Tim Whyte | NASCAR, the Confederate Flag & Bubba

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Shortly after my family moved to the Santa Clarita Valley when I was about 10, my parents took me to Saugus Speedway for the first time. Watching those loud, fast race cars pound that one-third-mile of pavement, I was hooked.

Soon, my dad and I were taking day trips to watch the NASCAR stars of the day — Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darell Waltrip — compete on the now-defunct speedway in Ontario and the road course in Riverside. 

All those guys were white. The 10-year-old version of me didn’t think much of it. I just loved watching loud cars go fast and, I confess, I enjoyed watching them sometimes crash into each other.

I’m still a fan. We no longer have Saugus Speedway — man, I miss that place — nor do we have Riverside or Ontario. But since 1997, we’ve had the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. My family makes the trek every year, and we camp in our RV’s in the infield for a weekend-long party that also happens to include some racing.

We fly flags. Always the stars and stripes on top (happy Flag Day, y’all). Sometimes I’ll set up two poles with a couple flags on each. I have the California flag, a Canadian flag to represent my heritage (BELOW the stars and stripes), a couple of NASCAR flags, and one for each of the universities my kids have attended.

Never did I think of flying the Confederate flag. But, even here in Southern California, far removed from NASCAR’s roots in the deep South, some people did. 

Not many, but some.

It always made me uncomfortable when I saw it. I love the sport, but I don’t want anything to do with what that flag symbolizes to so many people. There are those who argue it merely represents Southern pride. I suppose it’s possible some are sincere in that belief. But to so many others it represents oppression, a war to divide our nation and protect slavery, and flat-out racism. We wouldn’t dream of flying the Nazi flag, so why fly that one?

Recognizing how uncomfortable that flag makes so many people feel, a few years ago NASCAR dipped its toes into the waters of inclusion and asked fans to refrain from displaying the Confederate flag at NASCAR events. They even offered a trade-in: Turn in your Confederate flag, and get a brand spanking new U.S. flag.

I’m not sure how much it really worked, but anecdotally it seems like we’ve seen fewer Confederate flags in the infield at Fontana.

Yet, NASCAR hadn’t actually banned the flag. That is, until this week, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota.

NASCAR has a diversity program that seeks to bring people of different races into the sport. There are now more officials and pit crew members who are non-white — many of them former college athletes whose skills translate well to the demands of changing four tires and filling a tank of gas in a mere 14 seconds.

Still, there is still just one active black driver in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. Bubba Wallace is not among the top drivers at the Cup level — in part, I bet, because he drives for a team that isn’t known for having the best equipment these days.

I’ve been a fan of Wallace because he’s always authentic and seems like the kind of guy who’d be fun to drink a beer with. Until recently, he didn’t seek attention for being “the black driver.” But with the spotlight on issues of race, he’s embraced that role. This week, he called on NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at races.

And NASCAR did. 

I’m a First Amendment advocate. If Joe Sixpack wants to fly a Confederate flag at home, that’s his right, abhorrent as it may be. But NASCAR is under no obligation to allow it at its venues, and has every right to prohibit its display. That’s easy enough to do at the moment, with no fans at the races during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surely, there will be some fanatics who will test it when the crowds return.

Regardless, where it has been slow to move in the past, NASCAR did the right thing here. Call it marketing. Call it a knee-jerk reaction. Call it whatever you want.

But it was past time.

Tim Whyte is the editor of The Signal. To view all of his recent columns, click here.

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