The decision is a major development for the American motorsport that has its roots in the deep south where the flag is most commonly displayed, having become a symbol of opposition to racial equality during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
A statement issued by Nascar on Wednesday night read: “The presence of the confederate flag at Nascar events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for our fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and a community that it creates is what makes our fans special. The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all Nascar events and properties.”
The move received support from Bubba Wallace, Nascar’s only black driver, who drove in Wednesday’s race at Martinsville Speedway in the No 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet that featured a Black Lives Matter design and the message of “Compassion, Love, Understanding” on the bonnet.
“It’s been a stressful couple of weeks,” Wallace told FS1 while wearing an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirt in relation to Floyd’s death.
“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.”
He added earlier in the week: “What I’m chasing is chequered flags, and that was kind of my narrative. But diving more into it and educating myself, people feel uncomfortable with that, people talk about that — that’s the first thing they bring up.
“My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags. No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a Nascar race. So it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them.”
Wallace’s comments received support from fellow drivers, with close friend Ryan Blaney, one of Wallace’s best friends, echoing his stance.
“I’m really proud of what he’s doing, the effort he’s putting in and wanting to kind of lead the charge,” Blaney said after finishing second at Martinsville. “I stand behind him. A lot of guys stand behind him. Not only the drivers, but a lot of teams, as well. Crew members. The car he ran tonight was great. I loved that he was able to do that and come up with that idea.”
The predominantly white field of drivers united over the weekend for a video promoting social change. Kirk Price, a black Nascar official, took a knee before Sunday’s race near Atlanta in what may have been a first for the series. Nascar President Steve Phelps addressed the drivers before that race and vowed to do a better job of addressing racial injustice in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“Phelps and I have been in contact a lot just trying to figure out what steps are next,” Wallace said. “And that was a huge, pivotal moment for the sport. A lot of backlash, but it creates doors and allows the community to come together as one, and that’s what the real mission is here. So I’m excited about that.”
Five years ago, the flag issue was front and centre 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 France, 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’s checkered history with race took another blow when driver Kyle Larson was fired in April after he uttered a racial slur during a live-streamed virtual race. Led by Wallace, some of Nascar’s stars have forged ahead ready to create what they hope is a new legacy in the sport. Several drivers — including two-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin — said they supported Wallace in his quest to rid the sport of the flag.
But the decision has Confederate flag loyalists howling in protest and vowing to swear off the sport.
Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli posted on Facebook he would quit the sport, writing: “I couldn’t care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl (people) that do and it doesn’t make them a racist.”
Nascar helmet artist Jason Beam tweeted “ignorance wins again, Nascar you realise the North had slaves too, lol not just the South, you want to remove the American Flag as well, idiots.” And a publicist for one Nascar driver tweeted the decision was “a joke.”
Enforcing the ban could require added security in the often rowdy, booze-fueled infield filled with fans who may be intent on thumbing their nose at Nascar. The series declined additional comment.
Fans have not been allowed back at races yet amid the coronavirus pandemic. It won’t be long: Nascar plans to welcome a small number of fans at a race Sunday near Miami and more later this month in Alabama.
Additional reporting by AP