NASCAR made one of its biggest announcements in its history on Wednesday evening (June 10) when it announced that it was banning fans from displaying the Confederate flag at all of its tracks.
Michael Massie and Vito Pugliese debate whether this was the right move.
A Hypocritical Knee-Jerk
Banning the confederate flag was the wrong move by NASCAR, and it is something they should not have done.
Let me preface this by saying I am not a South sympathizer and have never seriously said, “The South will rise again.” I have never owned anything with the rebel flag on it, and I am not racist, as I have black family who I love and I am all for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. My family didn’t fight in the Civil War, and they didn’t own slaves. In fact, several members of my family were slaughtered in the Shelton Laurel Massacre of Madison County, N.C., when they refused to fight for the South. So I have every reason to dislike the Confederacy.
Yet, I still think banning the rebel flag was a hypocritical and reactionary move by NASCAR that it shouldn’t have done.
From the 1980s through the 2000s, NASCAR turned its back on a large majority of faithful fans that helped launch it into the mainstream when it abandoned Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway, as well as by taking races from Darlington Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. These were all tracks in the southeast, the area that had been with NASCAR since the start. And instead of taking care of loyal customers, NASCAR left them in search of new fans. During its decline, these fair-weather fans have been spotted few and far between.
Just when I thought those days were over and NASCAR was getting back to its roots, it cut its roots free again by ridding itself of the very symbol the sport was established on. This time, NASCAR cut loose its southeastern fans in search of a more diverse crowd that likely isn’t coming.
This move might even drive away those who don’t have an opinion one way or the other about the rebel flag, but simply want sports to be an escape. Tom Bowles said it best in relating this situation to the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick:
“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.”
Yes, the rebel flag came into being through the Confederacy, but it has evolved over time to become a symbol for southern heritage and pride. I grew up just outside of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, and numerous amounts of my classmates wore shirts or hats with rebel flags on them. The majority of them were not racist, and they could be seen wearing rebel paraphernalia while hanging out with their black friends.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the rebel flag was a huge part of pop culture in the southeast. NASCAR had races with names like the Rebel 400 while rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty and Alabama proudly displayed the flag.
“I never associated it with racism in any way,” Teddy Gentry, Alabama’s bassist, told USA Today. “That was a symbol of the Old South, which I guess meant different things to different people. In our hearts, it meant, ‘This is where we’re from. We’re from Dixie.’”
Dukes of Hazzard was one of the biggest shows on TV from 1979-1985. Its iconic car, the General Lee, featured a rebel flag on the roof. Reruns of the show continued to air until 2015, when the car was deemed offensive.
“I take exception to those who say that the flag on the General Lee should always be considered a symbol of racism,” the star of the show, John Schneider, told The Hollywood Reporter. “Is the flag used as such in other applications? Yes, but certainly not on the Dukes. If the flag was a symbol of racism, then Bo and Luke and Daisy and Uncle Jesse were a pack of wild racists, and that could not be further from the truth.”
As a result of these pop culture influences, there are now a couple generations of people who grew up with pride for the rebel flag and don’t associate it with racism at all. Now, all of a sudden, their lifestyle is deemed racist when many haven’t wronged anyone of another race. They have to suffer because our cancel culture selected them as next on the list.
The rebel flag has evolved beyond racism, just like another flag: the American one. The United States split off to form its own country right around the same time England was abolishing slavery. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Many of our founding fathers owned slaves that I don’t think they would’ve given up that easily.
If NASCAR wants to ban the rebel flag, then go ahead and ban the American flag as well, because it has the same racist past. And if NASCAR really wants to be at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, then it will stop accepting any coins or dollar bills with former slave owners’ faces on them. Oh, and they’ll stop racing in Virginia, a state that has a governor, Ralph Northam, who wore blackface and where one of the state colleges, University of Virginia, worships slave owner Thomas Jefferson.
But NASCAR won’t do any of those things, which makes this move hypocritical. In fact, NASCAR wouldn’t have made this move at all if three things hadn’t happened: Kyle Larson hadn’t said the “n” word, Bubba Wallace hadn’t said to get rid of the flag and, most importantly, George Floyd hadn’t been murdered by a cop. Had none of those things occurred, the rules wouldn’t have changed.
Instead, NASCAR made the flag its scapegoat to try to separate it from its racist history. I don’t think it that flag was twisting anyone’s arm when NASCAR endorsed Gov. George Wallace for president or made getting the winning trophy so difficult for African-American driver Wendell Scott. And now those who boast the rebel flag are the ones that have to pay the price for NASCAR’s racist past.
