NASCAR pauses for moment of silence amid George Floyd protests ahead of Atlanta race

NASCAR stopped its pre-race routine for a moment of silence as protests continue across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing on May 25.

Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the track ahead of the race’s beginning at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday. NASCAR president Steve Phelps then addressed drivers and teams over the radio.

“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen. To understand. And to stand against racism and racial injustice. We ask our drivers, our competitors and all our fans to join us in this mission. To take a moment of reflection to acknowledge that we must do better as a sport.”

After Phelps’ comments, NASCAR held a 30-second moment of silence.

NASCAR drivers, including Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and others, recorded a video that was published on social media ahead of the race.

Bubba Wallace, the only black driver who races full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three series, wore a shirt that said “I can’t breathe” ahead of the race. Floyd told former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that he couldn’t breathe as Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd died.

Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder.

Bubba Wallace before Sunday's race. (via Getty Images)
Bubba Wallace before Sunday's race. (via Getty Images)

Kyle Larson fired in April for racial slur

NASCAR’s efforts to speak out as a collective series come less than two months after star driver Kyle Larson was fired from his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing for using the N-word during a virtual race on April 12. Larson was fired two days after he said the word following disassociations by his car’s two major sponsors.

Few NASCAR drivers spoke out and publicly condemned Larson’s use of the N-word and the heavy lifting on the matter was left to Wallace, who said it was “too easy” for Larson to use the slur that got him fired.

NASCAR team owner Brad Daugherty, a former NBA player and ESPN NASCAR analyst, told ESPN in May that Larson’s use of the word “set us back another decade.”

Larson was set to be the most coveted NASCAR free agent in years at the end of the season as numerous top teams were reportedly interested in his services. He’s now racing sprint cars and his NASCAR future is unknown.

NASCAR’s diversity issues

NASCAR has long struggled with diversity in its participant ranks. The sanctioning body started a diversity program for minority and female drivers but the top ranks of NASCAR continue to be largely made up of white males. There are no women competing full-time in the Cup Series or Xfinity Series, and Wallace and Daniel Suarez are the only two program participants with Cup Series rides.

After a white supremacist committed a mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina, then-NASCAR CEO Brian France said he didn’t want to see fans fly the Confederate flag at races, though NASCAR and tracks didn’t go so far as to ban people from flying the flag.

The request didn’t go over all that well. Confederate flags continued to dot the infields at NASCAR tracks after France’s comments and could still be seen at NASCAR races until the series had to stop hosting races with fans in attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an NFL game in 2017 because of protests against racial injustice during the national anthem and President Donald Trump’s continued hostility toward the protests, car owners Richard Petty and Richard Childress said they were vehemently against protests during the national anthem.

Petty, who owns the car Wallace drives, even said that anyone who didn’t stand for the national anthem should be out of the country. It’s worth noting that Petty drove in an era of NASCAR where drivers were already strapped into their cars and sitting down when the national anthem was played before races.

Trump said he supported the comments by Childress and Petty.

NASCAR hosted President Trump in February

NASCAR’s efforts to speak out against racial injustice not only come against the backdrop of Larson’s racial slur but also the series’ hospitality to Trump at the Daytona 500 in February. France traveled to Daytona on Air Force One with Trump, and the president met with drivers before the race, addressed the crowd ahead of the race and his presidential limo even got to lead the field before the race began.

Protesters gathered outside the White House to peacefully protest systemic racial injustice in the wake of Floyd’s death were forcibly cleared out on Monday so Trump could walk to a nearby church for a photo opportunity. Trump has repeatedly tweeted “Law & Order” in an apparent reference to protest controls over the past week.

Wallace encouraged others to speak up

Wallace said over the past week that he had encouraged his fellow drivers to speak out against systemic racism. He told Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Earnhardt’s podcast that he felt drivers shouldn’t stay silent any longer on significant social issues and should use their platforms for positive change.

“I said a few drivers — a very few — have given their opinion on the day’s matter and I appreciate that. But the silence from the top drivers in our sport is beyond frustrating. All of our drivers — our sport has always had somewhat of a racist label to it. NASCAR, everybody thinks redneck, Confederate flag, racists. And I hate it. I hate that because I know NASCAR is so much more. I said do you all not care about what’s going on in the world? That’s not the right way to go about it. Our voices carry so much more weight than Joe Schmo from down the street. I mentioned we’ve got to do better, we’ve got to step up for everybody to say what they feel.

“At the end of the day, this is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’d ever accomplish. This is something that can change on a global impact. So imagine that. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who went out and won a championship in a horrible year but never made a comment on the issues that we are dealing with in our society. And maybe being the only guy. I wouldn’t want to carry that burden.”

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was one of the drivers who spoke out over the past week and said Friday that he found that “the more I listen, the more I learn.”

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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