“I still contend that our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”
During June 2020, nothing happened and everything happened all at once.
On June 1 the U.S. death toll in the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed the lives of 345,000 Americans by the end of the year, was at 105,000.
The day also marked a week since the murder of George Floyd by the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Three days earlier, on May 29, a peaceful protest turned violent at CNN headquarters in Atlanta.
On the evening of June 1, the NASCAR Xfinity Series raced at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Just as pre-race ceremonies commenced, peaceful protestors marching at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., against police brutality and racism were tear-gassed and dispersed by law enforcement.
It was instantly the split-screen moment in a summer filled with many we were forced to watch from home, where we’d been stuck since the middle of March. We were riveted by what we saw, in part because there was nothing else to watch. We’d gone a month-and-a-half with no sports to distract us from the day-to-day horror of an invisible virus.
Except for NASCAR, that is.
That Xfinity race at Bristol, won in dramatic fashion by Noah Gragson, was the ninth held after the sport returned from its pandemic shutdown on May 17 at Darlington Raceway.
As the country seemed to fall apart in late May, NASCAR felt isolated from the headlines. Aside from the empty grandstands, the face masks on pit road and TV broadcasters commentating remotely, it was business as usual.
That started to change on June 1.
In a nearly 30-minute conversation initiated by Dillon, the two drivers discussed race, Wallace’s personal encounters with law enforcement and racism he’d experienced during his racing career.
Similar conversations played out over the next few days, as Wallace appeared on the Dale Jr. Download and also shared an emotional moment with Fox Sports analyst Ricky Craven.
— Kaitlyn Vincie (@kaitlynvincie) June 3, 2020
By June 7, a year ago today, NASCAR could no longer ignore the other pandemic sweeping the country.
Just before the start of the Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, President Steve Phelps addressed the track’s empty grandstands, the drivers sitting in their cars on the frontstretch and a national TV audience.
“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “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. 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. We ask our drivers, our competitors and all our fans to join us in this mission.”
“We’re not strangers to moving fast,” the video began. “And we know how life can have that same quality. But now … is the time to slow down and reflect. The events of recent weeks highlighted the work we still need to do as a nation to condemn racial inequality and racism.”
When the month began, no one likely imagined circumstances where Johnson, NASCAR’s seven-time champion, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., its most popular driver for almost two decades, would say the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on a national platform.
But they did.
Wallace followed, noting the deaths of “Ahmaud Arbery and countless others in the Black community are heartbreaking … and can no longer be ignored.
“The process begins with us listening and learning because understanding the problem is the first step in fixing it. We are committed to listening with empathy and with an open heart to better educate ourselves. We will use this education to advocate for change in our nation, our communities and most importantly in our own homes. Even after the headlines go away.
“All of our voices, they make a difference. No matter how big or how small, it is all of our responsibility to no longer be silent … We’ve a long road ahead of us. But let’s commit to make the journey together.
“Our differences should not divide us. It is our love for all mankind that will unite us as we work together to make real change.”
I will listen and learn pic.twitter.com/XWgautn4cy
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) June 7, 2020
The next day, Wallace appeared on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.
Lemon asked Wallace what NASCAR’s next steps should be and mentioned the Confederate flag, the symbol long associated with “Southern heritage,” White supremacy and the image of it flying at NASCAR tracks all across the country.
“My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags,” Wallace said. “There should be no individual that is uncomfortable showing up to our events to have a good time with their family that feels some type of way about … an object they have seen flying.
“No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. So it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here.”
The email announcing the Confederate flag’s banishment from any and all NASCAR facilities landed at 4:46 p.m. ET on Wednesday, June 10.
The declaration, officially ending the sport’s 71-year run of tolerating the symbol, was simply titled “NASCAR Statement.”
“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” it said. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
NASCAR’s historic day wasn’t over.
Hours later, the Cup Series held its first night race at Martinsville Speedway, the oldest active track on the circuit. Located in southern Virginia, it’s only 30 miles from Danville, the home of NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, the only Black driver to ever win a Cup race.
It was there that Wallace, driver of Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43, piloted a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme. With the phrase “Compassion, Love, Understanding” on the hood, Wallace drove to an 11th-place finish.
All of that occurred 12 months ago this week.
Whether you experienced it in a blur, slow motion or as a pandemic fever dream, it did happen.
It was a week that changed NASCAR, both in and outside its bubble, potentially planting seeds that could revitalize a sport which, for a decade, seemed to be in free fall.
This column is the first in a five-part series that looks back at the events of June 2020 and examines their impact on the sport a year later.
Frontstretch will bring you the stories of four Black NASCAR fans who came to the sport as a result of these historic events and what their experience has been in the ensuing 12 months. It will conclude on Friday, June 11 with a look at NASCAR’s efforts to build on the #BlackLivesMatter foundation laid in 2020.
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