It has been a busy week for NASCAR in its push for inclusiveness. On Wednesday afternoon, hours before the Cup Series‘ Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR removed the requirement for personnel to stand for the pre-race national anthem, while the controversial Confederate flag has been banned from all events.
Prior to Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR conducted a special ceremony to recognise the Black Lives Matter protests. During the invocation, NASCAR official Kirk Price took a knee and raised a fist in solidarity with the movement. Two days later, Bubba Wallace—who has become the sport’s driving force for racial equality—explained in an interview with CNN that he would have joined Price in kneeling if he was aware.
“An incredible man that has served our country kneeling down that people would think is disrespecting the flag and going against our military, it’s definitely not,” Wallace said. He will drive a Black Lives Matter car in Wednesday’s race.
“I was so uneducated on what the kneeling meant when it started, but now reading about it and what it stands for and what it goes after—I’m still doing a lot of learning myself. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know everything about what’s going on in the world, but that’s what we are trying to deliver the message across: listen and learn to be better to educate ourselves.”
Per Dustin Long from NBC Sports on Wednesday, NASCAR had removed the requirement that teams stand for the national anthem before the Atlanta event. The stipulation was present in handouts given to personnel at the driver/crew chief meeting, stating that team members “face and stand at attention with their right hand over their heart – persons should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart – when the flag is not displayed – all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.”
Kneeling as a sign of protest gained momentum in 2016 and 2017 as NFL players performed the gesture to protest against racial inequality and police brutality. Figures in NASCAR, commonly seen as an overtly patriotic sport, vehemently opposed the protests, including team owners Richard Childress and Richard Petty. Childress, who owns two Cup cars under the Richard Childress Racing banner, infamously said in 2017 that any employees protesting would need a “ride on a Greyhound bus” upon the anthem’s conclusion. Petty, who operates a car for Wallace, also threatened to fire protesting Richard Petty Motorsports personnel that year.
Incidentally, Childress’s grandson Ty Dillon was the first white driver to speak out for the protests, doing so two weeks prior. Dillon and Wallace would be joined by numerous other drivers in showing support for BLM over the following days.
During his CNN interview, Wallace also expressed his support for banning the Confederate flag from NASCAR premises, saying “there should be no individual that is uncomfortable showing up to our events to have a good time with their family that feels some type of way about an object they had seen flying.”
Officially the Confederate battle flag (the Confederate States of America itself had a different national flag), it was flown by the opposing side against the United States during the Civil War in the 1860s. Depending on whom one is asking, the battle flag has long symbolised either Southern pride—a staple of NASCAR tradition—or racism and slavery. The flag was used in race programs for much of NASCAR’s history, and it was common to see the flag flying in the field on race day.
“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR event runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” read a NASCAR statement. “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.”
As the nationwide protests continued, pushes to remove Confederate imagery have increased, including the toppling of statues and the flag being banned from military installations by the United States Navy and Marine Corps. In Mississippi, state lawmakers have drafted a resolution to remove the Confederate symbol from its flag.
Although Wallace noted he was not bothered by the flag at first, he explained educating himself on the flag’s racist past and realising why one would feel discomfort around it ultimately convinced him to call for its removal. Other prominent figures have also supported the ban; NBC analyst and former driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his father, both of whom are regarded as Southern heroes, openly opposed the flag.
“Some will be upset, but that anger is misguided,” Xfinity Series driver Tommy Joe Martins tweeted. A Mississippi native, Martins has voiced his support for the Stennis flag, an alternative design that promotes the state’s history without dabbling into its Confederate past. “However YOU feel about the flag & what it represents personally (southern pride, etc) – many use it to mean something truly hateful. At a glance, who can tell the difference?”
The actions are two of many sweeping changes made by the sanctioning body in the wake of the protests to promote a wholesome environment for all demographics. NASCAR had also partnered with an LGBTQ+ group on Tuesday.