As sophisticated as NASCAR technology may be these days, it’s still very much a sport controlled by flags. The green flag starts the race, the checkered flag ends it. The yellow flag signals caution, the red flag signals a stoppage, and the white flag indicates there’s only one lap remaining.
Flags are a key component of the fan experience as well. Driving south to the Richmond International Raceway, driver flags line the route — appearing on car windows and mailboxes, outside makeshift roadside RV campgrounds and on the pop-up tents selling unofficial NASCAR merchandise.
They display numbers — 14, 24, 88, 2 — each corresponding to the number on their favorite driver’s cars. For most fans, their favorite driver is their identity.
Once you enter the official racetrack grounds, which on this particular Sunday in April will host the Toyota Owners 400, these flags become larger and more prominent. They fly off the top of every RV in the sprawling campgrounds, where thousands of fans park for a weekend of racing, camaraderie, coolers, and campfires. NASCAR isn’t so much a sport; it’s a lifestyle.
The crowd pouring into America’s Premier Short Track isn’t monolithic. Sure, there’s a guy in a sleeveless “Tattoos, Titties, and Beer” T-shirt, but there are also plenty of people in sundresses and button-down shirts. Yes, there’s a large booth selling Duck Dynasty merchandise, but there’s also an area for kids where NASCAR shows off its STEM initiatives with interactive games.
This, essentially, is NASCAR’s ideal balance. The sport desperately wants to be able to cater to its blue-collar base and capitalize on their nostalgia for the good ol’ days while also embracing progress, be it through the NASCAR Green initiative, the Drive for Diversity program, or its partnership with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE). You know, make new friends, but keep the old.
But that balance is currently sitting on shaky ground.
In order to successfully broaden its fan base and welcome more minorities into all levels of the sport, NASCAR has to actively fight against the stereotypes about its fans that many people still hold — redneck, unintelligent, bigoted. That perception has been emboldened by another flag that is associated with the sport: the Confederate flag, which has been barred from being used in any official capacity, but was nevertheless spotted frequently on t-shits and hats, coolers and tattoos at the Richmond race.
This February, the tension over what image NASCAR was trying to cultivate reached a breaking point when NASCAR CEO Brian France went on stage at a Donald Trump rally before the Georgia primary, along with four current and former NASCAR drivers, and endorsed Trump for president.
“If the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now,” Trump said at the time. “Nobody [else] can win.”
In Richmond, the prevalence of the rebel flag at races makes NASCAR’s diversity efforts feel empty. And because of France’s public support for Trump, the prevalent political statements worn by fans in Richmond — “Heritage Not Hate,” “Hillary Lies Matter,” Hillary for Prison,” “Trump That Bitch: Make America Great Again” — read less like private declarations and more like a party line.
In today’s politically polarized society, past and progress aren’t just antonyms, they’re enemies. And yet, NASCAR remains hell-bent on figuring out a way to accommodate both.
The quietest time at a NASCAR race — perhaps the only quiet time — is right after drivers are given the command to start their engines, when they begin to methodically circle the track to get a feel for the surface and conditions. The crowd practically holds its collective breath and the tension builds until finally, after what feels like hours, the green flag is waved. In an instant, the cars speed up to unfathomable speeds — 140, 150, 160, even 170 miles per hour. Seeing the cars fly around the track is mind-boggling, exhilarating, even addicting.
“It’s the atmosphere, it’s unlike anything else,” John Morris, a 45-year-old butcher from Maryland, said. “It’s fast cars. It’s the smell of the burning rubber.”
Morris is a NASCAR die-hard. But statistically, as an African American, he’s a rarity in the sport. In 2013, only 2 percent of NASCAR fans were African American. And as much as he loves the sport, Morris finds it difficult to feel comfortable at NASCAR events when he is confronted by Confederate flags at almost every turn.
“I have to say, it does offend me,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.”
As a sporting organization whose roots are more firmly planted in the Confederate South than any other, the stars and bars have been a visible part of NASCAR for years, even serving as the logo for the marquee Southern 500 race in Darlington until at least the late ’70s. In recent years, however, NASCAR has sought to shed that image and attempted to distance itself from the symbol.
In 2012, NASCAR wouldn’t allow pro golfer and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson to drive the “General Lee” car from the television series The Dukes of Hazzard in a ceremonial lap before a race in Phoenix because it had the Confederate flag on the roof.
