NASCAR needs to change minds, not policy, on Confederate flag at races

Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only full-time African American driver, wants the Confederate flag banned at races. It's a concept NASCAR agrees with, banning them outright on Wednesday.

Right up until the pandemic hit, it was still common to see them flying in the infield at races or even emblazoned across fans' shirts or hats.

So is a full-on ban even possible? If it is, it’s going to need to come not just from NASCAR. It will need the full-throated support of NASCAR drivers who hold far more sway over fans.

A NASCAR directed edict will be viewed by some as an invitation to actually fly more Confederate flags. The more you “ban” something, the more some resist. Especially something this entrenched in certain segments of society. Wallace said it’s about creating a more welcoming environment for those who find the flag threatening and offensive.

“Get rid of all Confederate flags,” Wallace said. “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. It starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here.”

NASCAR has long agreed with that. Its opposition to the flag isn’t simply an opposition to the flag; it’s an attempt to secure its very future.

The sport’s leadership is well aware of the trend lines, too — smaller crowds, fewer sponsor dollars, declining races. Viewership for weekly races are down from about 5 million as recently as 2015 to 3 million in 2019. From 2001-13, the Daytona 500 averaged 14.1 million viewers for non-weather delayed races. In 2018-19 it was 9.2 million.

NASCAR is struggling and keeping a race team afloat requires significant revenue.

The Confederate flag may be popular with a segment of current fans, but there are many potential customers who see it and immediately head the other way. That is especially true of younger generations, not to mention corporations.

The sport needs to find a way to appeal to the most potential fans as possible … without losing the ones it already has.

Banning the flags is a step, but this move will require security patrolling the infield or campgrounds around the track and seizing flags. As a practical matter, this is a recipe for disaster.

NASCAR races aren’t three hours inside an arena where you have to pass through security, like the NBA or NFL. It’s often a three-day weekend.

The flag isn’t always a flag anyway. It’s on bumper stickers and license plate frames and T-shirts and so on and so on.

SPARTA, KY - JULY 11:  A view of American and Confederate flags seen flying over the infield during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Confederate flags, like these flying in 2015, are not as prevalent as they once were at NASCAR races, but they still do exist. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

If NASCAR and Wallace want the flag gone, the best way is to make it socially unacceptable to bring it in the first place. The NBA doesn’t have to seize Confederate flags because no one brings them to games in the first place.

Can NASCAR get there? It would be a long process and have little to do with NASCAR itself and a lot to do with Wallace’s fellow drivers.

It’s the drivers who connect with the fans. It’s the drivers who influence the fans — there’s a reason major brands pay to be associated with them. It’s the drivers who, if they agree with Wallace, can work on educating the fans.

Not by humiliating them. Shame rarely works. By explaining why the Confederate flag isn’t appropriate, how it’s viewed by others or simply the need to leave it at home because their favorite sport’s future is reliant on racially, geographically, politically, religiously and generationally diverse crowds.

It’s the drivers who could potentially make it uncool to display it.

To do that would require them to take potentially uncomfortable and unpopular positions and speak in ways they rarely have in the past. It might call for them to stand up and say, “If you want to root for me, don’t bring that flag. I don’t want that type of fan.”

Will they? Who knows. The backlash could be significant. How many even feel the flag should go? It’s hard to say. It’s not that NASCAR is scared of politics — its chairman and a number of drivers, including star Chase Elliott, endorsed Donald Trump at a rally in 2016. This isn’t playing to the base.

Times change though. Drivers made a video calling for social justice last week. Wallace’s car this weekend will have a Black Lives Matter paint scheme on it, an almost unthinkable development a couple weeks ago.

Thus far, there’s been support for Wallace’s call to action on the flag.

“It’s just a thing some of us are just ignorant about,” Martin Truex Jr. said on ESPN. “Don’t really think about it or worry about it, then you hear somebody like Bubba talk about how he feels about it and it kind of wakes you up a bit. I think NASCAR is going to do the right thing and I stand with what they come up with.”

The flag has been removed from government grounds and private businesses over the last few years. Both the Navy and Marines banned it just this week — the idea that a flag of an entity that fought against the United States of America was so prevalent inside the military of the United States of America shows how rooted the Confederacy and its symbols are in this country.

That’s one reason why some fans see the flying of a flag at a stock car race to be a birthright of sorts.

To change that, you need to change minds, not just policy.

Are Bubba Wallace’s fellow drivers prepared for that?

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