Did You Notice?… NASCAR, in just the past seven days, has enthusiastically joined the Black Lives Matter movement. Bubba Wallace, in a CNN appearance Monday night (June 8), said the sport needs to ban confederate flags, for decades a symbol of its southern roots. And Kirk Price, an African-American official, was celebrated, not criticized, as he knelt during Sunday’s (June 7) national anthem at Atlanta Motor Speedway prior to the NASCAR Cup Series race.
In what is believed to be the first time a competitor or official has kneeled during the national anthem in the Cup Series, NASCAR official Kirk Price took a stand against police brutality. https://t.co/iPUGcvvpfj
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) June 9, 2020
In a heartbeat, a sport with momentum formed from its early, successful return from COVID-19 gambled by entering the political arena. In doing so, it took 70-plus years of complicated racial history and shred it to pieces.
As a 30-something white male, I can’t begin to understand what it’s like to suffer prejudice due to the color of my skin. The best thing I can do, as a leader and a journalist, is simply listen. And one of those conversations happened in NASCAR in 2008, the year I sat down with Mauricia Grant for Sports Illustrated. Grant was the sport’s lone African-American female official who filed a $225 million harassment lawsuit against the sport.
The full transcript of that interview is here. I’ll never forget it. To this day, it was one of the most powerful one-on-ones I’ve been a part of in my career. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount before trial, but Grant’s accusations went public and rocked the sport. She came across as traumatized by her experience, having to stop and cry several times, and large parts of her story came across as authentic.
Here are a few excerpts.
In the lawsuit you state that Nappy Headed Mo was a nickname that one person used for you. Did you get the sense that the people you accused in the lawsuit were above reproach?
“I felt that everybody was so loose, the culture in the garage was loose. It was nothing like any type of office environment I had ever worked at. Nothing that was politically correct about the environment. So, anything goes … it wasn’t controlled. I definitely felt that I had no one to complain to.”
What was your worst fear?
“That I would get hurt. Heading out every week felt like sometimes, especially on the long road trips with one official, our conversation always went back to the KKK with him. When we were in the car riding around with him, it was like KKK this or black this — just really picking my brain about being black or the black experience.
“I used to have thoughts of, ‘Is this official going to pull over — you know, we used to have to travel from Atlanta to Tennessee through the Blue Mountains, through these remote places, and I felt like sometimes — ‘Am I going to get a detour that I’m not aware of that’s about to happen?’ It’s a scary feeling … because it’s real remote, and I was thinking, ‘Is it going to happen now? Is it going to happen now?’ I was real nervous a lot about that.
“There was one time in Bristol where a crew member came up to my ear and he said, ‘You’re going to love getting kidnapped.’ And what do you say to that? It was such a weird, freaky thing to say where I started thinking, ‘Is that a flirtation or is that a threat?’
Keep in mind these experiences came to light in 2008, the same year Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. 12 years is not a long time ago for a sport that’s spent the better part of the 21st century trying to redefine its image.
It’s a stock car series whose lone African-American driver to win in Cup, Wendell Scott, fought racism throughout his career. Scott’s lone victory, in Jacksonville at 1963, wasn’t given to him until hours after the race due to a scoring error. It’s a mistake his family believed was intentional, designed to keep a black driver from kissing a white beauty queen in a segregated south.
NASCAR made no bones about supporting that segregation in its early days. The sport didn’t just openly support Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the run-up to the 1968 presidential election; it invited him to the Southern 500 that year. According to The Early Laps of Stock Car Racing: A History of the Sport and Business Through 1974, NASCAR CEO Bill France Sr. lavishly praised Wallace to cheers in front of a crowd of 70,000.
“George Washington founded this country,” France said. “And George Wallace will save it.”
Sources have told me through the years NASCAR supported a Wallace bid for president all the way through 1980. He remained a friend of the Frances, influential in the construction and financial success of Talladega Superspeedway.
These are just some of the stories that color NASCAR’s impression on race. In 2020, hard numbers show only limited growth in this arena. Wallace remains the lone African-American driver on the 40-car grid each week. Compare that 2.5% rate of black athletes competing at the highest level to over 80% for the NBA.
