“It doesn’t matter to anyone being there flying, so I don’t see any reason,” said the star pilot. “It’s part of the history books and that’s it. “
But it soon became clear that NASCAR’s demand had gone nowhere. Confederate flags still waved high on campers in the indoor field and in nearby campsites, especially on racetracks in the South. Despite calls from officials, there were fans in the crowd who denied that it was a sign of racial oppression.
NASCAR’s announcement on Tuesday of a total ban on the flag therefore marks an astonishing milestone for the racing world. The story of how the sport was put aside just five years ago shows how much the consensus has changed following national protests against racism and police violence after the death of George Floyd last month .
Since the beginnings of the sport on the dirt tracks of the south of hardscrabble, the stock-car races are irreversibly linked to the Confederate flag. Nowhere was this connection more visible than the Darlington, South Carolina expressway, a historic trail where segregationist politician Strom Thurmond once cut the ribbon.
For decades, the Dixie flag has been used as a logo on Darlington posters, including a spring race known as the Rebel 300. “Dixie” played on the speakers before the start ceremonies, and a costumed rebel soldier joined the winning driver to celebrate at Victory Lane.
Then, in 2015, nine black worshipers were killed in Charleston, just over two hours away. The massacre made waves in the South, but it plunged South Carolina in particular into a summer of reckoning.
NASCAR has not been spared from soul searching. After Earnhardt Jr. said the flag was “offensive to an entire race,” the association official promised to go as far as possible to strike it from the racetrack.
“I personally find it an offensive symbol, so there is no daylight on how we feel about it and on our sensitivity to others who feel the same way,” said President Brian France. , whose grandfather formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in 1948, said at the time.
In the midst of a massive fan reaction, he stopped completely banning the Confederate flag. NASCAR would prohibit its use on racing cars and licensed goods. But the association simply decided to ask fans to stop displaying the symbol of the civil war, rather than order them to do so.
Later that summer, when the Southern 500 was due to return to South Carolina for the first time in years, France’s demand was put to the test. The announcement did not help the sport’s already tapered relationship with its fan base, and officials wanted to win them back.
As a nod to its regional roots, NASCAR presented the weekend as a “flashback” event, evoking the era of star drivers like Richard Petty and Ricky Craven. All official images of the Confederate flag had been erased from Darlington Racecourse, and the track officials even offered fans an exchange of flags: anyone who renounced a Confederate flag would get an American in return.
Nobody, it seems, accepted them in this affair.
Confederate flags “floated on 20-foot-high poles, they flew nailed to 2 × 4s protruding from the back beds of pickup trucks, they flew on plastic window clips,” Jay Busbee wrote in Yahoo Sports at the time. . “They were everywhere, largely because everyone outside of Darlington said they shouldn’t be. “
One fan has declared to the state that he will continue to display a Confederate flag, as he has done for the past quarter century. Downstream of the RVs, another said that NASCAR’s request was an insult to his legacy and to his close civil war veterans.
“They forget what put them where they are,” a spectator told the newspaper, running a 1976 program with the Confederate flag. “These are my roots, and these are the roots of Darlington. “
Almost five years later, the new NASCAR announcement points to what could be a turning point for America on issues of race and its own history.
“There will be a lot of angry people proudly carrying these flags, but it is time to change,” he said in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon on Monday. “No one should feel uncomfortable when it comes to a NASCAR race. So it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them. “
During the past week, Confederate statues have fallen in cities across the country, and even the military has said it will consider renaming the named bases for Confederate leaders. (The plan was later shot down by President Trump.) Now was the time for the flag to go too, Wallace said.
“We shouldn’t be able to argue about it,” he added. “It is a thick line that we can no longer cross.”
Hours after NASCAR announced the ban on Wednesday, he tied up his race car for a 500-lap race at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway. His No. 43 Chevrolet was covered in a dark coat of paint, with a black fist and a white fist clenched in a handle on the hood.
The message printed above the wheels rang loud and clear: “#BlackLivesMatter”.