From the outset, we haven’t reported much here on NASCAR doings, mainly because any number of sites that cover the racing series full-time already exist. But it’s hard to let the past week’s events in top-tier stock car racing pass without some mention. We all know what’s been going on in the country of late. NASCAR has one active African-American driver, Bubba Wallace, and before the most recent event at Martinsville, Virginia, he spoke out. Wallace, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports, became an obvious interview subject as the nationwide debate about race, privilege and injustice continued unabated. He made a heartfelt, forceful plea for NASCAR to ban the longstanding practice of allowing Confederate flags to flutter during its events. To a lot of people’s great surprise, NASCAR did precisely that two days later, in time for Wallace to race with Black Lives Matter graphics adorning his car, as this team photo shows.
It’s difficult to adequately express just how pivotal a change this represents for NASCAR. It was born in 1947, at a time when pro-level sports in the South largely didn’t exist. For most of its history, NASCAR has played almost exclusively to white audiences. At one time, a Darlington race featured an actor dressed as a Confederate soldier, who leaped atop the winner’s hood waving the stars and bars as the driver turned into victory lane. Flying the same flag while tailgating at races became a rite of passage for many NASCAR fans. During its formative years, NASCAR had one regularly competing black driver at its top level, Wendell Scott. Despite a profoundly low-budget operation using largely hand-me-down equipment, Scott passed a faltering Petty to win a dirt race at Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963 by two laps. Scott wasn’t credited with the win for two years, and as far as I know, was still waiting for his trophy when he died in 1990. The story goes that race organizers feared letting a white race queen kiss a black winner in front of an all-white Florida crowd. But times, and NASCAR, have indeed changed. During Brian France’s tenure as NASCAR’s chief, he urged fans to furl Confederate flags during races, and it’s not clear how the organization intends to enforce the outright prohibition. One backmarker in the truck series has already declared his intention to quit NASCAR over the ban. But if you look at Wallace’s car, you will note that two of his normal race-day sponsors are McDonald’s and the U.S. Air Force. Those are organizations that are fully, publicly, committed to social change in today’s America. We assure you, those voices speak loudly in the world of big-time auto racing. And the past week has made it clear that NASCAR embraces those goals as well. Today, Wendell Scott is enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, which will announce its 2021 class of inductees next Tuesday, and a state historic marker proclaims his birth in Danville, Virginia. Bubba Wallace is now the second African-American with a NASCAR win to his credit, in the truck series. I’ve met him; he’s a rock-solid driver with the potential for many more wins. This is a story with a potentially very positive outcome.