As all of you are aware, it’s been a rather tough couple of weeks here in the United States. In addition to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the country has been rocked by protests against police brutality and racism.
NASCAR has generally stayed away from these issues in the past, largely due to the fact that it is traditionally one of the most homogeneous sports in the country. This is not one of those times. I’ve been a racing fan for over 30 years, and I cannot recall racism and issues surrounding it being mentioned to the degree that we’ve seen in the last week in the entire time I’ve watched the sport.
Most sports in the United States don’t have quite the track record that NASCAR does. Like it or not, we’re talking about a sport that sprung out of the Southeast during the days of Jim Crow laws. While even in the early days of the sport, finances often determined who could or could not race, track operators also had the right to refuse valid entries if they saw fit to do so. Personal opinions of track operators regarding drivers and/or team owners lodging entries could come into play. For example, Wendell Scott didn’t race at Darlington until 1965, mainly because of track president Bob Colvin refusing his entries for years. In the book Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story, The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver, Colvin was described as a “Confederacy buff and a resolute segregationist.” The track’s own photographer in the 1960s, Tom Kirkland, described Colvin as “a complete racist.”
Times are somewhat better today as compared to 55-60 years ago, but they aren’t as good as they could be. It is highly unlikely that anyone that is a “complete racist” could be in any realistic position of power in NASCAR today, whether within the sanctioning body itself, or with any of the tracks. At bare minimum, it would be nothing short of a PR nightmare.
NASCAR already had a scandal back in 2008 where a former official, Mauricia Grant, sued NASCAR for $225 million, alleging sexual discrimination, racial discrimination and wrongful termination. In the complaint, Grant alleged that two coworkers exposed themselves to her, another would casually talk about the Ku Klux Klan on the clock, and that she was the recipient of constant verbal abuse. Our own editor-in-chief, Tom Bowles, sat down with Grant and her lawyer back then and interviewed them for two hours. He described it at the time as one of the toughest interviews he’d ever done. NASCAR chose to fight the case at the time before it was settled out of court. Let’s face facts: NASCAR doesn’t want anything to do with another situation like that.
If COVID-19 didn’t exist and things were operating as normal, I would not have any issues going to Darlington Raceway or any other racetrack. I have nothing to worry about from anyone in NASCAR, or with the individual tracks. They’re a respectful bunch in regards to race. I would probably be more concerned about the fans, to be honest. They don’t have anything to lose. Still, in nearly 30 NASCAR race weekends that I’ve attended, I’ve never had any problems with anyone in regards to race.
Have I seen someone at a racetrack that could qualify as a white supremacist? Yes, in 2012. I was interviewing Brett Hearn after he had won a Big Block Modified feature for the 800th-something time and noticed a man wearing a black t-shirt with lightning bolt logos on it and a slogan about protecting white families or white power (I cannot recall which one it was, but it definitely was one of the two). Now, that man didn’t say anything to me, but I did find it unnerving at the time and posted about it on my personal Facebook. No one commented, but my friends saw the post and told me that they were quite angry when they saw it. What really got to me was that this guy was wearing those slogans while spending time with what appeared to be his children.
What does all this have to do with Sunday’s broadcast of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway? It was here that NASCAR fully went public with its support for racial equality, likely the most expressive statement on this topic from the industry ever.
Unlike a number of initiatives, this movement was more or less brought forward by the drivers as opposed to NASCAR itself. First up was Ty Dillon, who uploaded a post to Instagram right after Bristol. The next day, Dillon asked Bubba Wallace to join him on Instagram for a frank discussion.
Wallace also made appearances on NASCAR RaceHub and The Dale Jr. Download last week to speak on racism and his personal experiences.
Bubba Wallace joined "NASCAR Race Hub" to discuss the protests across the country following the death of George Floyd.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) June 3, 2020
Wallace’s NASCAR RaceHub appearance last week was one of the most honest interviews from a driver that we’ve seen on television in a longtime. He’s willing to put himself out there. He’s likely had very different experiences as compared to the rest of the drivers on the grid. I do admit that it was a little hard at times. Wallace was upset over the whole situation and I don’t blame him. It’s wrong, simple as that.
It’s a tough topic to talk about, and the NASCAR industry has never really had these conversations publicly before. It’s mainly because they never really thought it applied to them for the longest time. While NASCAR is likely the most diverse that it’s ever been, it’s historically one of the whitest sports in America in every way, from the drivers to the crews to officials and the media. If anything, the media is the most racially homogeneous group of all right now in NASCAR. It’s not all-white, but it is less diverse than the teams and the sanctioning body is.
