NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its races and venues on Wednesday, formally severing itself from what for many is a symbol of slavery and racism.
The move comes amid social unrest around the globe following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis while being detained by police. Protests have roiled the nation for days and Confederate monuments are being taken down across the South — the traditional fan base for NASCAR.
Confederate flags have been a familiar sight at NASCAR races over its 72-year history, dotting the infield atop RVs or being waved by fans in the grandstands, though the stock car series with its roots in moonshine running has in recent years taken cautious steps to sever the connection.
The issue was pushed to the fore this week as Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's lone black driver, called for the banishment of the Confederate flag and said there was “no place” for them in the sport. At long last, NASCAR obliged.
“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry," NASCAR said. "Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
NASCAR said it would have no additional comment.
The move was announced before Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville Speedway where Wallace, an Alabama native, was driving Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 Chevrolet with a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme. Wallace was praised for his stance on Twitter from several athletes, including NBA star LeBron James, and for using the scheme in the race.
Wallace, wearing an American flag mask, clapped his hands when asked about the decision before the start of the race on FS1.
“It's been a stressful couple of weeks,” Wallace said. “This is no doubt the biggest race of my career tonight. I'm excited about tonight. There's a lot of emotions on the race track.”
Wallace wore a black “I Can't Breathe" T-shirt but did not kneel during the national anthem.
NASCAR did not address how it would enforce the policy or what might happen for fans who bringing the Confederate flag to the track. NASCAR has not raced with fans since the sport resumed last month amid the pandemic. It has announced plans to welcome a small number of fans allowed at races this month in Florida and Georgia.
Five years ago, the flag issue was front and center for NASCAR after nine black churchgoers were slain in Charleston, South Carolina. The man currently on death row for the murders, Dylann Roof, had embraced Confederate symbols before the attack, prompting a reappraisal of the role such symbols play in the South.
The NASCAR chairman at the time, Brian Frnace, said the series was "working with the industry to see how far we can go to get that flag to be disassociated entirely from our events.” Tracks offered to exchange Confederate flags for American flags, but there were few takers and flags have continued to be seen at the events.
NASCAR had been more open in recent times to the eradication of the Confederate flag. Several drivers — including two-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin — said they supported Wallace in his quest to rid the sport of the flag.
The predominantly white field of drivers united over the weekend for a video promoting social change. A black NASCAR official, Kirk Price, took a knee before Sunday’s race near Atlanta in what may have been a first for the series. Wallace wore a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” at the race.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the drivers before last Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and vowed to to do a better job of addressing racial injustice in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“Phelps and I have been in a contact a lot just trying to figure out what steps are next,” Wallace said on FS1. “That was a huge pivotal moment for the sport. Lot of backlash but it creates doors for the community to come together as one.”