Bubba Wallace Thankful for Flag Ban, but NASCAR’s Fans Might Not Be

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Now that Darrell Wallace Jr., the sole African-American driver in NASCAR’s top racing series, has persuaded the organization to bar the Confederate flag from its events, he expects his life to be a little different.

A text from his father reminded him of that.

“He was proud of what I was doing on and off the racetrack, but he was worried about safety, going out in public and whatnot,” Wallace, who is known as Bubba, said Friday during a teleconference with reporters. “It’s just crazy you have to worry about that side of things. Definitely got to watch your back now.”

Wallace, 26, received praise and support from other top drivers for making the ban happen amid wider protests about racial injustice in the United States and the rest of the world, prompted by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. But some NASCAR fans are furious at Wallace because they view the Confederate flag as being part of their Southern heritage — not as a symbol of racism — and thus an integral part of the sport, which has deep Southern roots.

To those opposing the prohibition, Wallace said Friday that he wants everyone to feel comfortable coming to a race, and that the Confederate flag has scared some people away from his sport.

“To you, it might seem like heritage, but others see hate,” he said. “We need to come together and meet in the middle and say, ‘You know what, if this bothers you, I don’t mind taking it down.’”

There once was a time that a person could not walk 20 paces at a NASCAR race without seeing a Confederate flag. Fans would come to the races with Confederate flag images on their clothing. Flags would also dot the racetrack’s infield, because spectators would raise them high above their motor homes that they parked there for a weekend-long party. Long ago, the rebel flag was even a part of the victory celebration.

At Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, a character named Johnny Reb, created in the 1960s, dressed in a Confederate soldier’s gray uniform and would ride on the hood of the winning car to victory lane while waving the Confederate flag.

While the more showy celebrations of the flag have disappeared over the years, many fans still flew it during races. They even flew the flag in 2015, after NASCAR officially discouraged them from doing so, in the aftermath of the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by the white supremacist Dylann Roof.

NASCAR tiptoed its way around the issue, offering fans at its races American flags in exchange for their Confederate ones. Few fans took them up on the offer, and NASCAR continued struggling to balance a new demographic of fans beyond the white and conservative Southern ones that helped NASCAR grow into a powerhouse industry in the early to mid-2000s.

Since then, NASCAR has traveled far from its roots, which were planted in dirt tracks in places like Rockingham, N.C., and Talladega, Ala., by drivers who honed their skills by running moonshine and outrunning revenuers. The races once were predominantly in the Southeast, and its drivers hailed from the region. Now, NASCAR races are held on tracks from coast to coast, and only two of the top 10 drivers are from the Southeast.

Kyle Petty, the longtime racer and son of the seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, called the ban “a huge moment.”

“As we look at the sport and how the sport has grown, we were way behind the curve,” he said on the show “NASCAR America” on NBCSN.

And NASCAR’s recent efforts to grow, while also trying to make the sport more inclusive, have not been successful: The number of fans who have abandoned the sport since its peak is startling. For example, this year’s Daytona 500, NASCAR’s marquee race, had 7.3 million television viewers. Just five years ago, in 2015, that number was nearly double, at 13.4 million.

The organization also has made efforts to diversify, with programs aimed at hiring minority drivers. Yet when Wallace won a race in 2013 at one of NASCAR’s national series, it was the first time an African-American had won at that level in 50 years.

Matthew Bernthal, the marketing department chair at Florida Southern College, has studied NASCAR, and said the organization has grappled with the flag issue for a while. “I simply don’t think they had a choice right now but to ban the flag, given the mood of the country,” he said. “But I think the brand’s values have shifted because they have chosen to take such a strong stance.”

With the coronavirus public health crisis limiting fans at racetracks, it might be a long while before NASCAR feels the full impact of its decision. But Darrell Waltrip, the three-time Winston Cup series champion who retired in 2000, warned people not to view complaints about the ban on social media as an indication that fans will leave the sport.

“Look, how many people said they were going to move to Canada when Trump won the election, and how many of them really did?” he said. “Everybody makes idle threats but very few people that I know follow through.”

Wallace realizes that his speaking out has already deeply affected the sport and the way it is perceived. He called for NASCAR to ban the flag on Monday. On Wednesday, it happened. That night, he raced at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, and said it was the biggest race of his career. He felt the country watching.

To commemorate the moment, Wallace unveiled a different paint scheme for his No. 43 Chevrolet, with a Black Lives Matter logo emblazoned on its sides and the words “Compassion, Love, Understanding” written on its hood. When he stood on pit road for the national anthem, for the second race in a row, Wallace wore a black T-shirt displaying the words, “I Can’t Breathe. Black Lives Matter.”

An avalanche of fans tuned in to see him, some commenting on social media that it was their first NASCAR race. LeBron James tweeted a message to Wallace before the race. Wallace replied: “Let’s get it homie. Appreciate you. Respect.”

Wallace said on Friday that he hadn’t given much thought to kneeling during the national anthem, a demonstration that Colin Kaepernick and other players used in the N.F.L. that also garnered passionate reaction from fans. Wallace said he is studying and learning about exactly what message “we are trying to push across, learn, and understand.”

“I think the messages that I have been putting out there on the racetrack and during the anthem is speaking for itself,” he said.

One thing he won’t do at the track anytime soon, though, is hop onto his golf cart and drive into the track’s infield. He used to mingle with fans there, carefree and outspoken, but he said he can’t be his “happy-go-lucky” self anymore.

“Now I’ve got to be careful what I do,” he said about the backlash he has felt for sharing his stance on the Confederate flag. “That’s kind of the sad world we live in.”

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