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In a move with historic symbolism, the NASCAR community demonstrates its support of Darrell Wallace

In a move with historic symbolism, the NASCAR community demonstrates its support of Darrell Wallace

Talladega, AL, June 22/20 (GRW): The race here at Talladega was an historic day in the story of NASCAR – an organization and a fan base long associated with the racial divisions in the Old South of the United States. On this day, events conspired to make it a culmination of the steps the official NASCAR culture had been taking to cleanse itself of its racist past and to embrace the ‘Black Lives Matter” movement. The struggle to build a national culture in which Martin Luther King’s dream "... that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” is far from over, but NASCAR can never be the same after the stance it has taken against racism in these days.

For a number of years now, NASCAR has been trying to move on from its historic roots in which, if the racing and their organization were not overtly racist, then the ‘NASCAR Culture’ had this identity. For many years, sitting in the press box at a NASCAR race in the South, I would pick up my binoculars and scan the crowd filling the grandstands in a futile quest to see even on small group of Black race fans; the only Black faces I could spot were security guards, food service people and cleaners. Auto racing in America – especially NASCAR-style racing – has always had a distinctively white folks character. If there were any blacks on the grounds attendance they were a rare exception.

As racing has become more mainstream and, in the United States, has made an appeal to a broader audience beyond its rural and Southern roots, the all-white nature of the sport has been diluted. Of course, given that auto racing is dependent of major sponsors, including the auto makers, big-buck racing has to cater to the interests of these sponsors – and, in today’s age, no major corporate sponsor can afford to be labeled as racist. Hence the auto racing business has had to try to fall in line with that anti-racist position.

Of course, given that the industry is built on a ‘mainstream’ white population and that its fan base has been obviously almost entirely white and oftentimes not very ‘liberal’, these efforts at inclusivity have sometimes been seen at tokenism.

In recent days official NASCAR has taken concrete steps to distance itself from any racist associations. A few years ago, it made a rule that the display of the confederate flag in any official NASCAR context was banned – but that did not stop fans at the races from displaying the flag atop their campers. NASCAR has for a longtime supported programs intended to encourage people of colour – including women – to become part of the NASCAR industry as drivers or other participants. Darrell Wallace and Kyle Larson are two drivers who have benefitted from this program. Ironically, NASCAR’s determination to shake off any hint of lingering racism has resulted in Larson being banned indefinitely after he uttered the ‘n’ word publicly.

This year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, Wallace called on NASCAR to ban any display of the confederate flag in any NASCAR context, including in the spectator areas – and in the days before the Martinsville Cup race last week, NASCAR made just such a declaration: “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. 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.”

At Martinsville, Wallace wore a ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirt during the opening ceremonies and he drove a BLM-liveried car in the race. It seemed as if the point had been made and that it was time to move on. But then came Talladega.

The Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama has long been a spiritual home for NASCAR fans many of whom who were, at the same time, racists and segregationists. If you question this remember that the Talladega Superspeedway in located not far from Birmingham where, historically, clearly racist actions were taken. Remember the 1963 Birmingham church bombing in which KKK members planted dynamite in a church and killed four young Black girls. Remember MLK’s famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ where, in 1963, he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation.

PHOTO NCS Dega Fans 062220Fans show their support of Darrell 'Bubba' Wallace (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Somehow it seems fitting that this place should have become the site where the official NASCAR culture finally made a truly serious effort to shake off that unfortunate aspect of its identity. And it is ironic that it took a symbol of the post-emancipation Jim Crow discrimination against blacks – a noose – to turn this day into a historic demonstration of solidarity against discrimination be the entire NASCAR family – drivers, team owners and NASCAR.

Just to make it clear, the noose represents the long, continuing history of lynching against Black Americans. If you need a history lesson on this, reference the song ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday. Such a symbolic noose was left in Wallace garage stall on Sunday.

This evoked a genuine show of support from the other drivers and the rest of the people in the garage area. The drivers gathered together to push his car to the front of th either cars lined up for the start and they all hugged Wallace as a show of support and solidarity. Richard Petty seldom attends many races these days but he was here demonstrating his support for Wallace, the driver of the car which bears his name.

NOTE: After I wrote this story, NASCAR issued an ‘Official Release’ which stated: “The FBI has completed its investigation at Talladega Superspeedway and determined that Bubba Wallace was not the target of a hate crime. The FBI report concludes, and photographic evidence confirms, that the garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose had been positioned there since as early as last fall. This was obviously well before the 43 team’s arrival and garage assignment. We appreciate the FBI’s quick and thorough investigation and are thankful to learn that this was not an intentional, racist act against Bubba. We remain steadfast in our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all who love racing.”

It is unfortunate that NASCAR jumped the gun on this and created a situation which gives the nay-sayers a chance to say “I told you so.” I would note that, under the current restrictions, NASCAR has limited the total number of media writers to about five at each event and they are confined to the press box which at Talladega (as is typical of most places) it is on the opposite side of the track from the garages and the pits. The rest of us are covering these events from home or some other remote location. Hence it is difficult for any media representatives, on site or in a remote location to independently verify information provided by NASCAR.

Regardless, this issue of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is still a real issue and one we must not lose sight of.

Of course, NASCAR cannot control everything. I understand that on the roadway leading to the track there was a small collection of people in vehicles displaying the old confederate flag – and ‘across the road’ there were people selling T-shirts, etc. which continued to display egregious old-style sentiments and, of course, the symbolic slave-era/Jim Crow flag.

The F1 driver, Lewis Hamilton, has become much more outspoken and more of an advocate in the wake of the George Floyd murder. He expressed his support for Wallace in the face of the display of the racist ‘noose’ at Talladega.

These are difficult times in America and the United States has a president who seems to be quite prepared to stoop to racism – and encouraging racists – in a desperate bid to be re-elected in the Fall. Neither the United States nor Canada has yet reached the hoped-for goal of equity for all people of diverse origins – but let’s hope that these historic events in NASCAR’s public position will help the sport and the broader population on its road to that ultimate goal.

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