NASCAR announced Wednesday a ban on the display of Confederate flags at its races, an extraordinary move from the stock car racing circuit that traces its roots—and a significant portion of its fan base—to the Deep South, where fans routinely display the flag on race day. The move comes just days after the sport’s only black driver competing in the top circuit, Bubba Wallace, called during an interview with CNN for a ban on the flag at races. After NASCAR took action, the 26-year-old applauded the move before racing at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia Wednesday night in a car repainted with “#BlackLivesMatter” imagery. The Mobile, Alabama, native has also begun wearing a black “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt on race days. “That was a huge, pivotal moment,” Wallace said of the ban in an interview with Fox Sports 1. “Lot of backlash, but it creates doors and allows the community to come together as one.”
NASCAR had made some tentative efforts to curtail the presence of the Confederate flag at its events. The flag was once part of the official imagery—for example, it was seen on programs—for races at Southern tracks, but no longer. It still remains a fixture among fans, however, and after the 2015 mass shooting of black parishioners by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the then-chairman of the sport urged racegoers to refrain from flying the Confederate flag as the state grappled with its symbolism amid tragedy. It didn’t work. At the Darlington racetrack in South Carolina that year, Confederate flags “flew on 20-foot-high poles, they flew nailed to 2x4s sticking out of the back beds of pickup trucks, they flew on plastic window clips,” Jay Busbee wrote in Yahoo Sports at the time. “They were everywhere, in large part because everyone outside Darlington says they shouldn’t be.” Some drivers called for the flag to be abolished on race days.
Given the white, largely Southern demographic that makes up the sport’s most ardent support, the ban was a bold move that could alienate portions of NASCAR’s fan base and, yet again, shows how dramatically the national mood has shifted in a few short weeks following the killing of George Floyd. Elsewhere around the country, Confederate statues are being torn down. It remains to be seen whether the ban will be respected, and how it will be enforced, because the circuit has been racing at empty tracks due to restrictions on crowds in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“For NASCAR, banning the Confederate flag, which many of its core fans have flown from their infield RVs and motor homes at several of its Southern tracks, though in lesser numbers in recent years, was a stunning step,” the Washington Post notes. “Its brand of stock-car racing sprang from hardscrabble Southern dirt tracks and a tradition of moonshine running in the Appalachian foothills. Throughout NASCAR’s early decades, the Confederate flag was a proud part of the race-day fabric, particularly at Southern tracks such as Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, where a costumed rebel soldier customarily joined the winning driver and race-day beauty queen in Victory Lane.”
“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” NASCAR said in a statement announcing the ban. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special.”