NASCAR community weighs in on racism, protests

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Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In the wake of George Floyd‘s murder by police and the subsequent protests across America and worldwide for racial equality, many figures within the the NASCAR world have come forward with their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The NASCAR family, like so many others, is hurt and angered by the immensely troubling events that have taken place across our country in recent weeks,” read a NASCAR statement. “For us to heal and move forward as a nation, we all need to listen more and be united in the stand against racism, hatred, senseless violence and loss of life. And we must all hold ourselves accountable to driving positive change.

“While our sport has made progress over the years, there remains much work to be done and we fully embrace our responsibility to help bridge the racial divide that continues to exist in our country. We must do better and our commitment to promoting equality and inclusion continues and will never waver.”

When one asks a person unfamiliar with NASCAR for their opinions on the sport, it is not uncommon for one answer to be that it is filled with racist rednecks. This thought stems from NASCAR’s roots in the Southern United States, where such a concept is prevalent.

Perhaps the biggest example of racial prejudice in NASCAR is Wendell Scott, an African-American driver who faced many racially-charged hardships during his career in the 1950s and 60s during the days of Jim Crow laws and the early civil rights movement. Scott, a 2015 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, scored his lone Grand National (now Cup Series) win at Jacksonville Speedway in 1964, but the victory was instead given to the runner-up, leading to a lengthy protest before it was restored. Still, it would be decades before Scott’s family would receive a proper trophy—a replica as the original trophy went missing.

NASCAR has made efforts to combat this controversial image, such as expanding its presence outside of the South and creating the Drive for Diversity, a program that helps female and minority drivers receive their shot in the white-dominated sport. Although its success rate is up for discussion, among the D4D’s success stories are black Cup regular Bubba Wallace and Mexican and 2016 Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suárez. While skeptics have questioned the program, claiming it needlessly pushes drivers strictly for their skin colour or gender, others have pointed out those like Wallace had already caught the attention of premier teams prior to the D4D.

“Obviously no matter whatever he does the narrative will always be that he’s only there because of his color,” Wallace’s spotter Freddie Kraft wrote on Reddit in response to a comment suggesting his race was the deciding factor. “And it used to enrage me, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s never going to change. He in fact took the same route as many guys in our sport, with similar success along the way.”

Despite this progress, however, the sport has also stumbled. A hotly-debated topic has surrounded fans flying Confederate flags at races, while critics of NASCAR’s statement note the hypocrisy in standing up to racism after many individuals in the industry—including then-CEO Brian France—endorsed Donald Trump for President in 2016. These missteps were inflamed last April when rising Cup star Kyle Larson, a Japanese-American and D4D graduate, was indefinitely suspended and fired for saying the N-word during an iRacing stream. Although Larson has since apologised and completed his sensitivity training (though he remains suspended), the incident is viewed as a major step back in NASCAR’s push for racial equality.

When the protests began last week, much of the NASCAR community remained relatively mum. Perhaps to little surprise, Suárez and Wallace were the first to voice their thoughts on Floyd’s death.

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Ty Dillon was the first white driver to publicly speak out, posting a statement on Instagram shortly before Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Describing himself as never wishing “to be seen as someone who is silent on the subject of racism and social injustice”, he expressed his willingness to “be a part of the generation that forever changes this narrative. The conversation that this hatred is not okay needs to happen in ALL communities and we must be willing to talk about it.”

Dillon’s proclamation comes as a pleasant surprise for some fans, who pointed out a stark contrast to his grandfather Richard Childress. In 2017, as NFL players protested against racism by kneeling during the national anthem, Childress infamously said any Richard Childress Racing employees who launched an anthem protest would have to get “a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over.” A similar comment was echoed by Wallace’s car owner Richard Petty, who threatened to fire any protesting team member.

In a phone interview with For The Win, Dillon pledged his support for the protests. He explained he got involved in studying civil rights during the offseason, an opportunity that was not present in his youth due to his racing career, as he felt it was his “duty as a human to educate myself.” Although he acknowledged he does not speak for NASCAR as a whole, Dillon explained he will do what he believes is the right thing.

He also praised NASCAR’s efforts to shed its racist history, but added “it is a great time for us to continue to use the platforms that we have to continue the good work that has been started.”

Dillon and Wallace engaged in a discussion about racing and racism on Instagram Live on Monday afternoon.

Brother Austin, fellow Cup drivers Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, and Tyler Reddick, and Cup team Roush Fenway Racing have since come forward with their own statements. Various industry members have also participated in “Blackout Tuesday”, a campaign to post black squares on social media in support of the movement. After Monday’s Xfinity race, Justin Allgaier explained, “There’s a lot bigger stuff going on in this world. […] I’ve prayed a lot, with the death of George Floyd and the unrest. A lot has to change in our society.”

NBC analyst and former driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., an opponent of the Confederate flag and proponent of the NFL’s protests in 2017, tweeted on Tuesday, “Black Lives Matter. They are hurting and upset and it’s time for me to listen.” Earnhardt also criticised the looting that has occurred and for everyone to “better get this shit figured out and fix it.”

On Monday, NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell posted he will “never understand what it feels like to be black-but I’ll do my very best to not add to the pain/anger-support those who feel it & raise kids that don’t contribute to it-I promise I’ll call you out when you say something that crosses a line-Don’t care who you are-Every time.”

In the evening, NASCAR President Steve Phelps issued a memo to those in the industry, including urging to “come together as an organization, a community, and a family”, and extending resources to help employees.

Similar sentiments have been shared in other sports, with Formula One‘s Lewis Hamilton being the most vocal driver in his respective series about the protests. The six-time F1 champion and only black driver has criticised his peers and those in the series for their silence in the wake of Floyd’s death.

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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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