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Will NASCAR truly ever escape its racist past?

Kenny Wallace climbs out of his car after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Kenny Wallace climbs out of his car after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Ted Fleming
EXPERT
Modified 12 Jan 2021, 00:52 IST
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Last season was a tumultuous one for NASCAR. The pandemic wrecked the scheduling and forced a flurry of creative changes to its schedule to make sure a legitimate championship season could be completed. You have to give the company credit for keeping it together as they faced a challenge like no other in its history.

Race fans vanished into thin air, and not because they were abandoning the sport. COVID-19 shut down NASCAR for over two months, and when it returned on May 17, the only sounds at the track were the roar of engines. Spectators were not allowed in until much later in the season and even then in only in limited numbers. There is hope it will change in 2021, but the one thing we recently learned is that another type of change still hasn’t happened in the industry.

Former NASCAR driver and television analyst Kenny Wallace reminded us that old views die hard. When he tweeted, “I have colored friends. They too are losing Twitter followers. I’ve learned to not take it personally,” we flashed back to what transpired less than a year ago.

Twitter fired back with a flood of corrections and outrage. Some argued that the word “colored” is as bad as using the N-word, others only telling him that “persons of color” is the appropriate way to talk about, well, persons of color.

Wallace was a fan favorite as a driver and as a NASCAR on FOX racing analyst for over a quarter of a century. He was knowledgeable, outspoken, and funny with a mike pointed at him after races or one in his hand talking about the sport. Now 57, Wallace rarely made on-air gaffes that would create a firestorm; however, he has not managed to escape scrutiny of his tweet.

Wallace has discussed NASCAR and social media

In an interview with Jamie Little of Fox Sports last June, he said he struggled with social media. He was both blasted and applauded for his political points of view, but his wife told him he needed to step away. Wallace even thought of dropping the apps altogether but instead stopped talking politics and was happy he was away from all the negativity. That doesn’t mean he is away from being Kenny; his Twitter feed has several F-bombs scattered across his posts.

The problem with his “colored” gaffe is that it brought NASCAR back into the race spotlight. Wallace is no longer an active driver in the sport (he still competes in dirt events in his UMPDirtCar modified), but his last name will always be associated with NASCAR. His brothers, Mike, and Winston Cup Champion and Hall of Famer Rusty, followed in their racing father Russ's footsteps.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - OCTOBER 28: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Door Dash Chevrolet, walks off the track escorted by the NASCAR safety team after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series.
FORT WORTH, TEXAS - OCTOBER 28: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Door Dash Chevrolet, walks off the track escorted by the NASCAR safety team after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series.
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NASCAR went through a radical change in race relations last season and driver Bubba Wallace was at the heart of it. He pushed its transformation when it banned confederate flags from tracks and properties. The sport’s roots are in the South, and the decision was met with derision and an avalanche of hate mails. This was NASCAR’s statement back then:

“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. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
Confederate flag merchandise is seen at a hut across the street from the Talladega Superspeedway prior to the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 on June 22, 2020 in Talladega, Alabama.
Confederate flag merchandise is seen at a hut across the street from the Talladega Superspeedway prior to the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 on June 22, 2020 in Talladega, Alabama.
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NASCAR and FBI

Not long after, the FBI started an investigation into a report of a noose found in Wallace’s garage. It turned out it was not intended for Bubba and only fashioned that way a year before he even knew what garage stall he would be in. However, what it did was bring NASCAR right back into the conversation on racism again.

It didn’t end there. Mike Harmon has two cars in the Xfinity Series and, with the help of a group called Patriots PAC of America, had them decked out with “Back the Blue” and “Trump-Pence 2020.” It was an apparent jab at the Black Lives Matter movement. Other teams did similar things later in the season.

Small teams would happily accept money from anyone who can help them pay the bills and get them into races, but there has to be a line between sponsorship and bad taste (or racist overtones). Harmon made it clear where he was coming from. 

Wallace is the only black full-time driver in any of NASCAR’s three main touring series and has witnessed racism throughout his racing career. The Premier Series’ newest team, 23XI Racing, has hired him to be its driver for the 2021 campaign in a bold move. If you didn’t already know, the 23 stands for NBA superstar Michael Jordan, making him the first majority-minority owner since Wendell Scott.

When all the race issues of a year ago reared its ugly head, Scott’s grandson Warrick Scott said, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” He wasn’t far from the truth, as proved by Wallace's tweet.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump stand for the national anthem prior to the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump stand for the national anthem prior to the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

How will NASCAR navigate the changes?

NASCAR is also culpable in the perpetuation of racism within its sport. They’ve been trying to balance its relationship with Wall Street while still connected to the people who pay to see the races. The move to invite Donald Trump to Daytona International Speedway for the season opener was a loaded one. He wasn’t there to watch. He gave the ‘start your engines command,’ and in an unprecedented move, NASCAR allowed him to take a lap around the track in his presidential limo.

For four years, Trump has poked the bear of racism in his tweets and at rallies without apologizing for it. Yet NASCAR still allowed him to be the pre-race story as announcers waxed lyrical about his presence. You can bet a person with similar credentials won’t be invited to the season kickoff again. Or any other event during the season.

For NASCAR to be true to its word and be the leader of change, it needs to vet these decisions more carefully. That includes anthem singers, command givers, and even on-air talent, if necessary. FOX and NBC are responsible for those who appear on camera, but NASCAR has to make sure they are squeaky clean if they want to escape their racist past altogether.  

Published 12 Jan 2021, 00:52 IST
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