The sport has pushed for change, but every two steps forward have come with one step back. NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative specifically targets women and minority candidates, providing them equipment and opportunities they might not otherwise get. But the program’s most notable success story, Kyle Larson, torpedoed his career by, of all things, using a racial slur on Twitch. Others have found the program hypocritical, as careers stalled out with no corporate sponsorship that would follow them after graduation.
Four years ago, NASCAR stepped into the political arena again with then-CEO Brian France’s exuberant endorsement of President Donald Trump. Even though Trump’s disparaging comments toward Mexicans forced the sport to relocate its Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series banquets off Trump properties, France wasted no time lining up drivers offering support.
“I’ve known Donald for over 20 years,” France said at a rally in Valdosta, Ga. “I’m going to tell you one thing: you know about his winning and success. He wins with his family. Any of his children, you’d be proud to have in your family. That’s how I judge a winner.”
Among those on the stage that day: NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award winner Chase Elliott. Elliott, by the way, was featured in NASCAR’s #BlackLivesMatter video released at Atlanta and played on FOX Sports before the race.
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) June 7, 2020
Then, during the 2016 election, kneeling for the national anthem to protest police mistreatment of African-Americans first became a major story. The sport’s response? Varied, but the critics were vocal.
“Get you a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over,’’ longtime car owner Richard Childress said on pit road in September 2017. “Anybody that works for me should respect the country we live in. So many people gave their lives for it. This is America.’’
Does that include his grandson, Ty Dillon? Two-and-a-half years later, Dillon is widely credited with sparking NASCAR’s reaction to the George Floyd protest movement gripping America. His Instagram Live conversation with Wallace helped spark a marked change in the way his sport reacted to race. Wallace followed up with open support of Floyd Sunday on pit road.
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) June 7, 2020
Then, NASCAR finished it with strong words from its president, Steve Phelps, expressing the need for change.
“The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country,” Phelps said with the field stopped on the frontstretch. “And it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice.”
Wallace, as an exclamation point on top, then pushed for the removal of confederate flags in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon.
“There’s going to be a lot of angry people that carry those flags proudly but it’s time for change,” he said. “I encourage NASCAR to have those conversations… we should not be able to have an argument over that. It is a thick line we cannot cross anymore.”
And if fans say no?
“Get back on the road where you came from.”
So what happens now? There’s a hard truth: the sport loses fans in the short term. The NFL lost interest during the national anthem protests because fans, expecting sports to be a diversion, were thrown headfirst into politics instead. No matter what side of the issue you’re on, entertainment isn’t supposed to be exhausting.
Myself and several Frontstretch writers lost followers on Twitter simply by reporting Phelps’ and Wallace’s actions this week. For some readers, this article will be the last they read on this website. It’s just reality; majority support does not mean universal. I agree with the comments of my colleague Bryan Davis Keith, who said Monday, “Those of us that watch for escape… [who] don’t give a flying F about what millionaire athletes of all colors/creeds do/say/think other than wheeling their damned cars… [now] safely get to grin and bear it.”
The confederate flag will also be a larger, more challenging step in this fight. As recently as the Charlottesville riots in 2017, fans were open about the importance of that symbol to them. At the end of that year, Frontstretch surveyed a cross section of fans at Homestead-Miami Speedway about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pending retirement. A solid majority, unprompted, specifically mentioned NASCAR’s noncommittal stance on the anthem and its southern roots (i.e., Confederate flags) as to why they’d keep following the sport after their favorite retired.
But as these protests keep gripping the country, over two weeks in, it’s a rare moment the sport should take a political stance – and fight for it. The knock over the past decade of a shrinking fan base is NASCAR is being whittled back to a regional sport. What better way to open yourself up to someone that doesn’t care about you, due to their own preconceived notions, than by shattering the mold of who people think you are?
“How about NASCAR and what they’re doing?” Lemon said after Wallace’s interview to his next guest. “Wow.”
It’s a moment in which his outlook on the sport changed forever. May he be the first of many.