The current protests were most recently brought on the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but the issues have been around for decades. While I don’t have any immediate family members that have been killed by cops like Wallace has, I’ve dealt with my share of racists in the past.
Prior to the race, Jimmie Johnson got a good chunk of the garage together to read a statement about racial equality and how they need to advocate for change. The clip was aired during pre-race coverage on FOX.
I will listen and learn pic.twitter.com/XWgautn4cy
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) June 7, 2020
In NASCAR’s case, they tweeted out a statement last Tuesday about the current situation and laid out the general position of the sanctioning body.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) June 1, 2020
During the pace laps, the field was stopped on the frontstretch. NASCAR president Steve Phelps addressed the teams and FOX’s audience via the radio. His statement more or less re-iterated the previous tweet and included a “moment of listening.”
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) June 7, 2020
Am I happy that NASCAR as an organization and the drivers are speaking out? Yes. The sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Let’s face facts. Even though the sport (as previously noted) is more diverse than it’s ever been, it still has the stigma that it’s a bunch of “good ol’ boys” who don’t like outsiders. That stigma can and will hurt growth long-term if a substantial number of people would feel uncomfortable ever going to a race.
Charles Barkley wrote about this in his book, Who’s Afraid Of A Large Black Man?: Race, Power, Fame, Identity, and Why Everyone Should Read My Book, back in 2005. In it, he gets in a mini-argument with Morgan Freeman over the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (often referred to as the Confederate battle flag, or simply the Confederate flag, even though it technically wasn’t the Confederate flag) being flown at races, and how he had issues with NASCAR over it (Freeman indicated that he was, in fact, a NASCAR fan at the time).
Barkley grew up in Leeds, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham where Barber Motorsports Park is now located. In his eyes, a buttload of Battle Flags of the Army of Northern Virginia flying is effectively a giant “Do Not Enter” sign. He says that he encountered this at Talladega Superspeedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway on separate occasions.
Going forward, NASCAR is probably going to have to face the flag issue again. After Dylann Roof killed nine people at a Charleston, S.C. church in 2015 in a racially motivated massacre, a flag exchange was instituted at NASCAR races where Confederate flags could be exchanged for American flags. While it’s not a thing right now due to COVID-19, plenty of fans still fly Confederate flags of some sort at races (and at least one dude at Petit Le Mans, from what I’ve seen previously). I could see NASCAR saying no more once on-site camping and fan attendance comes back (whenever that is).
Has there been backlash from NASCAR and the drivers’ statements in favor of racial equality and listening to issues? Oh yes. Most of it has surrounded the idea that fans don’t want to hear it. They want to use NASCAR as an escape from all of the protest coverage, riots and rhetoric of the last 10 days. While I understand that mentality, it just doesn’t hold water this time. It’s too important to ignore. I do find it sad that people would give up on the sport because of it, though.
The main question that comes out of Atlanta on this issue is whether it’ll have staying power. I can’t answer that right now. I hope so. It would mean that NASCAR as a whole is more willing to embrace everyone as they are than they have been in the past.
That all said, there was 500 miles of action Sunday. Kevin Harvick kicked some butt and claimed the win. Not necessarily surprised about that, but FOX spent a lot of time talking about “Harvicking,” a verb that has been coined to describe Harvick’s racing line. The line was somewhat contrarian at first, but has effectively become normalized. I think they went overboard with that.
Atlanta has the second-oldest pavement on the circuit (approximately 23 years old, dating back to when the track was reconfigured to it’s current 1.54-mile layout in 1997). It requires an incredible amount of work each year just to be raceable. That doesn’t mean that the grittiness alone can’t ruin tires. Clint Bowyer found that out the hard way when he had two separate right rear tires unwind. Matt DiBenedetto had something similar happen in the closing laps, although we didn’t see that.
FOX did a good job covering the tire issues. I think I would have liked to see tires from other drivers who were not having issues, but the current setup prohibits enough camera coverage in the pits to allow it.
What I would have liked to see is what could cause such issues with the right-rear tire. Bowyer had a very fast car, probably one of the three or four best out there, but couldn’t work the tire issues and keep his speed. The argument on the broadcast was simply that he was “abusing” his tires, but I think it might have been a fundamental setup flaw. By now, the smart chaps at Stewart-Haas Racing have probably already figured it out, but they’re not going to tell anyone what it was unless something had broken.