But even if none of that matters to those against the confederate flag, they have to at least acknowledge that NASCAR is infringing on people’s rights. To my knowledge, there is no law saying you can’t wear a rebel flag. I don’t believe fans sign a waiver when they purchase a ticket telling them what to wear. And displaying that flag should be part of a person’s 1st Amendment right surrounding freedom of speech, just like kneeling for the national anthem is. –Michael Massie
The Right Call for the Right Reasons
On Wednesday afternoon, June 10, NASCAR took the unprecedented step of issuing a ban on the display of the confederate flag by fans at all NASCAR tracks.
I say unprecedented, as it has often been a fixture at many tracks throughout the country, with the geographic home of the sport being rooted in the southeastern United States. At virtually any event over the years, you could look out across the infield and spot the stars and bars flying above motorhomes, campers or a converted school bus painted up like a racecar. You can even spot one in the opening title sequence of Days of Thunder.
The spring race at Darlington used to be called The Rebel 500 in the 1960s and 1970s. They had a guy (Johnny Reb) dressed up in a confederate gray battle uniform, jump on the hood of the car, waving the flag as the winner was pushed into Victory Lane. While that tradition has long since been abandoned, NASCAR is addressing one of the long-standing contentious issues and public perception of indifference to discrimination. It has been an ongoing issue for the last few years after Brian France declined to enforce the ban after initially announcing NASCAR would fight to reduce their presence.
Regardless of the current climate and the civil unrest that has resulted throughout our country over the past few weeks, it is a decision that is long overdue. Banning the confederate flag was the right call to make.
Before I ever started writing about racing, I was a fan. One of the things that always bothered me was the negative stereotype and perception of stock car racing as, “a bunch of drunk rednecks watching cars driving around in a circle for three hours” and the baggage that came with it. When comedians or sports snobs would point out there’s just white people on the track and in the stands, it was insinuating an inherently racist or exclusionary sport, particularly given its southern roots. I always thought that was quite unfair, as I never saw anything that would lead me to believe that. But I also didn’t really see many on the track or in the stands that I could cite to correct them.
Wendell Scott was the first African-American driver to win a race, and that was nearly 60 years ago (1963). From that point, there wasn’t a winner in NASCAR’s top three series until Bubba Wallace won at Martinsville Speedway in 2013 (Truck Series). When Scott won his race, it was contested due to a scoring error – allegedly.
Jacksonville, Florida in 1963 wasn’t exactly the most progressive of areas, and an African-American kissing the trophy queen, or taking home the winner’s check, was cause for concern for the promoter. Buck Baker was flagged the winner, but Scott was eventually found to be the victor. Even then, it was a month later until he got the trophy – and not the original.
There have been a few ugly incidents in NASCAR’s modern era as well. In Adam Carolla’s Netflix Documentary, Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story, Ribbs outlines issues he faced related to discrimination in each series, as well as NASCAR in the mid-1980s. In 2000, there was the former Team Penske transporter driver who put on a white sheet to scare a fellow team member as a prank. In 2008, Mauricia Grant, one of NASCAR’s first Drive for Diversity hires, ended up filing a $225 million lawsuit against the sanctioning body.
Grant, in particular, detailed a number of racially offensive events and encounters during her employ. The parties eventually settled out of court prior to trial, but it was another Jenga brick that was seemingly being pulled from the stack of a sport that had been built so high in just the last 15 years. Most recently – and publicly – Kyle Larson was ultimately released from Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, McDonald’s, and CreditOne Bank following his blurting out of a racial slur during an iRacing contest.
Often chided for taking a slow, wait-and-see approach to virtually any pressing issue, NASCAR acted decisively as well. They suspended Larson indefinitely and he hasn’t raced in a NASCAR event since.
Eras and areas can shape perspectives. I was raised in Michigan, and being a Gen-Xer, my first exposure to and recognition of the confederate flag was at three years of age, and exclusively limited to the roof of the General Lee on Dukes of Hazzard. It was my favorite show growing up (OK, it’s still my favorite show). Bo and Luke were always compelled to do the right thing, help out anyone in need, and champion the cause of anyone trying to fight the system.
So, for the first 10 years of my life, the confederate flag was associated with something positive – an indestructible flying 1969 Dodge Charger and always doing the right thing. Racial discrimination, bigotry, let alone slavery and the other associated atrocities associated with the same flag on the roof was largely an unknown.
As I grew up and through high school, that flag wasn’t an issue that came up very often. The first time I can remember it even being a topic was a nightly news story on the state flag of Georgia, with demands that it be removed. I remember seeing the Georgia state flag on the front license plate of the Trans Am in Smokey & The Bandit as it was wading through a creek running from the law. That never struck me as bigoted, but the news story highlighted the history and reason why it was being pushed to be changed.
