Bubba Wallace (right) greets Kirk Price (left), an official who kneeled for the National Anthem at Atlanta, before Wednesday nights race at Martinsville. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Fire on Fridays: Change a Beautiful Thing for NASCAR

Being a NASCAR fan is weird. It’s a bit hard sometimes, too.

Constantly explaining that it’s not just cars, driven by good ‘ol boys, running around in circles. It’s not something any average Joe can do. It’s not only set and popular in the South.

It’s not racist. It’s not what you think it is. It’s different than what it once was.

But who am I to say? I’m a white male who has never experienced racism due to the color of my skin in my life, and probably never will. That’s a privilege. My white privilege, something I’ve actively thought about, realized and verbalized in recent weeks.

I’ve defended NASCAR until I’ve been blue in the face. I’ve screamed, cried over this, trying to get people to understand why I love it so much. The people I’ve met at the track are of diverse backgrounds and interests. These are people that work in the industry, have for decades, and know what the sport is all about.

It’s not a racist sport. It’s an inclusive one.

That’s why it hurts me when other people paint an incorrect picture of it for outsiders, likely pushing them further from even entertaining the idea of watching or attending an event.

I’ve done all that to defend a sport that owes me nothing.

After all, wouldn’t you want to share something that brings you so much joy?

And to think, Black people have been doing this for centuries for the right to be equal to other human beings.

White privilege recognized again.

NASCAR, to its credit, has tried to dispel the false narrative for the better part of a decade. From creating the Drive for Diversity program to attempting to institute a trade-in policy for the confederate flag and everything in between, you can’t say it hasn’t tried.

But on the flip side, it hasn’t done itself any favors, either. It’s hard to get away from the good ‘ol Southern boys narrative when, frankly, a good portion of the field consists of athletes born south of the Mason-Dixon line, who have openly supported politicians that alienate a group of individuals, while still seeing blatant racism in the form of the rebel flag at every track across the country.

As the saying goes, “The only thing black about NASCAR is the pavement and the tires.”

George Floyd’s killing sparked conversation and change. And for the first time in my adult life, NASCAR was at the forefront of having those talks and implementing those proposals.

On Sunday, NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed competitors inside their cars before the Cup Series green flag dropped at Atlanta Motor Speedway, saying, “the time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice. We ask our drivers […] and all our fans to join us in this mission, to take a moment of reflection, to acknowledge that we must do better as a sport, and join us as we now pause and take a moment to listen.”

And listen they did.

That address was followed by a video montage featuring several drivers.

During the National Anthem, NASCAR official Kirk Price, a former U.S. Army veteran, knelt before saluting the flag while remaining on one knee.

“I come from humble beginnings and I believe in humble protesting,” Price told The Charlotte Observer.

Bubba Wallace wore a shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” on pit road.

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On Monday, June 8, Wallace appeared on CNN with Don Lemon, calling for NASCAR to ban the confederate flag from the racetrack. “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race,” he said. “Time for a change. … It’s a thick line that we cannot cross anymore.”

The next day, to kick off Pride Month, NASCAR announced a partnership with You Can Play, a LGBTQ+ organization “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”

Ryan Hines, an openly gay public relations representative and content creator for Stewart-Haas Racing, weighed in on the sanctioning body’s vow for inclusion.

Later that day, Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports revealed a Black Lives Matter paint scheme for Martinsville Speedway, the closest track to the sport’s first Black driver and NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott’s hometown of Danville, Va.

Wednesday, NASCAR removed guidelines saying team members must stand for the National Anthem, allowing for peaceful protests during pre-race ceremonies.

A few hours later, the confederate flag was banned by NASCAR.

Change. What a beautiful thing.

Denouncing racial injustice and the oppression toward African Americans was something, admittedly, I never thought I’d see NASCAR do. Neither was openly support the gay community, neither was the letting the words “Black Lives Matter” be adorned on a car, neither was letting anybody kneel during the anthem, and neither was banning the confederate flag.

It’s feasible for the aforementioned changes to occur over years of working within communities and walking the walk instead of talking the talk.

These changes all happened in four days.

The time is always right to do what is right. And NASCAR did what was right. It was the most progressive week ever for the historically retrograde sport.

With roots entrenched with the rebel flag and overt racism, the importance of the actions taken by the sanctioning body cannot be overstated.

I’m too young to call it the biggest week in NASCAR history, but it damn sure is the biggest week for the sport since I’ve been alive.