“The image of the Confederate flag is not something that should play an official role in our sport as we continue to reach out to new fans and make NASCAR more inclusive,” NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said at the time.
But in 2015, a brutal event forced NASCAR to take an even more forceful stand once on the issue: Just days after Trump announced that he was running for president, Dylann Storm Roof opened fire during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine African Americans in an attempt to start a race war. A few days later, pictures of Roof posing with the Confederate flag emerged, prompting South Carolina to finally remove the divisive symbol from its State House grounds.
France, whose family has been ruling NASCAR with an iron fist since the organization was founded in 1948, made a public statement calling the flag an “offensive symbol” and stressing that the sport didn’t use it in any official capacity.
“We want to go as far as we can to eliminate the presence of that flag,” France said.
It seemed, at the time, that the sport was taking substantial steps to distance itself from anything tied to racism or bigotry. That impression was solidified days later when NASCAR announced it would not be holding its end of year banquet at Trump’s Doral resort in Miami because of the candidate’s deplorable comments about Mexicans.
But, notably, France didn’t officially ban the Confederate flag from NASCAR grounds. Instead, he said the sport would try to “phase out” the flag by offering exchanges — fans could turn in their Confederate flag and get the American flag instead.
That didn’t work so well. Reporters flocked to NASCAR races that summer, particularly at Talladega in Alabama and Darlington in South Carolina, and found that the Confederate flag was as prevalent as ever. Few, if any, fans opted to exchange their flags.
“No one in this crowd is going to give up their Confederate flag for an America one,” a guard at Darlington told SB Nation last year. “They already own an American flag. Plus, they think by handing over the Confederate flag would be a form of surrendering in their mind.”
Then, this February, in the heat of the presidential primaries, France and four NASCAR drivers got onstage at a rally in Georgia and endorsed Trump for president. This was long before Trump became the actual nominee; there were still four other candidates in the Republican race, and just days prior, he hesitated to disavow former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke.
While NASCAR said it was a “private, personal decision” by France, Trump clearly touted it as an endorsement by the entire sport.
Got the endorsement of Brian France and @NASCAR yesterday in Georgia. Also, many of the sports great drivers. Thank you Nascar and Georgia!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2016
The endorsement — which reminded many of France’s father’s endorsement of George Wallace 40 years earlier — was met with immediate condemnation, even by some within the NASCAR community. Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World, the title sponsor for NASCAR’s Truck Series, tweeted, “There is no place for politics/any political endorsements in any business.” Lemonis had been very critical of Trump’s campaign rhetoric in the past, calling it “blatantly bigoted and racist.”
Of course, it’s far from unprecedented for prominent sports figures to be involved in politics, and it’s certainly no surprise that a multi-millionaire like France would have conservative leanings. But Trump’s campaign has been defiantly racist and divisive from the start. He has close ties with white nationalists. In addition to calling Mexicans “rapists,” he has asked for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, actively encouraged Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, repeatedly insulted African Americans, and is garnering virtually no support from the black community. And that doesn’t even include his degrading remarks about women or the numerous sexual assault allegations against him.
Understandably, Morris was made “uncomfortable” by France’s decision to so publicly endorse Trump.
“When it comes to politics I’m a firm believer that there’s a time and a place,” Morris said. “I don’t think that was the time or the place.”
Jay Busbee, a NASCAR writer for Yahoo and the author of Earnhardt Nation: The Full-Throttle Saga of NASCAR’s First Family, found France’s move nonsensical.
“It was a poorly timed and short-sighted for France to go and endorse a candidate that early, especially a presidential candidate that divisive,” Busbee said. “Sports leagues should try and bend in the direction of inclusion rather than division.”
After his endorsement was widely criticized, France wrote an open letter to NASCAR employees ensuring them that his “private” endorsement had nothing to do with how NASCAR runs its business, and touting the sport’s “deep, long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
“We will not waiver from our goal to make our sport more open and friendly to everyone, and we will remain steadfast in our support of key initiatives to grow our fan base and remain a model of a progressive organization,” France said.
In September, NASCAR once again made headlines for the wrong reasons. Terrance Cox III, the owner of Diversity Motorsports Racing, filed a $500 million race discrimination lawsuit, saying his attempts to bring more minorities into the sport were halted by its governing bodies. (He included comedian Steve Harvey in the suit, which garnered most of the attention.)
