More than any other sport in America, NASCAR has its roots tied to one distinct characteristic: Southern white culture. Unlike the international, and arguably more sophisticated, appeal of open wheel racing’s Formula 1 and IndyCar series, stock car racing was born on the backs of bootleggers and moonshine makers on the dirt fields and back roads of the rural South.
Because of its origins, NASCAR has long been mocked and stereotyped as the sport of hillbillies and rednecks—a culture that defiantly revels in its tradition, rebellion and Southern pride. (A common joke with regard to racing fans is, “Is it called NASCAR because that’s the way a hillbilly pronounces, ‘nice car?’”)
With that pride, however, comes a strong allegiance to the Confederate flag, a disruptive issue that NASCAR has often treated with kid gloves, despite much criticism. As the debate over the flag’s meaning and appropriateness continues to rage on in the wake of last month’s mass shooting by a 21-year-old white male at a predominately black church in Charleston, S.C., the racing league is once again confronted with its history of embracing a symbol and a culture that many deem racist.
When either watching or attending a NASCAR race, one would be hard pressed to tell that the sanctioning body does not support the flag’s traditions. On any given race day at a track you will find fans boastfully brandishing their rebel banners right next to the American flag and the NASCAR logo. The Confederate flag is boldly decorated on tents, T-shirts, hats and tattoos without the least bit of hesitation or regret; it can easily be seen on TV during a race broadcast, flying from the tops of trailers and BBQ grills in the infield. This has long been a source of contention for NASCAR’s sanctioning body which, because of declining attendance and ratings, has desperately tried to shy away from the negative attention generated by it’s often all-white, separatist image. In 2004, NASCAR chairman Brian France implemented the Drive for Diversity program, its purpose to attract minorities and women across all platforms, including drivers, owners, sponsorship, crew members and fans.
"If we don't get diversity right, this sport will not achieve what it needs to achieve from a popularity standpoint," France said in 2007 of the initiative.
Nevertheless, NASCAR continues to struggle with diversity and its efforts to encourage minorities to embrace the sport. Eleven years after the program’s launch, the overall impact of Drive for Diversity has been minimal on the track, with Japanese American Kyle Larson, biracial Darrell Wallace Jr. and Mexican Daniel Suarez as the only drivers from the program to compete in either the XFinity or Sprint Cup series. In the sport’s 67-year history, only three African American drivers have made it to NASCAR's top series, the most recent being Bill Lester in 2006, and only three African Americans have owned race teams, two of whom are former NBA forward Brad Daugherty and former NFL wide receiver Randy Moss. While the argument could be made that race car driving just isn’t engaging enough to captivate the average sports fan, and that few athletes are chomping at the bit for the opportunity to drive around in circles in a 120 degree car for countless hours, one has to wonder if more minorities would flock to the sport if better efforts were made to distance it from such inflammatory roots.
Daugherty, who is co-owner of NASCAR’s JTG Daugherty Racing, weighed in on the issue last week on SiruisXM NASCAR Radio, revealing how he believes the flag undoubtedly represents hate. “Being an African-American man going to the racetrack and seeing the Confederate flag, it does make my skin crawl,” Daugherty said. “Even though I do my best to not acknowledge it or to pay any attention to it, it’s there and it bothers me because of what it represents.”
On June 23, NASCAR issued a statement saying that it backed South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's call to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, while also noting that the racing circuit does not allow the flag on anything it sanctions, including merchandise.
“NASCAR will maintain its long-standing policy preventing the use of the Confederate Flag in any official position at our events,” said France. “In all areas that NASCAR controls on a given race weekend, the flag has no presence.”
In addition, all 30 of the sport’s national touring tracks urged fans to leave their rebel banners at home. Officials at Daytona even waved a white flag of their own ahead of last weekend’s Coke Zero 400, announcing an exchange program for fans who wanted to swap their Confederate flag for an American one. Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both came out publicly to support NASCAR’s stance. "It has no place on any of our team apparel or memorabilia or anything like that," Gordon said last Tuesday on CBS This Morning. "I'm glad that it's not out there."
Still, these declarations have never been a call for an outright ban, despite numerous condemnations throughout the sport. And with South Carolina officially removing the flag from the state capitol on July 10, will there still be this longstanding hesitancy by NASCAR for a clean break? Why sever ties with Donald Trump’s National Doral Miami resort, host of NASCAR’s postseason award banquets, after comments he made about Mexican immigrants, but continue to allow a symbol at races which remains toxic and offensive to many?
The answer is simple: Money. With swaths of empty seats at several of its tracks (Charlotte, Dover and Atlanta Speedways have all removed up to 17,000 each within the past year due to declining ticket sales) and TV ratings continuing to spiral downward, NASCAR believes it can’t afford to get into a public spat over race and culture with its legions of Southern fans who make up over 80% of its revenue and popularity. So France took the easy way out and straddled both sides of the fence in an attempt not to ruffle too many feathers or seem insensitive.
Nevertheless, many fans still felt slighted and betrayed by what they thought was unfair admonishment and NASCAR’s unnecessary attempt at political correctness. Although the top story from the Coke Zero 400 was driver Austin Dillon's grisly crash during the final lap which sent him flying into the catch fence and his car into several spectators, the backdrop of the event was etched in defiance and support for the flag. The Confederates’ symbol flew proudly at the race, accompanied by slogans such as “The South Will Rise Again” and “Southern Thunder.”
Dunnellon, Fla. native John Wilson told USA Today Sports, “I think it’s [the flag] getting a bum rap. Everybody else is getting to fly their flags in the United States of the America and have their heritage. Why can’t I have mine?”
This display of overwhelming support for the flag is just the beginning. A potential PR disaster is brewing as NASCAR heads to Darlington, S.C. over Labor Day weekend for the Xfinity Series’ VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 and Sprint Cup’s Bojangles’ Southern 500. With many flag supporters in South Carolina still reeling over the decision to remove it from the state capitol, you can bet a bottle of Moonshine that they will show up to Darlington Raceway in droves with signs of the Confederacy everywhere, once again making a mockery of NASCAR’s pleas to leave both the flag and politics at home.
So what say you, Brian France? How long will you let this controversy fester before you take any real action? For many the question isn’t whether fans have the right to celebrate their heritage and loyalty to the flag at races, it’s whether or not NASCAR has the moxie to take a definitive stance on such an alienating issue, one way or the other.