NASCAR's thorny throwback problem: the Confederate flag

From The Marbles
NASCAR fans wave Confederate flags at Darlington.
NASCAR fans wave Confederate flags at Darlington.

DARLINGTON, S.C.—NASCAR billed Sunday’s Bojangles Southern 500 as a “throwback” weekend, and virtually every race team responded in kind. Retro-paint-scheme cars evoking memories of Richard Petty’s classic red-and-blue STP ride, Ricky Craven’s orange Tide car, and the Days of Thunder Mello Yello, among others—28 of the 43 Cup cars in all—decorated the track and NASCAR’s social media, drawing universal acclaim.

Oh, but those were not the only colors not forgotten. All over Darlington, in numbers unseen at any other NASCAR track in decades, flew Confederate battle flags. This was the first Southern 500 in Darlington in more than a decade, and South Carolina’s Confederate faithful welcomed back the race with a showing of battle flags unprecedented in recent NASCAR history.

That's the thorny position in which NASCAR finds itself—wanting to embrace the past, but not all of the past; wanting to keep its old-school fans in the fold, but wanting those fans to stop acting like your surly uncle after a few too many beers on Thanksgiving. It’s like trying to walk a tightrope that’s rolling, and every step you take—or don’t take—enrages someone to their core.

***

Let’s take half a step back to see how we got here. NASCAR itself was born of rebellion, its roots in bootleggers who combined a daredevil spirit and mechanical alchemy to evade The Law. As you surely recall from high school history class, South Carolina saw the first shots of the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers fired on Fort Sumter near Charleston. South Carolina’s NASCAR fans are the most rebellious of an already rebellious bunch, and they’ve embraced that designation at the track that’s hosted some variant of the Southern 500 for most of the last 65 years. See, for instance, a sample program from 1976:

Southern 500 1976 program.
Southern 500 1976 program.

Darlington represents everything iconic about NASCAR—it’s a wicked, historic track that’s a bucket-list win for drivers—but it also serves as a cautionary tale. The track opened in 1950, but in 2004, NASCAR gave Darlington’s coveted, traditional Labor Day date to California, and later Atlanta. The Track Too Tough To Tame had to content itself with other, lesser dates until this year. NASCAR tried to be too much to too many people at the expense of tradition, and a vocal segment of the fanbase didn't much care for the change.

Sunday marked the return of the Southern 500 to its rightful spot on Labor Day weekend, and NASCAR made sure to throw an all-out throwback fiesta. Everything from the cars’ paint schemes to the announcers’ leisure suits to the primitive TV graphics sought to reconnect 2015 with 1975 and 1965. It’s like everybody was doubling down on this whole embracing-history thing.

Everybody.

***

For all the Confederate symbology, Civil War gunfire didn’t get within a hundred miles of Darlington—the closest battle was at Rivers Bridge, part of the late-war Carolinas Campaign in February 1865. Shortly afterward, the nearby city of Columbia, 70 miles west of Darlington, surrendered to General William Tecumseh Sherman, setting in motion one of the last great arguments of the war. Devastating fires that consumed much of the city in the wake of surrender became the source of much debate: were they set by retreating Confederate soldiers? Were they set by freed slaves, federal prisoners, or vindictive Union occupiers? Were they just a flat-out accident? As with so much else here, everyone chooses a different truth.

Despite the South’s persistent image, the Confederate battle flag isn’t a constant presence either on cars or, as of this summer, government buildings in South Carolina. The racially-motivated church shootings this summer in Charleston prompted the entire region to rethink its attachment to the flag, and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley—who was in attendance at Sunday’s race—and the state Legislature removed the flag from state grounds. Driving into Darlington, like driving through most of the South in 2015, you saw few, if any, Confederate flags.

Make the turn off Route 401 onto Race Track Road, though, and boom. The moment you saw campsites, you saw Confederate flags—dozens upon dozens of them. They flew on 20-foot-high poles, they flew nailed to 2x4s sticking out of the back beds of pickup trucks, they flew on plastic window clips. They were everywhere, in large part because everyone outside Darlington says they shouldn’t be.

Track officials at Darlington, like Daytona earlier this summer, offered a flag exchange for anyone wishing to trade in their Confederate flag on an American one. The exchange was slated to take place at one of the track’s entrance gates, but four different guards at Gate 39A had no idea that the promotion even existed. The fifth pointed me toward a still-full box of American flags tucked in the corner of a small guardhouse.

“Haven’t seen one given away yet,” the guard said. “I doubt if you do [at all].”

“I was wondering what those were for,” said another.

***

Darlington removed all official images of the battle flag from its premises. You couldn't buy shirts with images of the battle flag at the track. But you could buy them elsewhere, and a large number of shirts featuring the flag looked suspiciously new, like never-been-washed, just-bought-this-week, still-got-the-creases-in-them new. A cynical mind might say that these shirts had been opportunistically whipped up for exactly this weekend.

NASCAR fan at Darlington.
NASCAR fan at Darlington.

Several shirts combined images of the flag, moonshine Mason jars, guns, and slogans (“Southern Strong,” “Southern Tradition”) into a full-service good-ol’-boy package that probably would’ve whistled “Dixie” if you squeezed them. Others paired the Confederate flag with certain iconic drivers' cars in a way that almost surely flaunted copyright law. And still others just reduced the flag to a cartoon, like the battle-flag suspenders, floppy hat, and red-and-blue dyed beard of a fella by the name of Dennis Dease, pictured at right.

