by Ryan Isley
Perception often is reality in the eyes of most people. And it’s perception that has NASCAR in a unique position when it comes to the Confederate flag.
To some, the perception of NASCAR is still a good ol’ boys club in the south. One where fans (and drivers) are just a bunch of backwoods redneck hillbillies who drive beat up pickup trucks with a sawed off shotgun attached to a gun rack on the back as they drive through the woods to a spot where they guzzle beer (or moonshine), chew tobacco and strum a banjo. Hell, it’s still referred to as NECK-CAR by a number of people. And sometimes it is hard to argue that perception.
But the fact of the matter is that NASCAR has grown into a huge money-making business, bringing in money not only from fans, but from big companies around the country. Companies throw down millions of dollars to sponsor things such as cars, races, pre-race shows and even in-car cameras during a broadcast, among other things.
It is no longer just a southern sport, with races now being held all over the country, many of which happen to be in the northern part of the United States. As for the southern roots of NASCAR drivers, there have been more championships won in the NFL, NBA, MLB and even the NHL by teams in the south than there have been NASCAR champions born in the south in this century.
The last time a driver who was actually born in the heart of NASCAR country won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship was in 2000, when Dale Jarrett (born in Conover, NC) won. Bobby Labonte (born in Corpus Christi, TX) won the championship in 2001 and then the next 13 championships were won by drivers who were born in California (Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson), Michigan (Brad Keselowski), Indiana (Tony Stewart), Nevada (Kurt Busch) or Wisconsin (Matt Kenseth). And of the 10 different winners in the Sprint Cup Series this season, only Dale Earnhardt Jr (Kannapolis, NC) and Denny Hamlin (Tampa, FL) were born in the south. Hell, if it wasn’t for Earnhardt Jr, the most popular driver in the sport would be born in Beloit, Wisconsin and raised in Roscoe, Illinois (Danica Patrick).
But those facts don’t fit neatly into the perception of NASCAR as just a hillbilly sport. And that’s why the sport needs to ban the Confederate flag at all tracks. For a sport that is trying to continue its growth into different demographics, allowing a flag that is viewed as a hate mongering symbol just simply doesn’t fly.
NASCAR is in a different position than other sports when it comes to allowing or banning the flag, however. With the roots of NASCAR dug down deep in the south, there are still throngs of NASCAR fans who believe in those roots and in the heritage that they believe the Confederate flag represents. They also feel like NASCAR has gone against its roots in other decisions in years past, as if NASCAR is trying to move further away from those roots.
But NASCAR needs to move away from those roots. Maybe not altogether, but certainly in the decisions that make the most sense for the growth of the sport going forward. And not allowing the Confederate flag to be represented at the track is one of those instances where NASCAR needs to forget what its hardcore fans believe is right, and do what is actually right.
And while NASCAR has done a decent job of trying to separate themselves from the Confederate flag by not allowing teams or tracks to use the image of the flag, it hasn’t gone far enough. The flag is still prominent among the fans at the races, especially in the infield, where the flag can be seen flying high above trailers along with those of fans’ favorite drivers. The sport has the right to ban whatever they want to when it comes to its events, even if it doesn’t technically run the actual track.
This isn’t some sort of free speech debate, either. If someone walked into a track with a sign or a flag with expletives and derogatory terms written all over it, NASCAR would be quick to shut that down. Well that’s exactly how the Confederate flag is viewed by many – as derogatory.
Changing the perception of NASCAR won’t be an easy battle, but banning the Confederate flag would certainly help in that process. So throw a caution flag, NASCAR. Only this time instead of for a wreck or debris, throw it for another flag – the Confederate one.