After NASCAR announced displays of the Confederate flag were no longer allowed at races, the sport born in the South looks to attract a more inclusive fan base.
As protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans reinvigorated the push to remove statues and other symbols of the Confederacy, one of the South’s most iconic entities has voiced its support for that movement.
Last week, NASCAR announced a ban on displays of the Confederate flag from all of the league’s events and properties.
“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. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special,” the racing league said in a statement.
NASCAR attempted such a ban five years ago following the murder of nine black people by a white supremacist inside a Charleston church. But the league ended up only asking fans to refrain from displaying the flag rather than imposing an outright ban. That move did little to reduce displays of the flag flying over infield campsites, particularly at Southern raceways.
But things have changed in the sport founded in North Carolina by bootleggers outrunning the police during Prohibition. One of racing’s most recognizable faces these days is Bubba Wallace, a Black driver behind the wheel of the No. 43 car—the number made iconic by NASCAR legend Richard Petty. Wallace—backed by his Richard Petty Motorsports team—repainted the car black last week, emblazoning the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on the rear quarter panels and a logo on the hood of white and black hands clasped with “Compassion, Love, Understanding” beneath.
Wallace has expressed his support of the ban, which has been echoed by many fans.
“The Confederate flag is a piece of history, and that is where it belongs,” said Denielle Cazzolla, 44, a lifelong racing fan who lives in upstate New York. “It was a brave step for NASCAR, realizing much of its base would be upset, but it was the right thing to do. For me, those who claim they are quitting the sport (fans or competitors) were not there for the sport but there for the stereotype.”
Defense of the Confederate flag
Not all NASCAR fans—or drivers—have embraced this new stance. Ray Ciccarelli, a part-time driver of the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, announced he was quitting the sport because of the ban, taking to Facebook to explain his decision.
“Well it’s been a fun ride and dream come true but if this is the direction Nascar is headed we will not participate after [the] 2020 season is over,” he wrote in a post that has since been deleted. “[I] don’t believe in kneeling during Anthem nor taken ppl right to fly what ever flag they love.”
Ciccarelli, who has participated in 32 NASCAR races but never won one, has faced criticism for his comments.
A number of fans shared their disapproval with NASCAR’s ban on Facebook, as well, with some commenting on the announcement on the official NASCAR page with missives like, “Very angry. Apparently NASCAR has NO respect for U.S. history!!!!! Shame on you!”
And in response to Wallace’s Black Lives Matter car, Xfinity Series driver Kyle Weatherman redesigned his car with a “Thin Blue Line” theme, including a “Blue Lives Matter” flag on the hood and the hashtag #BacktheBlue on the rear quarter panels. The flag and campaign have emerged in response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement as a way to support police officers.
Over the years, NASCAR has suffered a drop in viewership as younger generations seem less interested in the sport than their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents. Everything from diminished interest in car culture to a lack of diversity has been blamed for the decline. And as attitudes change, some longtime fans see the removal of the Confederate flag as a positive step toward the long-term success of the sport.
“Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z don’t value cars like Boomers do, so they are not as interested,” said Charlotte NASCAR fan Dean Forbis, 57. “(NASCAR) needs to expand to a wider spectrum, but their past (mainly their fans’ past) has held them back. (In the past) I cringed but chuckled at the Confederate flag, but it got worse after the Charleston massacre. The flag stands for the wrong ideals now—not that it ever stood for good, but I considered it harmless as a kid.”
NASCAR has taken a number of steps over recent years to appeal to a wider, more varied audience. In 2004, the league launched its Drive for Diversity program, which aims to attract minorities and females to the sport as drivers, crew members and other roles. Wallace is a graduate of the program.
But NASCAR is still a predominantly white male sport. And though there’s still plenty of work to be done, many fans see the events of the past couple of weeks as a huge step forward in opening the sport up to a wider, more diverse fan base that will fuel the success of racing for years to come.
“The steps NASCAR has taken over the past week or so—from the message of support for racial justice at Atlanta, to not requiring participants and officials to stand during the national anthem, to embracing Bubba Wallace’s #BlackLivesMatter car—have been huge,” said Cazzolla. “But certainly, the biggest thing is banning the stars-and-bars. Although people try to claim it is just showing Southern pride, for far too many people it is a symbol of embracing racism.
“How is NASCAR going to become more diverse when a large portion of its potential fan base feels unwelcome?” she asked.