Before the green flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Sunday, NASCAR President Steve Phelps acknowledged that the sport and the country “must do better” with race relations.
The 40 drivers in the field sat in their quiet race cars as each team stood in unity on the pit wall. And before the engines fired back up and the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 began, there was a 30 second moment of silence, followed by a video featuring many drivers calling for more listening, learning, and uniting towards change.
It was a powerful moment before the start of a race, broadcast for all to see on Fox. Darrell Wallace Jr., the only black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, was shown wearing a t-shirt that read “I can’t breathe” during pre-race. Black NASCAR official Kirk Price, who served in the U.S. Army, was photographed kneeling and raising his fist during the invocation.
“Our country is in pain, and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” said Phelps. “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 and all of our fans to join us in this mission. To take a moment of reflection, to acknowledge that we must do better as a sport, and join us as we now pause and take a moment to listen.”
As the cliche goes, NASCAR has been talking the talk over the last week. As a sport, the garage has united to speak out on racial injustice following the death of George Floyd. Drivers have been using their social media platforms, and interviews, while NASCAR itself released a statement early last week.
But as the cliche also goes, the sport must also walk the walk. And actions, as another expression relays, speak louder than words.
It starts with a conversation, and drivers like seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson have said that process has already begun between drivers and with NASCAR. Many, like Johnson, are working to educate themselves on the realities and experiences the black community faces.
As Kevin Harvick said after winning the Atlanta race, something has to change, “and I think when you look at what happened in Minnesota, it’s just disgraceful to everyone. To be able to have a conversation about things, I’m definitely a person that wants to hear a plan that has actions included in it, and just try to support each other and do the things that we can do to try to help our communities and help the conversations because there’s so much that everyone doesn’t understand of what we need to do and how we need to do it. But I can tell you that we need change.
“The actions from that event in Minnesota, it’s just unbelievable that we sit and watch these things happen, and it’s just really confusing. It makes you confused, mad, not know what to do, where to start, and that’s just where a lot of guys talked about it, and we started. I think it’s definitely a step, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Work is what comes next. A good start is working together and making fans of every race, religion, and gender feel welcome, having conversations, and unteaching hate. During one of his numerous media appearances last week, Wallace admitted what many are probably thinking: that he isn’t sure what the next step needs to be.
For NASCAR, one priority needs to be revisiting the issue of Confederate flags at the racetrack. Right now, it’s easy for officials to speak on racial inequality and not accepting racism when there are no fans allowed at the track, and therefore no Confederate flags flying in the wind and slapping their statements in the face.
Recently approached by RACER on the topic, NASCAR stood by its 2015 statement about the Confederate flag that read in part, “As our industry works collectively to ensure that all fans are welcome at our races, NASCAR will continue our long-standing policy to disallow the use of the Confederate Flag symbol in any official NASCAR capacity. While NASCAR recognizes that freedom of expression is an inherent right of all citizens, we will continue to strive for an inclusive environment at our events.”
Daytona International Speedway went as far as to offer fans a flag exchange that summer, welcoming those to trade a Confederate or any other flag for an American flag. But it should be noted that Daytona didn’t outright ban the Confederate flag.
“I only salute one flag, and that’s America’s,” said Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who celebrates with an American flag after each win. “I recognize that that [Confederate] flag might mean something different to different people, but it doesn’t mean United States of America to me. But I’m not going to tell people they need to get rid of it. That’s not my right either, but I certainly don’t salute it or respect it, or probably anyone else who feels the same way, but, at the end of the day, it’s not our call.”
Wallace was on CNN late Monday night and said he wants to get rid of Confederate flags at races.
“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 something they have seen, an object they have seen flying,” Wallace said. “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race, so it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them.
“The narrative on that before, I wasn’t bothered by it, but I don’t speak for everybody else. I speak for myself, and what I’m chasing is checkered flags, and that was my narrative. But diving more into it and educating myself, people feel uncomfortable with that. People talk about that. That’s the first thing they bring up. So, there’s going to be a lot of angry people that carry those flags proudly, but it’s time for change. We have to change that, and I encourage NASCAR, and we will have those conversations to remove those flags.”
NASCAR’s leadership is said by a series spokesperson to have “increased energy” around eradicating the Confederate flag from its races, although they will face a tall task. The biggest discussion will be about how any type of enforcement would happen, especially at track properties NASCAR does not own. The onus is more on the individual racetrack to make such a thing happen, so a continued collective effort around the sport is required.
“Everyone has their beliefs,” said Ryan Blaney. “It’s tough, but I don’t really enjoy it because sometimes I feel like the people that wave them mean the negative, and that’s not cool. I’d love to not see them at the racetrack, honestly, because it doesn’t make everyone comfortable. Bring your 50 stars flag. I think that would be way better.”
NASCAR has taken a significant step forward with how it has come together and publicly addressed a major social issue. But those words will not be nearly as impactful if not followed by action.