NASCAR has completely denied any wrongdoing, and, scratching beneath the surface, the case looks shaky at best.
However, it would be quite a stretch to conclude, as France did in his response to the lawsuit, that NASCAR is the “model of a progressive organization.”
Wendell Scott remains the only African American man to ever win a race in NASCAR’s top series. He did so back in 1963 at the Jacksonville 200. Scott’s time in the sport was harrowing. He was booed constantly by fans, intentionally wrecked by many of his competitors, and barred outright from competing in some tracks. When, despite all of those obstacles, he finally did get to Victory Lane, his win wasn’t even acknowledged because the racetrack didn’t want to hand him the trophy in front of everyone — after all, it would have been a scandal if the white trophy girl had kissed him, per NASCAR custom.
While society at large has come a long way since those days, NASCAR, in many ways, hasn’t. Only two other black drivers have ever participated in the sport’s top series, and there is only one African American driver in any of the top three series: Bubba Wallace, who competes full-time in the second-tier XFinity Series for Roush Fenway Racing.
Wallace, who at 22 is considered one of the rising stars in the sport, is an alumni of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which was created 13 years ago in order to develop more minority and female drivers in the sport.
The program was marred by mismanagement and unfulfilled promises during its first seven years, but in 2009 it was taken over by Max Siegel, a friend of the late NFL star Reggie White. Siegel established his own team, Rev Racing, which serves as a home for the Drive for Diversity participants as they navigate the sport’s minor leagues. Wallace was one of Siegel’s first recruits into the program. The program helps bridge the diversity gap by providing funding and development opportunities for minorities and female drivers who might not have the funds or connections to get into the sport on their own.
Wallace isn’t the only name to come out of the Drive for Diversity program. Daniel Suarez, a Mexican driver, competes in the XFinity Series with Wallace and Kyle Larson, a Japanese-American driver, competes full-time in the top tier of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series. (Aric Almirola, a Cuban-American driver, and Danica Patrick, the only full-time female driver in NASCAR’s national series, also compete in Sprint Cup; Almirola participated in a short-lived diversity initiative at Joe Gibbs Racing back in 2003, while Patrick, who rose to fame on the IndyCar circuit, was never involved in a diversity program and has spoken out against them in the past.)
The 2016 season has been a marquee one for Drive for Diversity grads: Suarez won his first two races in the XFinity Series and Larson won his first Sprint Cup race. All three drivers made it to the Chase — NASCAR’s form of the playoffs — in their respective series, and both Suarez and Wallace are still alive for the XFinity Championship. That’s a big deal.
The diversity initiative also has a division for pit-crew members that has been fairly successful, placing 35 minorities and females in NASCAR pit crews since its inception. The program targets former college athletes to try out for the Drive for Diversity combine to train and audition for spots as tire changers and chaste adjusters.
“NASCAR’s doing a great job with everything; they just need to keep up the good work,” said Kevin Richardson, a former football star at Appalachian State and current pit crew member for Chris Buescher in the Sprint Cup Series. “The only thing I think isn’t good is that people are afraid to try new things. That stereotype — people think it’s a redneck sport, but that’s only what you hear, you don’t know it ‘til you go there and be a part of it.”
To its credit, NASCAR has pushed its diversity initiatives beyond Drive for Diversity. Every employee is required to undergo diversity training, and last year, NASCAR joined other major sporting leagues by partnering with RISE, a nonprofit founded by Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross that is “dedicated to harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations.”
This summer, NASCAR and RISE unveiled a PSA featuring several NASCAR drivers — including Wallace and Larson — taking the “pledge” to end discrimination and speak up for victims.
Jocelyn Benson, who was recently appointed CEO of RISE, told ThinkProgress that the organization’s primary focus is providing data and support to its partners on issues such as unconscious bias, cultural diversity, and police killings. It offers research and resources, but doesn’t have any mandatory programs or requirements from its partners.
Benson also admitted that RISE has been incredibly busy and active working with NFL and NBA players of late, many of whom have been speaking up about the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting race relations and police brutality during the National Anthem. NASCAR drivers — along with athletes from sports such as golf and baseball — have been relatively silent on those fronts. Perhaps that makes sense given the fact that there are very few African Americans in NASCAR, golf, and baseball, but it’s also indicative of the culture facilitated by each sport.
