NASCAR has long lived with the stereotype of racism and prejudice. However, the sanctioning body has taken steps to distance itself from that image in recent days. In the last three days, the sport has seen drivers supporting Black Lives Matter and the ongoing protests, the possibility of finally banning the Confederate flag from being flown at tracks, and a partnership with the You Can Play project to support the LGBTQ+ community in honour of Pride Month.
Prior to Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR conducted a special pre-race ceremony to pledge its support to Black Lives Matter and the nationwide protests for racial equality. The previous weekend, numerous drivers and executives joined the movement, with NASCAR also issuing a formal statement.
The national anthem was performed by Keedron Bryant, a 12-year-old singer who penned a tribute song for BLM, while NASCAR President Steve Phelps issued a radio message to the drivers with pit crews standing in solidarity. A moment of silence was also conducted.
The drivers, led by Jimmie Johnson, recorded a video promising they will “listen and learn”. The 86-second video was disseminated on social media shortly before the race, and Fox televised it during the ceremony.
Defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch explained in a post-race interview that the drivers “wanted to put out a powerful statement and a message, and so I feel like we all did that together with NASCAR, and went well from all of our standpoints, so we’re happy to be able to do that and show our support to the black community.”
Bubba Wallace, the lone black driver in the Cup Series today, wore a shirt with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe”—the final words of George Floyd prior to his killing by police—while a crewman on his Richard Petty Motorsports team held the same shirt on pit road. Kirk Price, a NASCAR official and Army veteran, drew national attention when he kneeled and raised a fist during the invocation.
“I was just really proud of the drivers who got involved,” Johnson said. “Honestly proud of NASCAR and what they did, but it’s been a personal journey on a much deeper level this week for me to listen and learn, and as a lot of us drivers started chatting about the week and experience and a lot of this was led by Bubba. Really have to give him a ton of credit, including Ty Dillon, the accountability that those two really put on the garage area, put on me — not directly on me, but I could just see — it made a difference, and I think that resonated with a lot of people.”
“You know, for me, something just has to change, and I think when you look at what happened in Minnesota, it’s just disgraceful to everyone,” race winner Kevin Harvick commented. “To be able to have conversations about things, I’m definitely a person that wants to hear a plan that has actions included in it, and just try to support each other and do the things that we can do to try to help our communities and help the conversations because there’s so much that everyone doesn’t understand of what we need to do and how we need to do it. But I can tell you that we need change.”
Ryan Blaney, a close friend of Wallace, added he participated in a peaceful protest in Charlotte, describing it as “just something that you want to get involved with and support your fellow human being. We all have to treat each other equally. It kind of disgust[s] me when the race thing comes up and people hate a person for being a different pigment, and not judging them by their character.”
A day after the race, Wallace participated in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon to discuss the pre-race festivities.
“I am proud of NASCAR for stepping up to the plate and delivering it in a huge way,” Wallace said. “The moment of silence that we had before we fired off in Atlanta. I sat there at the start/finish line with tears on my eyes seeing every crew member standing on the wall, my crew members standing there proudly, holding up the shirt that I wore pre-race.”
Wallace also described Price’s gesture as speaking “volumes. I didn’t see it until I got home, and I was blown away by that. […] I told Jimmie today if I would have seen it, I would have went there and kneeled next to him, because it’s such a powerful move. 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.
“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.”
Black Lives Matter will also be represented by Wallace during Wednesday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. On Tuesday afternoon, RPM revealed a special BLM paint scheme to support the movement.
On Tuesday morning, Adam Stern of the Sports Business Journal reported NASCAR is considering banning the Confederate flag from races. Officially known as the Confederate battle flag and used by the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War in the 1860s, it has long been a subject of controversy along with other Confederate imagery. Proponents of the flag defend it as a symbol of Southern heritage, while detractors point out its racist background in regards to slavery. White supremacist groups and neo-Nazis have also used the flag in their cause, while the United States Marine Corps had recently banned the flag’s presence from its installations.
With NASCAR’s history in the South, it comes with little surprise that such a flag would be iconic among fans; it is not uncommon to visit a track’s infield and see the flag on RVs and in campsites. On an official scale, the “Stars and Bars” was prominent in race programs and other souvenirs, while Darlington Raceway used to hold a race known as the Rebel 400. However, figures like Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have publicly denounced its usage.
“My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags,” Wallace said in his CNN interview. “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. No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race, so it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here, they have no place for them.
“The narrative on that before was that I wasn’t bothered by it. I don’t speak for everybody else; I speak for myself—what I am chasing is checkered flags—and that was kind of my narrative. But diving more into it and educating myself, people feel uncomfortable with that. People talk about that, that’s the first thing they bring up, so there’s gonna be a lot of angry people that carry those flags proudly. But it’s time for change, we have to change that, and I encourage NASCAR to have those conversations to remove those flags.”
The sport has also taken steps to support the LGBTQ+ community in the spirit of June being Pride Month. On Tuesday morning, NASCAR announced it had aligned with You Can Play, which includes participating in the You Can Play Pride Auction with the winning bidder getting tickets to a 2021 race.
“We are a diverse team whose identities, backgrounds & talents allow us to go faster & farther in our offices, at the track & in the stands,” read a tweet by NASCAR.