NASCAR has a reputation. It’s a sport for southern good old boys who drink beer, wave Confederate flags around and are casually racist and sexist because that’s the way things are.
NASCAR itself was founded in 1947 and held its first race in February, 1948, on the beach. Yup. The beach, at Daytona. This was, of course, the kernel of what eventually grew into the sport’s season opening celebration, Speed Week.
Stock car racing, however, grew out of prohibition, illegal activity and Dukes of Hazzard style avoidance of the cops. So perhaps it is not as much of a surprise as it could be to see…well…what is going on in the sport now.
And much of it centers around two men.
Richard Petty and Bubba Wallace
Richard Petty is one of the sport’s all time greats. The most decorated driver in the history of NASCAR. His record of 200 wins will probably, thanks to changes in the sport since, never be toppled. He’s called The King for a reason.
He’s utterly recognizable in his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses.
And in 2017, Petty had some things to say about kneeling for the National Anthem.
He, amongst others, was not in support of the protest (kneeling for the anthem was against the rules until recently) and went as far as to say that “Anybody that don’t stand up for the anthem oughta be out of the country.”
(Richard Childress wasn’t much better).
Which, needless to say, got Petty called, ya know. A racist.
It may just be a coincidence that not long afterwards, Richard Petty Racing hired a driver out of the Xfinity Series. That driver is Darrell Wallace Jr, but he races under his nickname, “Bubba.”
Bubba Wallace is currently the only Black man driving in NASCAR, and the first to have a full-time ride since 1971.
(And yeah, it may just be a coincidence, but I’m not the only fan who gets suspicious).
A competent and solid, but not fantastic, driver, Wallace has held a full-time ride with Richard Petty since. It’s possible, even probable, somebody else would have picked him up.
But we’re not in that timeline.
The Events of the Past Couple of Weeks
Mass protests swept the nation after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. This has happened before, but never in the middle of a global pandemic, and there have been things happening that make this time feel different.
And some of those things center around NASCAR, the redneck sport, often perceived as racist.
Slight background: When NASCAR was unable to run, they ran a virtual series instead. Wallace lost his primary sponsor during this time through every fault of his own: He went a bit far trash talking in the chat. He then pulled out of the virtual series, confessing later that he hated it. Which is fair.
But he still did not have a primary sponsor last week.
Which led to, well. This.
Yeah. A full Black Lives Matter livery on a NASCAR car…carrying Richard Petty’s own number 43. There’s no way this happened without his blessing. Wallace posed with the car wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. No, this gentleman was holding nothing back off the track or on.
The car ran at Martinsville Speedway, where Wallace finished 11th on a track he has never really done well at.
At the same time, Wallace challenged the sport:
Get rid of the Confederate flag.
The flag was already banned from official team liveries and gear, and had been since 2016.
This was a call to ban it from NASCAR events altogether. Fans would not be allowed to bring the flag in or wave it.
And NASCAR did.
I happened by weird coincidence to glance at Twitter at the right moment and almost fell out of my chair.
NASCAR banned the confederate flag.
It was inevitable. Not everyone was happy with the decision.
A part-time truck series driver named Ray Ciccarelli got his fifteen minutes by saying he was retiring at the end of the season. We all had to look him up. He has never had a full time ride or run a race and fails to qualify much of the time. Needless to say, his statement elicited mockery, including from whoever runs the NASCAR twitter account.
But then things got worse.
The Talladega race was postponed from Sunday to Monday because of spectacular storms, even as fans flew their confederate flags right outside to protest the ban. The cars were put back in the garage.
Sometime between then and Monday morning, somebody hung a noose in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall. This is a secured area full of cameras, and somebody was still able to get in and make a traditional death threat against the driver.
It’s still under investigation (my guess is the culprit was wearing a head sock, a fireproof balaclava, of a style that foils recognition…although not everyone uses them anymore, they’d be easy enough to get hold of).
A second noose was found hanging from a tree at Sonoma Raceway in California. That track is currently closed, and the exact time the noose was put there remains unclear.
Thankfully, Wallace did not find the noose himself, it was discovered by one of his crew.
The threat and the hate crime are obvious. The racists want their sport back.
UPDATE: Hours after posting this, the FBI released a report claiming the “noose” had, in fact been there for months and thus was not a targeted hate crime.
I am a little skeptical. Even without this, though, the person who went as far as to fly a sky banner reading “Defund NASCAR” shows the strength of the fan backlash against all that is going on.
Richard Petty is 81 years old. This fact is quite relevant under current circumstances.
Like many high risk people, he has been holing up to avoid catching the roni.
But he showed up at Talladega on Monday.
Where drivers and crew members poured onto the track to surround Wallace’s 43 car (now back in normal livery) in an amazing show of support. I have not seen anything like it in 20 plus years of being a fan.
And Petty walked out into it to hug his driver.
Richard Petty, who’s opinion on racial justice I would have previously thought to not be on the right side of history literally risked his life to support his driver.
(The race also featured a ceremonial starter on the ISS and the best finish I’ve seen in seasons. NASCAR doesn’t go to a photo finish often, and I can’t remember that ever being combined with a reminder that the front bumper does not have to cross the line first)
The battle for the heart and soul of a sport that has long belonged to the American South may just be beginning. Yet, so far, it’s not the racists who are winning.
So far, fingers crossed, we are seeing a change that quietly started years ago as the sport went mainstream finally reach its crest.
But we can’t become complacent.
And the battle for the heart and soul of NASCAR reflects that for the heart and soul of America.
We have to keep fighting. Fighting so that in the not too distant future, NASCAR can say Black drivers, plural. But also fighting for police reform, for prison reform, for a dismantling of every system which keeps Black people down.
Sports like NASCAR are a symbol. But they are a symbol which matters.