Racing for position was OK on Sunday, but the field did get spread out at times. There’s only so much racing to go around at that point. I still feel that FOX needs to do more to expand their coverage to more of the field. In 1985, ESPN made a point to try to say something about everyone during a race. It might be harder to do so now since it’s very difficult to get pre-race information at the moment, but they do need to make a bigger effort.
Post-race coverage was more or less overshadowed by Wallace’s health issues. On the broadcast, it was inferred that Wallace simply got up too quickly after being in his car for so long. As a result, that could have caused an equilibrium issue. That’s possible, but in all honesty, I’ve seen this before. When Wallace made his Cup debut at Pocono in 2017, that was my first Cup race with a NASCAR hard card. I went down onto pit road after the race to try to get quotes.
It was quite warm that day at Pocono. Temperatures in the upper 80s and a high dewpoint make for a very taxing race for someone who had never competed in a race longer than 500 kilometers in his career up to that point. Also, as you may remember, he got busted for speeding on pit road three separate times during the race. He answered a couple of questions to the gathered media members (this was pre-bullpen), then he suddenly stopped talking and had to be helped to the ground next to his car. I thought I saw his eyes roll back as well. It didn’t help that Reed Sorenson’s car had burst into flames further up pit road, which shrouded the area in smoke. I’ll admit that this was rather scary to see in person.
A couple of minutes later, Wallace was back on his feet to go visit Ryan Blaney in victory lane before going to the Infield Care Center. After a stint there, he had a press conference in the Media Center. He stated that he was bummed out and frustrated from the penalties (I don’t blame him). In regards to what happened after the race, he described it as passing out, and stated that this was the third time where it had happened when he was angry at himself.
The situation that you saw Sunday when Jamie Little was interviewing Wallace was very similar to what I saw in Pocono. Doesn’t make it any less scary, though.
I saw after the race where someone was claiming that Wallace was overcome by emotion after the race and that’s why he passed out. I don’t know about that. Given his track record, I would argue that he was displeased after the loose-wheel issue cost him a lap. That said, the heat and simply moving too quickly after being in the car for more than 3.5 hours could have played a role as well.
Overall, FOX did OK with the broadcast on Sunday. I just wish it was a little more inclusive. There’s only so much you can do with the limited amount of people that FOX can have on the premises right now.
The current situation did affect Sunday’s broadcast. In addition to the clips posted above, Jeff Gordon gave his own statement about the situation and how the sport is ready is change. He talked about his life experiences are radically different from Wallace’s and how he (and the sport at large) needs to learn from those experiences. The piece came off as sincere. Once again, I just hope that there’s staying power here. I want NASCAR to be an inclusive sport that everyone can enjoy, no matter your walk of life. Historically, it really hasn’t been that until recently.
I was young enough when I discovered NASCAR that I didn’t notice that it was effectively all-white at the time. I was young enough that I didn’t know what race was, or cared what it was. You hear about people wanting to see people like themselves on television doing various things so that they’ll have confidence that they could do it too. That idea showed up in ESPN’s latest 30 for 30, Be Water, about Bruce Lee that premiered Sunday night. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve never really needed that. Instead, I gravitated to things I liked on my own, like racing, weather and game shows. I’m interested in all three of those things to this day.
I grew into a NASCAR fan on my own, mainly due to a car addiction back when I was little. I had parents that accepted that I was somewhat quirky. I also had parents who had cable television in 1988 when I discovered NASCAR on a Sunday afternoon on ESPN. I didn’t really have peers that liked racing at first. I didn’t meet another race fan after I discovered NASCAR for three years (he’s still one of my best friends to this day, and sponsors The Scene Vault podcast via his Etsy store, Speedway Screens).
Unlike many race fans, my family are not race fans. With the possible exception of my dad, who is familiar with NASCAR dating back to the Wide World of Sports days since he’s a sports fan in general, no one cares about it. Not having fellow fans in the family makes it a little harder for people to get into the sport.
That’s all for this weekend. We have a very busy week coming up. First up is the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, a Cup race fully under the lights for the first time. Should be very interesting as brakes will be an issue once again. Once that’s done, we have a stacked schedule of four races at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be back in the driver’s seat for his one appearance of the year in the Xfinity Series. TV listings are in the TV tab above.
For Wednesday night’s 500-lap race, we will cover that broadcast in the Frontstretch Newsletter as part of The Critic’s Annex. For next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here on Frontstretch, we’ll have critiques of at least the Cup race from Homestead. Depending on what happens, we might have one or both of the Xfinity races as well.
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