Within minutes of arriving in the infield at the first race I covered for Yahoo Sports, back in early 2008, I saw, propped on the back of a pickup truck, a whiteboard with a crudely scrawled racist caricature of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
During one of my first visits to the lawless reaches of Turn 3 in the Daytona infield, a shirtless fan behind a makeshift bar pointed at me and a colleague and shouted a racial slur at us, cackling all the way. He wasn’t using it as any kind of identifier; it was clearly the nastiest thing he could think to say to us, and he wanted to see our reaction.
In the course of a 2015 trip to Darlington to write on NASCAR’s first attempt to ban the Confederate flag, I spoke with a Black security guard, within sight — almost within reach — of half a dozen such flags, flown in deliberate middle-finger-up defiance of the suggested ban. The deep pain in her eyes and the quiet, clipped tenor of her speech stick with me today.
Each time, I blew off the racism as unfortunate, sure, but just part and parcel of NASCAR’s heritage. I’m not proud of that, in retrospect, but I’m not alone. So has virtually every other person who has ever attended a race and come into contact with the sometimes-subtle, always-present undercurrent of racism.
Good ol’ boys are the foundation of NASCAR, the excuse goes. Sure, sometimes they go too far. But you run them off, and what’s left? NASCAR needs the good ol’ boys.
Not anymore. Not if the sport wants to survive.
Sunday night marked a tipping point for NASCAR. Sunday night, the series disclosed that someone had left a noose — the symbol of this nation’s original sin, the undeniable message of intimidation, a sign so cruel and cutting it defies imagination — in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the Cup series’ lone Black driver.
It seemed a relic from an earlier era, a time of black-and-white Civil Rights photographs, where casual racism was as evident as the cruelty on the faces of people who would grow up to be the grandparents of some of today’s NASCAR fans.
And, for a NASCAR garage, it seemed all too believable. There’s your tipping point right there. Whether this was done as intimidation, or prank gone wrong, or any of a dozen other reasons ranging from stupidity to conspiracy, it seemed absolutely logical that someone associated with NASCAR would stoop to the lowest, most cowardly, most despicable act possible short of actual violence.
This is it, right here. This is the point where NASCAR either steps into the 21st century or remains an increasingly irrelevant cultural curiosity. After seeing one of its top drivers casually toss off a racial slur, after seeing a Confederate flag with “Defund NASCAR” flying over the Talladega race Sunday, after the discovery of a goddamned noose in the garage … the sport’s moment of truth has arrived.
NASCAR, to its credit, not only brought the news to light, but announced, in the strongest possible terms, its intention to root out whoever hung the noose. “We are angry and outraged and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act. We have launched an immediate investigation and will do everything we can to identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport.”
That’s great, and the use of words like “heinous” and “eliminate” — words you don’t generally see in press releases — signals a shift in tone from the sport’s governing body. But it’s not enough. A statement from NASCAR is like a statement over the intercom from the principal — tough words aren’t enough. The attitude, the actions have to change at the ground level.
Every driver needs to speak up immediately. Without being asked. They all have social media presences now; get on it without waiting for PR people to craft a statement, without running the verbiage by sponsors to ensure they’re OK with a “condemnation of racism in all its forms,” or whatever mealy language corporations use to avoid offending people who shouldn’t just be offended, but run out of the sport entirely.
This is one of their brothers-in-firesuits who has been attacked. Would you worry about proper sponsor-pleasing language if your brother was attacked? Hell no, you wouldn’t. You’d have to be held back from taking a crowbar to his attacker. Surely many drivers are right now; they should make their fury and disgust plain to fans.
And again, if that upsets some of their fans — if they try to claim basic respect for human dignity is “woke,” if they hide behind some cowardly “don’t get political” dodge — well, too bad. The exit from the track’s right over there.
Wallace has been out there on the tip of the spear fighting this fight, and Sunday night, he was characteristically dignified in a way no one should have to be. “We will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate,” he wrote on Twitter. “As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you.’ This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in.” He shouldn’t have to stand alone, not ever again.
Which brings us around to the fans, all of us. In my replies on Twitter on Sunday night, plenty of fans were in a rush to distance themselves from the noose, taking the usual “not all NASCAR fans” route. Again, that’s the right thing to say, but a mild tut-tutting — it’s just a few bad seeds, not all NASCAR fans are like that, can’t we all just come together — isn’t enough, not anymore. Tepid little critiques — said in the hope all this goes away quickly — won’t cut it.
If you love NASCAR, how far are you willing to go to keep it alive? Are you willing to risk offending friends and family who’ve skated for too long? Are you willing to post on social media before the world that you stand with Bubba? Are you willing to have that hard conversation with yourself about what you’ve accepted in the past, and what you’re not willing to accept in the future?
If not, well, the road ahead is obvious, and it’s not a long one. The world is moving on, fast, and NASCAR fans can choose to be part of the way forward ... or part of history.
NASCAR’s good ol’ boys are indeed the foundation of NASCAR. The South’s blend of swagger, daredevil attitude, reckless talent and anti-authoritarianism — the very qualities that all the best NASCAR drivers from Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt to Tony Stewart to Kyle Busch have embodied — transformed the sport from a way to kill time between moonshine runs into a national phenomenon.
But the racism that leeched onto the sport as it rose? No. That’s not part of the foundation. The racism is the termites eating away at NASCAR’s foundation. We’ve all spent 70 years ignoring the rot down there, pretending it wasn’t all that bad, pretending it would go away one day. But rot doesn’t go away on its own. You’ve got to face it, and face the fact that you’ve let it grow.
It’s time to get down in there and clean up this sport once and for all. Or, like a house with a rotted foundation, it’ll one day collapse. And all we’ll be left with is the knowledge we could have fixed it when we had the chance.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Find him online at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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