THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Of all the reactions among sports bodies to the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests on behalf of Black Lives Matter, none has been as surprising as the decision by Nascar to ban the Confederate flag from its races.
It was remarkable, probably the most impactful step by any sports body in America. Both the NFL and MLS have concentrated on their players: the NFL, in a second statement which followed a week after angry reactions to their first anodyne response, had admitted they were wrong to downplay the problem in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the playing of the national anthem (without mentioning Kaepernick, still unsigned by an NFL team four years later), and said players would be 'allowed' to protest by kneeling in the upcoming season. MLS followed suit. But Nascar's announcement was aimed primarily at their fans, not the drivers or their teams. And it comes at considerable risk for the sport.
Consider the history. Nascar (an acronym for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) was founded in Daytona Beach in 1948, and has always presented itself as a the home of 'rebels'. In a sense, stock car races grew out of bootleggers and moonshiners outrunning police and revenuers in their own cars. One of the first of the sport's icons was Junior Johnson, who had learned to drive doing just that while still a boy: he was the subject of Tom Wolfe's famous 1965 Esquire essay ‘The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!’ which was turned into a fine movie, The Last American Hero in 1973, starring a young Jeff Bridges as Johnson. Remember, this was ‘stock’ car racing: not cars specially designed for race tracks, but the same kind of vehicles good ol’ boys drove through the hills, souped up to make them go faster.
This image stays with modern Nascar, despite the presence of big motor companies and corporate style teams, it is still a sport of rebels. Not least because it is still a sport of the South, and the South still sees itself as the home of rebellion, which is often best-expressed in sports. I think back to when I was growing up, around the centenary of the end of the Civil War, during the era of protest against American apartheid, and the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964-65. Football was a big part of it: the University of Mississippi’s teams are still called the Rebels, and the Stars and Bars featured prominently around their games. The classic big bowl games, with the exception of the Rose, were all held in the South. Southern conferences - the SEC, ACC and SWC - were the de facto home teams, proving the fighting superiority of the south over Yankees. I encountered it when I taught in Ashland, Virginia; Newberry, South Carolina and most telling at Washington & Lee University, in Lexington Virginia, across the road from the Virginia Military Institute. It didn’t help that my college lacrosse team had lost twice to W&L when I played.
So too with Nascar. The key race tracks and fan base have always been in the South: Daytona, Darlington, Talladega, Bristol, Martinsville, Charlotte. There were always a few outliers, most notably Loudon in New Hampshire, and Nascar was quick to move into Indianapolis, with the Brickyard 400, when the opportunity to piggy-back America’s biggest auto race, the Indy 500, came about in 1994. You don’t have to look far to see the Confederate flag, hanging from poles directly under the Stars and Stripes and on display in all sorts of configurations among the spectators, including many that bear the unofficial motto of the so-called 'Lost Cause': The South Will Rise Again.
In 2015, following the killing of nine black parishioners by a white supremacist in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, Nascar banned the flying of the Confederate flag in any official capacity. It made little noticeable difference, but it signalled a change in attitude. Nascar started a programme to get minorities involved; there is even a black woman, Brehanna Daniels, on the Winn-Dixie pit crew. But after George Floyd’s killing, Bubba Wallace, the only current black driver who is full-time on the circuit, wore an I Can’t Breathe shirt in the pits, and painted his car with Black Lives Matter motifs.
When he called for a banning of the Confederate flag, Nascar agreed.
It comes at a pivotal time for the sport. Attendances are down, TV ratings are down. Some blame over-proliferation, not just on the cup circuit, the top division, but with lesser events. Nascar races are held across the country, in areas where other forms of racing (Indy cars, sports cars, drag racing) have been more popular (and no, Formula 1 is but a small blip in the American sporting calendar), and in some like Las Vegas, where the attraction to sports-mad gambling is obvious. This year tracks like Martindale and Bristol, whose attendance usually reached six figures easily, drew tens of thousands fewer to the tracks. In terms of marketing, the move to ban the Confederate flag may prove anathema to the traditional southern fan base, but it might be seen as an attempt by Nascar to reach out to a wider audience. Not just the ‘mainstream’ America with no emotional attachment to symbols of the Confederacy and its ‘Lost Cause’, but also to southern blacks, especially in rural areas where cars are just as important.
There have been black Nascar drivers before. Wendell Scott is in the Nascar Hall of Fame. When Scott won at Jacksonville in 1963, a white driver was handed the trophy in the post-race ceremony; Scott was handed his winner’s check after the press and public had gone home. Willy T Ribbs raced in Nascar, and was the first black driver at the Indy 500 – I can’t help but think that with more success, a chain of restaurants would have been offered to a white driver.
So far only one driver, a part-timer in the lower-level truck racing series, has announced he will boycott Nascar, albeit not until next season. He likened the ban on the Confederate flag to the restraint of freedom imposed by the forced wearing of masks during the coronavirus pandemic.
I wonder what he will think of this year’s Brickyard 400? It is now being held on the Fourth Of July, in an attempt to attract more attention and lock it into the calendar. It is also now called the Big Machine Hand-Sanitizer 400 - and thus far Donald Trump has not called Nascar 'sons of bitches' or said he would not attend Nascar events.
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