Dale Earnhardt wasn't a defender of the Confederate flag, and neither is his son.
For decades, the Confederate flag has flown above NASCAR infields, a symbol of the rebellious spirit of NASCAR's most ardent fan base. But the flag's racial overtones are impossible to ignore, leading to increasing calls for the removal of the flag from state flags and state grounds.
It's a shift in the national mood that's even reached slow-to-change NASCAR. But the fans who fly the flag, wear it on their clothes, or sport it as a tattoo might be shocked to learn that two of the sport's biggest icons, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr., have taken issue with the flag in the past.
Dale Earnhardt is the embodiment of the Southern ideal, a man who worked his way from a tiny garage in Kannapolis, N.C., to a nationwide empire through speed and force of will. “I always said he looked like the last Confederate soldier,” former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler once said. “He looked like one of those guys in the old silver photos from Gettysburg or Manassas.”
Flags bearing Earnhardt's No. 3 still fly alongside the rebel flag in infields. But how did Earnhardt himself feel about the flag? A story from off the track gives a clue.
There's a bumper sticker out there still on sale at just about every truck stop in the South. "AMERICAN BY BIRTH," it reads, "SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF GOD," usually with a rebel flag alongside. One day Earnhardt slapped one of these stickers onto the bumper of one of his trucks. He didn't think any more of it until his housekeeper, an African-American woman beloved by Earnhardt's children Dale and Kelley, mentioned that the flag's implications made her uncomfortable.
Earnhardt immediately went out to his truck and sliced off the rebel flag. The motto remained; the flag itself was trashed.
"He didn't want to offend anybody or make anybody mad in that manner," said Kelley Earnhardt Miller, telling the story on her "Fast Lane Family" podcast. "He had a good heart."
More recently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrote about the flag in his 2001 autobiography "Driver #8." Junior's rookie season, 2000, coincided with the fight to remove the flag from South Carolina's Capitol dome and place it in its current location. At a Richmond fan Q&A, someone asked Junior, "What do you think of the rebel flag?"
From the book:
This [question] is followed by a chorus of redneck yelps and cheers.
The guy has put me in a bind. As much as I brag about being a no-[B.S.]-tell-it-like-it-is-here's-how-I-see-it kinda guy, I know that these are the fans that pay my salary, so I'm hesitant to tell him the rebel flag represents closed-minded, racist views that have no place in today's society. Give 'em a straight answer and I may piss off the "rebels" in the crowd ... But I have my opinions and I don't want to give a dishonest answer, either. I feel like the weight of the Civil War is resting on my shoulders.
I take a couple of breaths and say, "I think it means something different to me than it does to y'all ... "
That gets mixed reactions. Some hoot and yell, some kind of snicker.
But time is up and I'm not going to stick around and argue the point.
More recently, Earnhardt Jr. was the only driver who agreed to speak in 2006 about the flag, albeit in more measured tones. [Yahoo Sports has reached out to Earnhardt Jr. for updated comment.]
Rebellion runs deep in NASCAR's soul. NASCAR founder Bill France opposed the elitist approach of once-dominant open-wheel IndyCar in the years after World War II, and Daytona International Speedway was built with the intention of one-upping Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR's earliest drivers were bootleggers, and its earliest fans were only a generation or two removed from Confederate soldiers. The rebel flag was a pervasive NASCAR image for decades, used even as a promotional tool for the sport, as evident by race programs like Darlington’s Rebel and Southern 500s:
NASCAR's official stance is a pretty sharp departure from its earlier days, like this 1976 Darlington program. pic.twitter.com/wQOUHMCajt
— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) June 23, 2015
However, NASCAR has long since distanced itself from the flag in any official capacity, a stance the sport's governing body reiterated on Tuesday morning. "NASCAR supports the position that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley took on the Confederate Flag on Monday," the sport said in a statement, referring to Haley's call for the flag to be removed from capitol grounds.
But NASCAR faces the same challenge Earnhardt Jr. did: opposing the flag means offending a share of the sport's historic fan base, a share that's long felt overlooked and disregarded as NASCAR has expanded beyond its traditional Southern foundations.
The question now is whether catering to the Confederate flag-waving segment of NASCAR fandom is worth offending or shutting out many others. It's a question NASCAR's leaders, owners and drivers need to be ready to answer, starting this weekend, because it's a question that's not going away.
In his day, Dale Earnhardt ruled over the garage, his every pronouncement and opinion carrying the weight of gospel. It's been more than a decade since Earnhardt died, and in that time no voice has carried the weight his did. It would be somehow appropriate if Dale Earnhardt were to lead the garage by example one last time.
And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.