What comes to mind when you see the Confederate flag?
Is it the Civil War that tore the United States of America in two for five years?
Is it Southern pride? Do you see the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard?
Or are you reminded of the NASCAR races Darlington Raceway held under the “Rebel” title from 1960 through 1982?
For Vivian Hedrington, a woman of Native American and Black descent, none of those things come to mind.
“For me, that flag represented my dad, who saw three lynchings,” Hedrington told Frontstretch earlier this month. “That flag always accompanied those lynchings.”
On June 10, 2020, a year ago today, NASCAR did what five years earlier it considered a bridge too far.
At the request of Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the Cup Series, the sanctioning body officially banned the Confederate flag from all of its facilities.
With that decision, along with Wallace driving a “Black Lives Matter” car in a race at Martinsville Speedway that same day, NASCAR caught the attention of a national audience. That included people who previously paid the sport little to no mind.
Vivian Hedrington, 57, and her daughter Rita, 24, were among them.
Vivian and Rita live in Tempe, Arizona and are members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which means “Desert People.”
“You go up north you have the Apaches, the Grand Canyon and that’s much cooler,” Vivian said. “But we know how to survive out in this desert.”
Vivian’s father, a Black man, was born in Texas to a family that migrated to the Lone Star State after being freed from slavery. Her mother was Native American.
Vivian was born in 1964, three years before the Supreme Court officially ruled that laws barring inter-racial marriage were unconstitutional.
“My dad and mom weren’t allowed to marry each other. It was illegal,” Vivian said. “I was born out of wedlock.”
Fifty-six years later, Vivian herself checks off a few boxes some would associate with a stereotypical white fan of NASCAR: She never received a college education and holds a blue-collar job driving a school bus in the Tempe-area.
Rita is a student and a musician who plays the trombone.
While Rita’s aunt and Vivian’s sister was a long-time NASCAR fan dating back to the “young (Kevin) Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. days,” they hadn’t been drawn in themselves.
Until 12 months ago.
Like many around the country, especially people of color, spring and summer of 2020 was a difficult time.
As a mixed-raced person, it was no different for Rita.
“Even though we’re mixed race, to the world they don’t see the mixture, they see the color,” Rita says. “For people that don’t know me, they’ll just be like, ‘Oh, that’s a Black girl.’ So I’ll be treated as such.”
Rita reflected that as a country, four years under the previous presidential administration had fostered an atmosphere where “America did not feel welcoming” to her.
“As a young 23, 24-year-old … I felt like I was in a box,” Rita says. “I felt like this is how my ancestors must have felt like, back in the day. How we’re separate, but equal. I had friends that … just drifted apart, just over politics. It was just like, ‘Wow, this is getting really out of control.’ … I suffer from mental health. I suffer from bipolar disorder. So it was during a time in my life where I’m going crazy. And then my whole world is going crazy at the same time. No one seems to understand you. No one seems to care.”
But then she saw in the news that Wallace would race the “Black Lives Matter” car at Martinsville Speedway on June 10. While Rita was aware of Wallace from the days of his success in the Camping World Truck Series, that hadn’t been enough for her, someone with an admitted “keening” towards cars, to get into NASCAR.
“I was like, ‘Well, let’s just try it. Let’s just try to watch a racing, watch your race, and support Bubba,'” Rita recalled. “Especially because that was something really hard for him to do, who knows what could have happened afterwards … I felt like I had at home with that car.”
During an emotionally trying time for Rita, NASCAR and Wallace made her feel like “maybe there is a home for me. It made me realize that each driver has their own things … when you speak to someone that isn’t a NASCAR fan, they kind of get all lumped as rednecks or whatever. And they shouldn’t be. They’re all different. They’re all completely different.”
Rita further latched onto Wallace through their shared life experience. Wallace is bi-racial (Black mother, white father) and has publicly detailed his battles with depression.
“I felt I found someone that I could relate to because he also suffers from depression and mental health … and that was really important to me,” Rita said.
For Rita, Wallace was someone “trying to make (NASCAR) more open, and trying to make a change for himself. He’s trying to make it. He has to change the ballgame for himself to make it because he wants to win. … (He) ended up standing up for social justice at the same time.”
A year later, Vivian says she and Rita regard Wallace as “not only a hero, he’s a legend.
“Because what he did was, he may not be winning races, but he won the most important race in the world, and that was (he brought) that freakin’ flag down,” Vivian declared.
Given history – especially her father’s – with the Confederate flag, Vivian isn’t one for the defense that it’s a benign symbol of something positive.
