By: Steve Waid
Let’s be perfectly clear: NASCAR stock car racing is a sport born and bred in the South. That means it was an integral part of what the South was at the time of its birth in 1947 – an entity that clung to its past and advanced an ideology that, among other things, declared the black race to be inferior.
That ideology permeated NASCAR. For decades all of its officials, competitors and, yes, audiences were white and embraced their interpretation and symbols of Southern heritage – moonshine runners, the drivers known as “good ol’ boys,” the Confederate flag, the words “Dixie” and “rebel’ and white superiority.
This persisted for several decades. Even the presence of Wendell Scott, who came with impressive competitive credentials and was the sport’s only full-time black driver until recent years, changed nothing.
Scott endured one harassment, one confrontation, one insult and one unfair treatment after another. But the resolution within him never faded.
And he won a race in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1964. But the all-white NASCAR authorities denied him the victory until after a long recheck of scoring (to be certain the audience had left), no victory lane ceremony – certainly with the white trophy girl – and no trophy.
It was Scott’s persistence to compete under extremely adverse situations and the permeating atmosphere of racism, not his record, that earned him election into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.
By that time NASCAR, the rest of the Southand the country, had changed significantly. Segregation was gone. Jim Crow laws were gone. The Civil Rights movement and effective African American leadership and policies had made their mark.
The “N” word used regularly by whites, and which permeated NASCAR, was considered blatantly racist and totally unacceptable. Using it- and least not privately – could provide harsh response. Ask Kyle Larson.
But given all of this let’s not assume racism has disappeared. We know better, don’t we?
You do not have to be told that. You have been witness to what has transpired recently in our country. You know about the death of George Floyd, the rise – again – of Black Live Matter and the protests, unrest and, yes, violence that has accompanied it all.
And you know that racism is not dead in NASCAR. Bubba Wallace, the African American who competes for Richard Petty Motorsports was, in the midst of all this, the man who demanded NASCAR bar the Confederate flag, which it did.
But he was also the man who became the target of individuals who blasted NASCAR for attacking their so-called Southern heritage, which, among other things, included its acquiesce to kneeling for the National Anthem and the absence of an invocation. It should be pointed out that the Anthem and invocation are still a part of NASCAR.
Wallace was the principal target of racism when it was discovered a hangman’s noose was discovered in his garage area stall at Talladega Superspeedway. The noose was a symbol of lynching, a fate for many black men in days gone by. And one which went unpunished.
Had this happened during Scott’s time I can assure you little, if anything, would have been done. It might have well drawn derisive laughter.
But that was then, this is now. And it is now that makes the difference.
Instead of indifference, NASCAR has declared it will find the culprit – or culprits–and punishment will be harsh. It has declared, along with virtually all of its teams and competitors, that racism will not be tolerated.
We saw a meaningfuland emotional display of that when, during pre-race, all the teams at Talladega helped push Wallace’s car to the front of the grid and then assembled behind for prayer and the Anthem.
We saw Wallace’s tearful reaction and his acceptance of one embrace after another from his fellow drivers.
Then after the race we saw Wallace go to the grandstand to acknowledge supporters who cheered him – many of whom wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
All that we saw does not mean that racism is gone in stock car racing. Far from it. But it does indicate strongly that there is, and will be, a concentrated, determined and unified effort to make it so.
Which is a very good thing, indeed.
It is an excellent example of the change we’ve seen in this country and in NASCAR. You can accept that for one important reason:
There was a time when NASCAR would not have cared one bit about what happened to a black driver.