On June 7, 2020 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR President Steve Phelps made one of the most important public statements ever made by a NASCAR official, especially for one not named France.
With a field of cars sitting in front of empty grandstands due to an international pandemic and some 13 days after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, Phelps keyed up a radio, speaking both to the NASCAR community and a national TV audience.
“The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change,” Phelps said. “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.”
Without explicitly saying it, Phelps declared a simple fact: “Black Lives Matter.”*
On Sunday, April 26, Phelps made a statement that added an asterisk to his comments from 10 months earlier, specifically the part about listening to “demands for change.”
The comments he made came weeks after the state of Georgia passed a slew of measures to restrict voting access, with the brunt of it impacting areas of the state with largely Black communities. These measures include the following:
- It is now illegal for election officials to mail out absentee ballot applications to voters.
- A dramatic reduction in ballot drop boxes in the Atlanta metropolitan area and times when voters would have access to them.
- Restructured early voting in a way to where it would, according to the New York Times, be “up to the discretion of the local registrar” on whether or not to open polls on Sundays, which would impact “Souls to the Polls” programs put together by Black churches.
There are many more oppressive rules in the law. But maybe you’ve heard about the one that criminalizes the simple act of giving food or water to anyone waiting in line to vote.
Yes, it’s now a crime in Georgia to give people food and water while they wait in line to cast their vote. Now, I’ve been able to vote in three presidential elections and a few midterms. I’ve luckily never experienced an issue with having to wait more than a few minutes to vote. But in the Atlanta area, whether by circumstance or design, long waits to vote in non-White communities are common.
All these changes are the state’s Republican-controlled government delivering a punitive response to losing a presidential election and two U.S. Senate races, largely due to the turnout of Black voters.
The outcry from the measure was far-reaching. Within days of the law passing, Major League Baseball pulled its annual All-Star Game from Atlanta and relocated it to Denver, Colo.
That game would have taken place on July 13.
Two days before that? The NASCAR Cup Series holds its second race of the year at Atlanta, the track where Phelps, the public face of NASCAR’s leadership, planted its flag in the corner of standing “against racism and racial injustice.”
On Sunday, Phelps was asked for the first time about if NASCAR would do anything regarding strict voting laws in states in which it competes.
“We’re going to be a sport that is bold, we’re going to be a sport that is of action in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion space, and a subset of that being social justice,” Phelps said. “But we need to do it [in a way] that’s really consistent with our DNA, consistent with what’s authentic to our sport.
“I don’t think that’s an area [voting rights] that we are going to lean in. I think that we can probably do a better job pushing the diversity, equity, inclusion and some of the social justice issues in places that are not kind of in that particular area. [It] doesn’t mean it’s not important.
“Our whole message is going to be about not dividing. Ours is going to be [about] bringing together. It’s always going to be about welcoming and being inclusive as a sport, whether you’re at our facility or you’re participating in some other fashion or engaging in some other way.
“As of now, the answer would be no.”
Not to be the “dictionary definition” guy, but here’s the dictionary definition of “equity”: the quality of being fair and impartial.
When it comes to equity and social justice, NASCAR wants to be a “bold” sports league.
About time! It should have been done years ago. What’s it gotten NASCAR? Unprecedented (compared to its recent history) media attention. International icons Michael Jordan and Pitbull are now team owners. Wallace and 23XI Racing will be the subject of a forthcoming Netflix documentary series.
Most importantly, NASCAR gave itself a foothold in building its fan base among large swaths of the country (and the world) that previously wouldn’t give it the time of day.
“I just think we are in a different place than we were,” Phelps said Sunday. “That part is fantastic. I think we were in a situation where the sport was growing in 2019, our ratings were growing, our ticket sales were coming back nicely, but until the banning of that flag, it was really about just continuing to be where we were with the same group of people.
“I think the thing that’s most exciting for me is people understanding the NASCAR community in the sense of family and community that exists as part of NASCAR. I don’t think people saw that before.”
NASCAR is making the effort of building relationships with other social groups/projects, including the Urban Youth Racing School, the Trevor Project (a non-profit focused on suicide prevention efforts among the LGBTQ community), the Women’s Sports Foundation, UnidosUS and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Wallace recently said he’s “proud of the efforts” NASCAR has made in “continuing to try to show that we are as inclusive as any other sport and that we want everybody to come out. And so, showing those efforts is big and we can’t stop, we’re not stopping. We’re not letting off the gas or anything. We’re continuing to go.”
Look, NASCAR has pissed off its fair share of people – including a former team owner – with its efforts in the last year and the attention Wallace has received. Yet essentially the same number of people – or in the case of Sunday at Talladega, more – are tuning in to watch races as they were before 2020.
What NASCAR is doing is working.
But voting access?
That’s a bridge too far? Or is NASCAR afraid of angering the state governments that give it tax breaks, which happened with Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola in Georgia?
People can march all they want and make as many demands as they want of people in power.
None of that means much of anything, though, if the people petitioning the government for “change,” like Phelps described at Atlanta, have their ability to take part in democracy severely constricted because one political party decided to change the rules of the voting game instead of making their platform more palatable.
There’s an easy solution NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc., can make to play a positive role in this debate.
But you can put an effort toward showing you want your fans – no matter their background or political affiliation – to have equitable access to the ballot box.
Last year, like many basketball and football arenas, Texas Motor Speedway was used as a polling place for the fall election.
This year, take up action on the back-end of democracy. Use races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Daytona International Speedway or any track that falls under your umbrella as voter registration drives.
Simply getting Americans registered to vote, something guaranteed to them by the Constitution, shouldn’t be viewed as a political threat. If NASCAR wants to be a sport dedicated to social justice and “bringing together” people, voter access is a bizarre line to draw in the sand after 10 months of progress.
Just remember, if Atlanta or Daytona were to be used as polling places in 2022, you wouldn’t be able to have a photo-op of you giving water to voters.
That’s now a crime.
* To anyone who read the above sentence and thought “all lives matter,” if you saw a neighbor’s house on fire, would you dismissively mutter “all houses matter” before retreating into your own house? Or would you try to help your neighbor stop the fire and, if you’re really feeling nice, chip in to craft a more structurally sound home?
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