“When people hold that flag, they’re not trying to say Southern heritage,” Vivian counters. “What they’re trying to say is, ‘You do it our way, you fit in our way and you’re gonna know your place.’ That’s what that flag means. ‘Know your place.'”
Rita recalled her aunt using it as a reason for why she never attended a NASCAR race despite her love of the sport.
“She said, ‘Well, it’s not welcoming. Confederate flags … rednecks everywhere. So I’ll watch it, but I won’t go’ type of stuff,” Rita recalled.
June 10, 2020 changed that.
Soon after the Martinsville race, Rita signed both herself and her mother up for Twitter accounts.
“We started just Twittering about NASCAR and finding other people that loved NASCAR that were from all different types of backgrounds and colors,” Rita said. “You got LGBT fans and everything and Black fans and bi-racial like us fans. ‘Oh, wow, this actually may not be what I was raised (to believe)!'”
After a while, Rita came to another realization.
“It really felt like, ‘Oh, wow, this is like your family away from your family,'” she said. “NASCAR has that family feel to it with the fans. … It felt more open after that (Martinsville) race, because NASCAR kind of took a hold of that. Now you’re seeing them tweet out … they did a respect for George Floyd. And they tweeted out Happy Pride Month. Then the I Am NASCAR (campaign), that means a lot. That can mean like, ‘I am NASCAR, you’re NASCAR and she’s NASCAR.'”
Soon, they were buying Bubba Wallace shirts. But they had to be quick about it.
“We tried to purchase anything we can afford right away because the larger sizes go (fast),” Vivian said. “If you ever been to a reservation, we suffer from obesity. So size 4x and 5x is not uncommon. You know what I’m saying? They’re big people. Just think of Samoans being big people. So anytime (Wallace) comes out with merchandise, we try to hurry up and get it so it fits our sizes.”
Clad in Wallace shirts, they ventured to their first NASCAR race weekend in March at Phoenix Raceway.
They didn’t just attend the Cup race.
“We went to the ARCA [event], which was loud,” Vivian said. “We went to the Xfinity [race]. Louder. And then we went to Cup Series [race]. We were like, ‘Oh my god, how can these people sit here without ear protection?'”
For Rita, it felt “better than a rock concert. I knew the cars were loud. But they’re loud. /.. The restarts, the adrenaline of them taking off at green. You don’t get that from watching TV. It’s like, ‘Wow.'”
Vivian and Rita noticed something else sitting in the grandstands at Phoenix. One that proved plenty of misconceptions can abound about a sport and its audience.
“I don’t know what made us imagine that the fans would be small people. … We looked around and we’re like, ‘Wow, the drivers may be slim, but their fans are just like us!'” Vivian said with a big laugh. “They’re hefty like we are!”
The mother and daughter pair have enthusiastically embraced their NASCAR family, however there’s still an area of concern.
While they’re considering attending races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it may be some time before they venture to a race in the sport’s Southeastern home.
“Just because it’s fear,” Vivian said. “Bubba was born in the South. And we’re proud of that because he was born in the South. He, his people, his mother’s side of the family, never left the South. And they face all that. We were not. So we’re more on the West Coast and we have a little different flavor. But we talked about it and we would love to see Talladega … (but) We’re fearful.”
Talladega “is always a great race,” Rita said. “Maybe Twitter kinda did not help with this because there was people posting on the way to the track there was Confederate flags and things that were just not welcoming towards other different types of people. And, also, just the way the South can be with their racial tensions. I don’t want to get berated for wearing a Bubba Wallace shirt and cheering for him when other people are booing. So that’s one of the reasons why I probably still wouldn’t to go to some tracks on that side of the country.”
While they may not venture East to get their NASCAR fix, Vivian’s doing her part at home to lead a more diverse fan base into the NASCAR tent.
She does it every work day on her bus route.
“I am in a low-income, Title 1 school, which is Hispanics and Blacks and Native Americans,” Vivian said. “I have 84 kids and all those kids are Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez fans. … They convinced their parents to watch just a little … And some of them will come back and say, ‘Oh, Daddy, liked that car. He liked that.’ ..
“You got to sneak it in there. And I think that’s what Bubba and Daniel Suarez [do]. Because those kids were so happy when I told them watch the race in Phoenix. [Suarez is] going to be speaking in Spanish, and [at Atlanta] he’s going to have a Mexican crew chief (Jose Blasco-Figueroa). Those kids came back and reported they watched it. …
“I always say this, when it comes to diversity, it’s not about taking away, it’s about adding.”
This story is the fourth in a five-part series that looks back at the events of the summer of 2020 and examines their impact on NASCAR 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.
Part five will be published Friday.
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