NASCAR may be the last organization you’d expect to bow to the controversy over the display of the Confederate flag, but before this past weekend’s Coke Zero 400 , the organization implored fans to stop waving them during races. Though there was no actual ban on flags, the organization introduced a voluntary exchange program for fans to swap the rebel flag for the Stars and Stripes.
It didn’t work. “Spotting a Confederate flag [was] easier than finding a souvenir shop, restroom or beer stand” at Daytona International Speedway this past weekend, Fox Sports reported. Fans were showing Confederate flags on everything from flagpoles to coolers, trucks to tattoos. At least one was emblazoned with the words, “Heritage, not Hate.”
Some fans lambasted NASCAR for endorsing a cause in vogue for a little over a week at the expense of sixty years of strong Southern heritage and a long track record of valuing individual liberties. Lifelong racing fan Larry Reeves, who has flown the Confederate flag at races for 30 years, told the Associated Press, “My family is from Alabama and we’ve been going to Talladega forever. It isn’t a Confederate thing so much as it is a NASCAR thing. That’s why I fly it.”
When NASCAR executives released a statement applauding South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s push to take down the flag from capitol grounds, the organization said it “recognizes that freedom of expression is an inherent right of all citizens.” But recognizing this freedom seems ancillary to the organization’s intention to move beyond its close association with the South.
NASCAR’s heritage is intertwined with a strand of especially independent southern culture, though not the Confederacy in any way. The organization started in 1948 in Daytona Beach, Fla., to organize races for “runners,” drivers that outsped and outmaneuvered federal tax collectors in order to bring bootleg moonshine from Appalachia to customers in the South.
Early officials cleared farmland to build a track, and spectators — many no doubt tipping back tax-free moonshine — flocked to the races. Soon enough, NASCAR was a staple of the rural South, a status it retains today. The organization has been building across the country in recent years, but around half of the tracks in the current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – Daytona among them — are in southern states. A plurality of NASCAR fans (40 percent) hail from the South.
At the same time, a new generation of NASCAR executives, led by CEO Brian France since 2003, have been trying to remake the organization’s image, in an attempt to attract more diverse participants and fans. According to the Wall Street Journal, France’s team has launched ad campaigns on hip-hop and Spanish-language radio and invited black artists like 50 Cent and Lenny Kravitz to attend and perform at races. The race organization also started an unsuccessful “Drive for Diversity” program to recruit minority drivers.
#related#France has personally taken issue with the popularity of Confederate flag imagery in races in the past, preventing golfer Bubba Watson from doing a pre-race lap in 2012 in the iconic Dukes of Hazzard car, which features the infamous flag painted on the roof. (As it happens, Watson announced this weekend that he will repaint the “General Lee” to cover the flag.) Still, in a 60 Minutes interview in 2005, France drew the line at controlling Confederate flags in the stands, saying that tracks “are massive facilities, and I can’t tell people what flag to fly.”
Which happens to be basically what he did last weekend — to little effect.
This same weekend, NASCAR jumped on another fashionable trend when it announced that it will stop official use of the Trump National Doral Miami resort in response to Donald Trump’s recent comments on illegal immigration from Mexico. Time will tell if this cause will achieve similar levels of success.
NASCAR racers will take to a southern track again this coming weekend, for the Kentucky Speedway’s Quaker State 400. Fans will pack the stands, with plenty of them no doubt hoisting Confederate flags or grabbing a cold one from a Confederate-flag-stickered cooler. They will come to see stock cars, not bandwagons.
— Shubhankar Chhokra is an intern at National Review.