Walk around the track, the infield and the campgrounds beyond, and you’ll find that the people tailgating beneath those Confederate flags aren’t a seething, gnashing inbred mob spitting racial invective. Most of them say they have a specific perspective on American history. 

Certainly, they have lines as well-honed as any politician—“heritage, not hate” is the current favored one, closely followed by “I’m not a racist.” But there’s nuance within. Some are fine with the flag’s removal from official grounds; others believe it’s a sign of creeping political correctness that’s infecting our entire society. (Not surprisingly, these are fans of Donald Trumps campaign for president.) They share one overarching goal: to be able to fly, in their own way and in their own space, a symbol they consider integral to their own history. They worry that NASCAR is trying to blot out that history.

“We want to go as far as we can to eliminate the presence of that flag," NASCAR chairman Brian France said in June shortly after the Charleston shootings. "I personally find it an offensive symbol, so there is no daylight how we feel about it and our sensitivity to others who feel the same way. We're working with the industry to see how far we can go to get that flag to be disassociated entirely from our events."

“If that happened, pffft,” one fan said, dragging his finger across his throat. “That’s it. I’m done. Never coming to another race.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t be cool to take it away, because of freedom of speech and all that,” said a young fan. “But would I stop coming to races? No, probably not. Only if it was part of a protest or something.”

The word “boycott” probably isn't advisable in this situation, and you're glad it didn't come up.

***

This is not to say that all flag supporters are a noble band of freedom fighters, standing strong against a monolithic, uncaring politically correct dictatorship. There’s also a special breed of white Southerner that combines willful ignorance with thin skin into a state best described as arrogant victimhood. You can still see their work tucked away in dusty corners of small-town gas stations, on license plates bearing the flag and slogans like LEE SURRENDERED, I DIDN’T and FORGET, HELL, or on T-shirts featuring the battle flag and IF THIS FLAG OFFENDS YOU, READ A HISTORY BOOK. The shirt might be trying to slide on a technicality (the so-called "battle flag" combines traditional Confederate flags into a style that, technically, wasn't ever used by the Confederacy) or it might just be endorsing a very narrow interpretation of history, one in which the Southern cause starts and stops with the nobility of Southerners fighting with honor and valor for sovereignty and traditional values.

At Darlington, there were minorities amid the sea of white fans, wearing Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. memorabilia, looking every bit as at ease here as anyone else. Sure, a NASCAR race is not as racially diverse as, say, an NFL game, but there’s a growing minority population … a population that might, just might, be seeing some signs of real, inclusive change.

“I’ve seen it my whole life,” said one African-American race fan, speaking of the flag. “I know what it represents to me.”

The fan declined to give her name, and she was not alone. This is worth noting: virtually everyone at the track—fans, workers, security, local media, track officials—has an opinion on the flag’s presence, and virtually none of them want to be quoted on the record. Sometimes it’s a matter of personal preference, of wanting to keep an apolitical public presence, and sometimes it veers a bit more in the paranoid direction.

“You see what they’re doing to police,” said one flag supporter who also wouldn't give his name. “I don’t want to have to kill nobody. I’m dead serious.”

***

The problem for flag supporters—really, the problem for everybody—is that a symbol doesn’t just mean what you want it to, and an alliterative t-shirt slogan doesn’t change that. One person’s heritage is, in fact, another’s hate.

That, then, is why the flag supporters are fighting a losing battle in the public eye. If you’re an Alabama fan, say, you can’t conceive of anyone willingly donning an Auburn jersey. But colleges, cities, bands, and other rallying points of group unity didn’t pursue and perpetuate decades of human subjugation. Defenders of the flag have chosen to counter that aspect of the debate by simply declining to acknowledge that it’s part of the equation.

Here’s the thing, though: one of the South’s patron saints already blazed a trail through this particular thicket. Dale Earnhardt Sr. his own self once cut the rebel flag off an AMERICAN BY BIRTH, SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF GOD bumper sticker after hearing it offended an African-American family friend. The heritage remained, the hate got ditched.

But that particular statement didn’t make the news at the time, because it happened away from the public eye. Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed the flag issue forward earlier this year when he unloaded on the flag in the wake of the Charleston shootings. "I think it's offensive to an entire race," Earnhardt said before this year's Sonoma race. "It does nothing for anybody to be there flying, so I don't see any reason. It belongs in the history books and that's about it."

***

Nuance dies a quick death in the NASCAR infield, but rumors ran fast enough to win the Southern 500.

Early in the weekend, whispers spread through the infield that NASCAR and NBC were looking to take down Confederate flags. That was enough to spur some outrage and misguided free-speech complaints (being private property, Darlington could forbid anything from the Confederate flag to Kyle Busch banners if it so desired). The track and NASCAR decided to enforce the already-in-place rule that all flags must come down while cars are running; it's up to you to decide whether that enforcement was to protect spotters' sight lines or present a less inflammatory image to television viewers. By the time the race started, virtually all flags of any kind were down in the infield; only a few holdouts waved the flag during the Southern 500's opening laps.

Absent an outright ban—which would whip up opportunistic anti-P.C. fury among even Americans who don’t know Jimmie Johnson from Jimmy Johnson—the flag won’t ever come down completely. But its presence, already waning in most of the South, will continue to recede. Anti-flag demonstrators will move on to other causes, and flag supporters, without the opposition to push against, won’t keep bringing the flags to races to make the same point, year after year. The farther the flag recedes from public spaces, the more it becomes a historical abstraction.

Hell, even Dale Earnhardt flags are dwindling in number. If Earnhardt flags can fade from NASCAR infields … anything can.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

What to Read Next