I had the privilege of being one of six print reporters on site at Martinsville Speedway on Wednesday for the first ever night race at NASCAR’s oldest venue. It was set to be a historic day on track, and I was psyched to be a small part of it.

But at 4:45 p.m. EST, it became a historic day off track. If the actions before weren’t enough to show you NASCAR was taking action, saying goodbye to the confederate flag is a hell of a starting point.

Enforcing that ban will be a different beast. But for now, small victories go a long way.

Of course, some fans will feel alienated and will vow to never return to the track. But as the popular sentiment has been this week toward those who don’t support the banning of the flag and are planning on leaving the sport because of it: good riddance.

Looking at you, Ray Ciccarelli.

As embarrassing as it may sound, I found myself wiping tears from my face during the 500-lap race. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. Maybe it was the pandemic, maybe it was the current state our country is in, maybe it was a plethora of things that were weighing on my mind. I didn’t know. So I started jotting some notes down. I didn’t want to forget why I was feeling the way I was.

For years, all I’ve wanted was for my family and friends to see the sport the way I did, for all its glory. The sights, sounds, sensation of speed, personalities, storylines, intricacies, choreography, passion. It’s all there to see. But people couldn’t see past the flag, an unwelcome sign of racism.

I didn’t fully understand why they couldn’t. Until I started listening.

I don’t care who you voted for in 2016, and I don’t care who you’ll vote for later this November. But as I’ve listened to others as of late, I now please ask you to listen to me.

Pardon my French, but this shit is important.

I’m not a minority, but I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of those who’ve been racially oppressed. I’ve had conversations with some of my Black friends (and admittedly, there’s not many of them. White privilege recognized again) as to why they’re feeling the way they are.

To those who feel attacked at NASCAR’s flag ban: if you’re ready to stop watching a sport altogether because of a flag that repeatedly slammed the door to an entire race of humanity, you were never a fan in the first place.

NASCAR is and always will be better without you. You are no longer welcome.

Dale Earnhardt listened, understood and changed. Why can’t you?

The on-track product isn’t changing. Neither are the cars, the tracks, the sounds, the smells, everything that makes NASCAR what it is is not changing.

Don’t get it twisted: this is far from political. This is about basic equality and human rights for a systematically oppressed group of people. If you can’t part with your flag for that, well, sayonara.

The confederate flag is offensive to an entire race. It was time to get rid of it. It doesn’t matter how many fans or dollars you’ll lose. It was simply time.

Although a different scenario, I found myself trying to compare to how Blacks feel on a personal level. Being Jewish, you think I’d feel comfortable with a swastika being anywhere? Especially somewhere I’m paying to be entertained with something I love, like the racetrack.

That’s hate. That’s racism.

The Confederate flag is hate. The Confederate flag is racism.

This week, Wallace has opened others’ eyes and ears to the problem. That’s beautiful, truly beautiful. He called out his fellow drivers on the sports most popular podcast with the sport’s most prominent figure, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to not remain silent.

And they didn’t. They, too, listened.

The top NASCAR brass, notably Phelps and Executive Vice President/Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell have been right alongside Wallace, communicating regularly. Wallace has driven the conversation, and NASCAR has hit the accelerator on it.

“Kudos to NASCAR. Kudos to Bubba for bringing it up and using his platform for something good,” 2018 champion Joey Logano said. “That’s the most important thing. We can win races. I say this all the time, winning a championship is nice, but what is it? It’s an empty trophy, it’s an empty cup. That’s what it is. If you do nothing with it, it’s really pointless at the end of the day, so kudos to (Wallace) for really stepping up and being a leader and not just a race car driver.”

Besides an apt Doc Hudson quote from “Cars,” Logano is right. Leaders listen and act. That’s what’s happening.

I’ve never been ashamed to be a NASCAR fan, but I’ve always resented the fact that I couldn’t fully display my pride for it. It didn’t feel right to do so knowing how others felt.

Those tears that rolled down my face in the press box were happy ones. NASCAR was becoming something I could be proud to represent to everybody, regardless of how you look, where you’re from or what you believe in, right in front of my eyes.

Phelps’ quote on Sept. 20, 2018, the day he was announced as NASCAR’s next president, struck a chord with me then, and resonates 10 times over now.

“I am confident that the strong team of leaders here at NASCAR and across the industry will accelerate the necessary changes to grow the sport and engage our passionate fans,” he said.

Hopefully Phelps and co. continue to deliver on their promises and make NASCAR a welcoming place for all. In four days, necessary changes were made to grow the sport for years to come.