Monitoring the social media feeds of NASCAR drivers this summer, there were no comments about the high-profile police killings of unarmed black men Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Terrence Crutcher, or Keith Scott. (Many condolences were offered when the five police officers were tragically slain in Dallas.)
No NASCAR driver has offered his or her support to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the National Anthem. Some, including three-time champion Tony Stewart, have publicly rebuked him.
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) August 29, 2016
It’s unclear where NASCAR’s partnership with RISE will go from here — there are no firm plans beyond the PSA. Still, Benson is optimistic NASCAR will remain an active partner as the organization works to advance race relations through sports.
“I’m confident that they’re going to be active partners going forward as we take a foothold in the advocacy world,” she said.
During the last lap of the Toyota Owners 400, Carl Edwards pushed his teammate Kyle Busch out of the way in the final turn to steal the victory. It was a cut-throat, controversial bump-and-run move that was beyond thrilling to witness close up.
Critics of NASCAR call the sport boring and trite — left turn after left turn, no strategy or thrill in sight. But in person, the appeal of the sport is obvious. The speed of the cars is intoxicating; the precision of the pit stops is awe-inspiring. The only way to truly appreciate the speed and skill involved is to see it in person, which is why it remains frustrating to observers and participants alike that the sport still hasn’t figured out a way to truly diversify its audience.
“There’s nobody (of color) in the stands. There’s a few on the pit crews and in the office there are some,” Bubba Wallace told the Charlotte Observer last year. “It’s not enough to finally say the sport is changing. It’s going in the right direction. You just have to keep getting after it.”
Wallace doesn’t often discuss the topic, but he has been confronted with racism as he’s pursued his NASCAR dreams — from the time a racial epithet was yelled at him at a race when he was 13 to when he was flooded with racist comments online after taking over NASCAR’s Instagram account at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards in 2014. (At the beginning of the year, in a since-deleted video on Bleacher Report, Wallace even openly questioned whether his skin color had anything to do with his difficulty finding sponsors.)
There are certainly people behind the scenes in NASCAR who deeply value diversity and recognize that the sport needs to be more inclusive if it is going to attract a wider swath of drivers and fans. But those voices are too often drowned out, literally and figuratively, by the part of the base that hates the BET awards, Black Lives Matter, and anyone who wants to take away their Confederate flags. This is the base that made France feel comfortable endorsing Trump.
NASCAR writer Jay Busbee thinks the sport’s devotion to this base is ultimately holding it back.
“This segment of the fan base wants this exclusionary approach. They want the sport to stay small and southern,” Busbee said. “They want to ‘Make NASCAR Great Again.’
“NASCAR’s scared of these fans, but some point you have to say, okay, we’re moving on, we’d love for you to keep up with us, but if you don’t, that’s fine.”
Right now, NASCAR wants to accommodate everyone. It wants new people — particularly a young, diverse crowd — to feel welcome, but it seems afraid of doing anything that might alienate its most vocal base. In light of the racist, sexist, xenophobic rhetoric that has characterized this election, however, those priorities feel mutually exclusive. An endorsement for Trump is an endorsement for discrimination; there is no heritage without the hate.
Still, leaving the Richmond race, it wasn’t hard to see why the sport full of left turns is hesitant to make any moves that it’s die-hard fans would consider left of center.
Helen Tate, a woman who runs a pop-up NASCAR merchandise stand that was set up outside of the Vallero Fastmart near the stadium in Richmond, said that “Heritage Not Hate” and Confederate flag T-shirts are her bestsellers at races all around the country. In fact, she said sales went up after NASCAR spoke out against the flag’s presence at its events.
“It’s in the Constitution. It’s history,” she said. “I mean, what are they going to say next, we can’t fly the American flag anymore?”
Dee — who didn’t want her last name used — runs a competing pop-up shop outside of the Citgo Market Place 7 that had an eclectic display: There were Duck Dynasty shirts, posters of American Sniper Chris Kyle, and Confederate flag hats with “It’s A Southern Thing” written on the front.
Then there were the Trump shirts: “Donald Trump, President 2016: Fire Those Idiots,” “Donald Trump: Finally, Someone With Balls.”
Was Dee a fan?
“No, but I like selling his shirts to NASCAR fans,” she said, before taking a deep breath.