many cases, with the police close behind them. It was a dangerous business, and getting caught transporting illegal liquor meant jail time and the loss of a living. Drivers eventually started racing among themselves and testing which car was the fastest. They would race each other on Sunday afternoon, and on Sunday night, they would use the same vehicles to haul moonshine. Running those ‘shine cars gained in popularity throughout the South.
The Confederate battle flag was synonymous with NASCAR, at least at its beginning. But time moves on. NASCAR cars are a far cry from those old jalopies of the past and an equally far cry from the offerings of the dealership. They have become engineering marvels, and the sport deserves our respect. Time moves on in other ways than just engineering, as we all know. Never has the Civil War been more timely–except in its own time–than it is right now. The energy of the last few years have rocked statues from their pedestals and torn flags from their moorings. No matter where one falls on this debate, one would have to live in a hole somewhere not to be aware of its occurrence.
In 2015, a Charleston, South Carolina church shooting took place in which nine African-Americans were killed by a white supremacist. The killer posted several photos of himself online with the Confederate battle flag before the shooting. This started conversations in NASCAR about the Confederate flag and the issues surrounding that flag at race tracks. A ban of sorts was implemented. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said at the time, “It does nothing for anybody to be there flying, so I don’t see any reason. It belongs in the history books, and that’s about it.” NASCAR banned the use of the flag on racecars and licensed merchandise. Still, the association decided just to ask fans to stop displaying the Civil War symbol, rather than ordering them to do so. This approach was less than 100% successful. I wrote about it at the time here on the blog.
Fast forward to 2020. All heck breaks loose concerning the police and their toxic relationship to citizens of color. This quickly spills over into professional sports, as several players in a variety of leagues show support of the “Black Lives Matter” cause. NASCAR had been racing for a few weeks, but without any fans in the stands. As protests continued day after day, NFL players made a powerful video expressing their opinions. #StrongerTogether (More here…)
Then, at the Folds of Honor 500 race, this happened: Watch here
I was tearful, I was thrilled, I was disbelieving. But mostly, I was proud. “My” sport–the one I sometimes have to explain, sometimes apologize for loving–had taken a strong and historical stance against the long-term results of what the Civil War was about. It took the terrible events of the past few weeks and the only black driver in NASCAR to express an opinion about the comfort of fans, but it happened. NASCAR then issued its total ban of the Confederate battle flag. There has been much uproar, especially on social media. Some comments have been from folks who do not know the sport very well. One person asked, in jest, “What will Bubba say now?” Another person asked what “the King” would think. In NASCAR, “the King” means Richard Petty, a former driver of exceptional ability, and the current owner of a racing team.
The whole deal sort of began with Bubba. Darrell Wallace is the aforementioned black NASCAR driver, and he is called “Bubba.” He was being interviewed by CNN when he suggested that NASCAR ban Confederate battle flags. It was a casual suggestion, not at all strident or demanding. It grew wings, and the unthinkable happened–all thanks to Bubba. Luckily, Bubba is very outgoing, as he was undoubtedly the news darling last week–maybe even this week. He did better than many newscasters, who consistently got him mixed up with golfer Bubba Watson, and couldn’t keep their Jimmys or their Dales straight. Bubba even drove better. And who does Bubba drive for? Richard Petty, thank you very much, and Petty was fine with the skin design on the #43 car.
Will it last? I hope it does more than that. I hope there is a substantive change in the organization, if not the hearts, of NASCAR. I am not sure, however. People are stubborn, and that impedes the dialogue necessary in this case. History is against NASCAR’s ability to alter its hereditary racism, just as it is against the statues being removed or the flags taken down. One can hope, however. I am tired of the hatred. I’m going to cling to hope and root for #43.