Not just because it was the right thing to do, but because it was the only thing to do.

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Davey joined the site prior to the 2017 season and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the bi-weekly column "Fire on Fridays" and spearheads Frontstretchs video content. He's covered the ARCA Menards Series East and West extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as a production assistant for NBC Sports Washington.

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11 comments

  1. Avatar

    What a well written piece. It has been so heartening to the sport move in a positive direction after decades of ignorance. Looking forward to the remainder of the 2020 season!

    • Avatar

      Black Lives Matter? Which black lives? Certainly not the ones who die in South Chicago.

      NASCAR is not a place to air social grievance. Neither is the NFL.

      The first amendment protects those who burn the American Flag. Next, sanctimonious PCers will want to ban Old Glory, which flew over slave states.

      Never have I seen so much sickening, pious virtue signalling. Sickening.

  2. Avatar

    Oh dear God. I reject every bit of this drivel! How old are you early 20’s? Drinking the angry Marxist commie loving professors hate for this country? The indoctrination is strong. It has been brewing for decades, but it has come home to roost. Of course the lame, lazy will say I am “racist”. The usual mantra..blah, blah, blah. I assure you with a weak effort (more like a I don’t give a shit mentality) I am not. Nor do I need to prove it to anyone. My actions and heart are my guide. I will not be told I am something by a bunch of groupthink sheep! I am just a person who has studied history and know where this is going. I have been studying this dogma about this country for years. This current drama is part of the play that will never have an ending, they need to keep it going..America racist, white people racist! Sure,there is always room for improvement on both sides! Both sides! This is a booming industry, don’t buy every line, and every cure…Somebody on the “other side” says I will forgive you if you admit you have WHITE PRIV! And the sheep go I have WHITE PRIV and their souls are clean! It is about feeling good, which is total Bs. The narrative is to divide, so much money to be made, keeping the hate industry going! A cottage industry that is not new, the WHITE GUILT and corporate weakness is however, which is a whole new component, a powerful one in the demonization and division of one “group” “class” whatever you wanna call it, over another. You are playing into their plan and game and don’t even know it! It is bigger that you know. This issue is not about George Floyd…sorry he and his sad situation, inexcusable, disgusting as it was and is another springboard for the bigger picture! Let us all loot and get that TV in the name of George……….oh please.

  3. Avatar

    Morgan Freeman has some very good quotes on how ..we can help to get rid of racism
    Take the time and do some looking …

  4. Avatar

    I live my life treating everybody as they treat me. I couldn’t care less the color of there skin. How ever trashing our history and traditions is taking political correctness way way beyond reason. I have some bad news for Nascar. All those people who think you did a wonderful thing banning the confederate flag will never go to a race, never watch on tv. They will never buy a dicast. However loyal race fans will take serious exception to your actions. I’s sure you will notice less fans in the stands along with lower tv ratings.You made a huge mistake.

  5. Avatar

    NASCAR is not a place to air social grievance. Neither is the NFL.

    The first amendment protects those who burn the American Flag. Next, sanctimonious PCers will want to ban Old Glory, which flew over slave states.

    Never have I seen so much sickening, pious virtue signalling.

  6. Avatar
    Scott Richardson

    The thing is that NASCAR is making an attempt to again to be the “cool sport” for the millenials by doing all of this junk. In doing this, they are sacrificing all of their long-time fans. The millenials will only stay with the sport until it is no longer cool and then they will move on to the next thing. The long-time fans are the ones who are buying consumer products because they sponsor cars in NASCAR and watching all races in-person or on TV.
    Might as well put out the For Sale sign now!

  7. Avatar

    Fly an ISIS or ANTIFA flag, OK. Fly the Confederate Flag and the NASCAR Gestapo will arrest you.

    The American Flag is next.

  8. Avatar

    I’ll be blunt. Watching sports on tv has always been an escape from the real world for me. What’s happening now is a joke. I didn’t know that a third rate backmarker was running nascar now. I didn’t know that being proud to be white was a crime. It’s called reverse racism. Banning the Confederate flag is only a symptom of the bigger problem. Taking away people’s heritage will have costs. Nascar has once again spat on the very people that support them. What a joke. This long long time fan is done. And believe me, I’ll let the door hit me on the butt.mi

  9. Avatar

    All of you who want to compare this to a terrorist group are disgusting. If you do not like what they are doing, stop watching. If you want to be a racist moron, go to a site that isn’t about racing. If you’re bitching just to bitch, shut the hell up.