When I was in college, I worked in room service at a 4-star hotel. One of my friends and co-workers was Bosnian. He was one of 300 survivors out of 5,000 who were killed in a concentration camp during the Bosnian War. It was no different than meeting a holocaust survivor from WWII. He had the tattoo of his prison identification number on his finger, along with a number of medical issues which caused broken bones not healing properly after beating beaten and interrogated by his captors. On slow nights, we’d talk, and he’d tell me stories of things he had just experienced a couple of years before. He noted how his unit had adopted the confederate flag as their battle patch.
In his broken English, he said, “Yeah, we all thought it looked cool and was known as a symbol of fighting back against an invader.”
About this same time NASCAR was absolutely blowing up in popularity. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was the place to be. I remember going to MIS and looking for a ticket on race morning, even from a scalper – and finding nothing. Forced to get an infield pass and walk around until they opened up the pedestrian bridge at halfway, I started taking note whenever I’d see one of the southern battle flags raised atop a camper.
Being a little older, and understanding the growing objections to it, I started wondering, “Why would you fly that if you’re not from down south?” In the northern counties of Michigan, it’s not uncommon to see one as sticker or novelty license plate on a lifted pickup truck, or flying overhead of a disheveled yard filled with what my girlfriend would deem “treasure.” Were there some racial overtones or current to their flying it? Did they just see it as a generic symbol of rebellion or fighting the system as my buddy from Bosnia or the Duke boys?
In any event, it started to just seem out of place.
In 2011, I drove to Talladega Superspeedway with a buddy who just moved to Pensacola, Fla. On our way up, we passed the Sons of Confederate Veterans alongside I-65 by Montgomery, Ala. We drove under what had to be a 30’ x 60’ confederate flag. My friend looked over and said, “We ain’t from around here, bud…”
Pumped to be on our way to the track, it felt a little weird, like we were driving through another country. Well, let’s be honest; it almost was another country 150 years ago. It was definitely not the same feeling you get when you see our United States flag with the sun shinning through it, or the feeling you get when the national anthem plays and the Thunderbirds or a pair of F-15s thunder overhead.
There’s been a lot of open real estate at racetracks the last 10 years or so. Be it changing interests, dissatisfaction with the on-track product, or simply a generational shift of fans, it’s not the Lollalpalooza with pit stops it once was. The traveling circus has a big tent, and everyone should feel like there’s room for them in it.
For someone willing to come to a racetrack for a weekend, and invest the hundreds of dollars needed for a ticket, travel, food, drinks, and some souvenirs, not to mention the time taking off of work, why would you want to hang up something that knowingly elicits a reaction? A symbol that doesn’t have the same connotation to that many people?
There’s no law against it, sure. But there’s also no penalty for being mildly conscious or even just polite. Just as the person displaying that flag would not want to be mistaken for endorsing the heinous and negative aspects that it is often recognized for, it shouldn’t be considered something to endure. One flag shouldn’t poison what is always a carnival-like atmosphere where literally everyone gets along and has a blast camping together for three days.
That should also not be interpreted as brow-beating or picking on someone who simply sees the flag as a symbol of being proud to be from the South. I understand the desire to preserve history, as well as the absolute right of all 330 million of us to have their right to speak freely. I don’t, however, think it’s too much to ask to pause your personal history lesson for a weekend. We can drink some beers together and watch a race, giving due consideration to what our fellow countrymen and women that may equate the display with something wholly reprehensible.
Worried about seeing the National Guard on the news to quell a riot two weeks ago? How about calling up the 101st Airborne Division so black children could simply enter their school? There’s a significant part of our society that recognizes that symbol and the regrettable part of our not-too-distant past, either by having lived it personally, or feeling the downstream effects. It’s not exactly a welcoming sight for our fans who might already be a little skeptical of what they’re walking into.
Also, these racetracks are private property. If you don’t like it, build your own.
NASCAR is also a sport that exists solely at the pleasure of other people’s money. They’re kept afloat by sponsorships, companies and brands that all of us like or use to help keep the sport afloat and your favorite driver in a seat. They, too, should be encouraged and take pride in the millions they’re investing to promote their product, vision and values, making it accessible and visible to as many people as possible. It’s a much easier to make a business case to be associated with something positive and not one that continues to slog along. You shouldn’t try to clumsily explain away or make excuses for the actions of a select few.
It’s a complex issue that generates a lot of emotion on both sides. After the last few months, I think just about all of us are pretty much emotionally drained and want an escape from what we’ve been pummeled with on the news every day and night – the last two weeks, in particular. NASCAR has been a part of the relief effort for the past month, being the first back into the fray with live sports, and making the right call right away on a number of issues that could have gone horribly wrong if they acted differently.
The sport has taken the lead in its COVID-19 return; and they’re taking the lead on these changes. The flag policy, while infuriating to some, will have zero effect on most who don’t fly them.
And for those who haven’t felt like they weren’t welcome because of it? Hopefully, they will take notice and feel compelled to come be part of the action. – Vito Pugliese