NASCAR's decision to ban the Confederate flag from its races and venues grabbed headlines and stars like actress Reese Witherspoon and New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara were quick to praise the stock car series for ridding itself of a symbol long associated with slavery and racism.
Now comes the tricky part.
In a matter of days, NASCAR will be faced with a daunting question: How to enforce the ban at its sprawling, rowdy tracks once fans are allowed back in and campers start setting up their RVs for race weekends? Approximately 1,000 members of the military will be allowed into Sunday's race near Miami and become the first fans at a NASCAR event since the pandemic shut down sports in March.
The enforcement question is much more likely to be an issue when the series holds races June 20-21 at Talladega, Alabama, where up to 5,000 fans are expected to be allowed in. Flags are a common sight at the superspeedway in the heart of NASCAR's Southern base.
“That will certainly be a challenge. We’ll try to do that the right way,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM on Thursday. “We’ll get ahead of it as we are today in letting people know that, ‘Hey, we’re all about pride, we’re all about America, fly your U.S. flag high, fly your drivers flags high and come on into the track.’ But if we see something displayed at the track, we’re going to have react, and we will. More details to come but I’m confident we’ll do that and we’ll do that in a smart way.”
Fellow drivers were quick to credit Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s lone black driver, for pushing NASCAR to enact the ban. Years of bad press and hand-wringing over the fate of the flag evaporated within 48 hours once Wallace publicly condemned the relic of racing’s good ol’ boy roots.
“I’ve seen too many comments and too many stories from first-time fans that come to a race in years past and the first thing they say, ‘I’ve seen the Confederate flag flying and it made me feel uncomfortable,’” Wallace told the “Today” show. “We shouldn’t have anybody feeling uncomfortable.”
Wallace finished 11th at Martinsville on Wednesday night, hours after the ban was announced, driving a Black Lives Matter paint scheme with “Compassion, Love, Understanding” emblazoned on the hood.
“It was really cool to see what Bubba was able to do,” 2018 NASCAR champion Joey Logano said. “He should be proud of the movement he’s made for the African-American community in our sport. He always has just by being here, but when you look at the comments he made on CNN the other day and then NASCAR completely answered it. Kudos to NASCAR. Kudos to Bubba for bringing it up and using his platform for something good.”
There were, of course, fans furious at the decision, howling on social media that their rights are being been trampled on and they would continue to wave the stars and bars. NASCAR helmet artist Jason Beam, who paints designs for Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and other star drivers, tweeted that he did not support “erasing only particular elements of history” to please a particular audience.
Wallace ripped Beam on social media, tweeting: “ You made it clear of where you stand in today’s matter. All respect lost for ya dawg.”
Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, also cut ties with BEAMdesigns.
“Due to recent posts on social media I have decided to end my relationship with Beam Designs,” Johnson tweeted.
For weeks, NASCAR has been the only live U.S. sport on television an ratings are up a tick in this most unusual of seasons. Through the first 11 races, Cup Series racing on FOX/FS1 is averaging a 2.38 share, up 1% over last year’s average of 2.35 out of 44 market averages.
And now comes the publicity surrounding the flag ban.
“As far as the optics, NASCAR didn’t have a choice,” NASCAR historian Dan Pierce said. “I applaud the drivers for standing up. But the cynical person in me, especially when you’re dealing with NASCAR, is, did they get the OK from their sponsors ahead of time or from NASCAR? You have to give them credit for making a stand, which isn’t necessarily popular with a significant portion of their fan base.”