A Confederate flag flies in the infield as cars come out of Turn 1 during a NASCAR auto race at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., in October 2007. Last week, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its races and venue, formally severing itself from what for many is a symbol of slavery and racism. AP file photo

NASCAR’s announcement last week that it would ban the Confederate flag from its events and venues highlighted the complicated history of a symbol so synonymous with the sport it might as well be the unofficial logo.

Some drivers, owners and fans cheered the overdue ban, while others pushed back.

On Saturday in Miami, NASCAR driver Kyle Weatherman drove a pro-police-themed car featuring a “Blue Lives Matter” flag and the hashtag, #BacktheBlue — an apparent response to the #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme unveiled last week by Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only African American driver. The flag ban prompted one driver, Ray Ciccarelli, to quit, claiming that people’s support for the emblem of Dixie “doesn’t make them racist.”

NASCAR’s fan base is largely white (around 80%), male (63%), and Southern (43%), and removing Confederate iconography from a sport that’s long embraced it will be a long road.

But banning the flag is also in line with the sport’s history of defiance and dissent, which stems from its early us-vs.-cops ethos.

NASCAR was created by rebellious bootleggers driving jacked-up, liquor-toting Fords; they were hunted by police and revenue agents. In other words, its pioneers were natural allies against police brutality and government oppression.


If NASCAR has stood for anything (besides speed, noise and beer), it’s rebellion.

Stock-car racing was born in the hills and hollows of the South — mainly Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas — where Scots-Irish settlers and their descendants fought efforts to tax their home-brewed corn whiskey. During and after Prohibition, moonshiners found that Henry Ford’s sturdy and reliable V-8 coupe was ideal for delivering their product to market. It had a huge trunk, and they learned to modify the engines to generate even more power and speed.

The cat-and-mouse game between moonshiners and their government pursuers lasted well into the 1950s, when men like North Carolina moonshiner-racer Junior Johnson were Dixie’s heroes, even as he spent time in federal prison for it. (I still have a Mason jar of his peach moonshine from an interview in the 2000s.)

Driver Bubba Wallace waits for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Martinsville, Va. AP Photo/Steve Helber

Other moonshiners I’ve met over the years describe the lasting effect of those origins: the history of NASCAR is tied to defying the police, evading the law, distrusting authority: Don’t tell me what to do. Then again, for some, that history of defiance also ties back to the words of Confederate president Jefferson Davis: “All we ask is to be let alone.”

Dan Pierce, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, said that defiant spirit now takes the form of support for President Donald Trump, which is prevalent among NASCAR fans.

NASCAR has long been aware of the need to distance itself from perceptions that it’s too Southern — and too white.


But for many decades, NASCAR seemed unwilling to sever ties to a symbol so deeply offensive to much of the rest of America. Its annual race at Darlington, South Carolina, was called the Rebel 500, and the Confederate flag was used in official race-day programs. A championship ring featuring the flag was given to winners of the Atlanta 500, and Martinsville Speedway used to present its winners with Confederate flags. “Dixie” was played at the start of some races, and a few drivers had rebel flags painted on their cars, into the 1980s.

In 2004, NASCAR launched a Drive for Diversity program to recruit more drivers of color and began stepping up its whack-a-mole efforts against Confederate symbols.

In 2012, NASCAR canceled plans to have professional golfer Bubba Watson drive the “General Lee” car from “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show, with the Confederate flag on its roof. “The image of the Confederate flag is not something that should play an official role in our sport as we continue to reach out to new fans and make NASCAR more inclusive,” a NASCAR spokesman said at the time.

When a white supremacist killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, NASCAR asked fans in 2015 to stop displaying the flag at its tracks, though it didn’t bar the flag outright. Then-chairman Brian France called the flag an “offensive symbol.” Dale Earnhardt Jr., among NASCAR’s most popular drivers, now an on-air commentator, called the persistent displays “sad and frustrating.” Some racetracks offered to swap an American flag for fans’ Confederate flags.

Still, as one Southern writer once told me: “The surest way to get a hillbilly to do something? Tell him not to do it.” So, plenty of flags continued to wave from RVs in the infield and fans in the stands before COVID-19 shut things down. (It didn’t help NASCAR’s hopes for inclusivity when driver Kyle Larson uttered a racial slur during a live-streamed race in April, for which he was fired.)

Now the ban is no longer a suggestion; it’s official.


“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” NASCAR’s statement said.

Wallace, the first full-time black driver in NASCAR’s top-tier series since Wendell Scott in 1971, championed the move, calling it a “pivotal moment for the sport.”

In Martinsville, Virginia, last week, wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt, Wallace’s team unveiled the new paint scheme for his car, with a large “#blacklivesmatter” on the rear above a peace symbol, and two clasped hands on the hood — one black, one white — above “Compassion, Love, Understanding.” Said Wallace: “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race.”


A NASCAR official kneels during the national anthem before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Hampton, Ga. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Such messages — and the image of a black NASCAR official taking a knee before a June 7 race near Atlanta — might have seemed unattainable years ago. And some fans will surely rebel against the new restriction when the stadiums reopen. Enforcement will be a challenge.

But Colin Kaepernick-style protests and other recent crusades against police brutality may help drag NASCAR toward a more inclusive, less-offensive future. With its roots tied to an anti-authority philosophy, it makes sense for NASCAR to be on the side of those seeking police reforms.

If a nonconformist culture still beats within the sport — one that’s wary of the law, distrustful of central power — maybe NASCAR, after so many years of allowing a symbol of hate to practically define the sport, can disentangle itself from that flag and turn a corner.

Neal Thompson is a journalist and the author of five books, including “Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: