Confederate flags put NASCAR in difficult position
The Brickyard 400 is NASCAR’s fourth race since making a statement on the Confederate flag.
The NASCAR of today is an image-conscious sports business looking to broaden its fan base and appeal to a wide array of corporate sponsors. But as a signature sport of the South, NASCAR, for many, will likely forever be associated with a culture rooted in the days of moonshine running, hard-charging, paint-swapping good ole boys and, yes, the Confederate flag. The extent to which those two worlds co-exist — or perhaps collide — has been a story that has played out race after race, track after track ever since NASCAR earlier this month implored its fans and race venues to not display the flag.
Some NASCAR fans have been compliant, but others have been defiant. The flag has been proudly displayed by fans at subsequent races in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Sparta, Ky.; and Loudon, N.H. Now it’s Indianapolis’ turn. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home for Sunday’s Brickyard 400, is among the tracks that signed on to NASCAR’s request to not display the flag.
“The NASCAR community was asking its fans to consider not bringing the Confederate flag to its events,” IMS President Doug Boles said. “As a track that hosts a NASCAR race, we signed to be supportive of NASCAR and the spirit of the statement.”
Besides, Boles said, “We’ve never really had a Confederate flag issue” at IMS.
Then again, this Brickyard is happening at a time unlike any other, where racial politics are so front and center — and with some fans seeing NASCAR’s request as an example of political correctness run amok, at best, and, at worst, a sign of the sport wanting to distance itself not only from its past but perhaps also from some of its most die-hard Dixie fans. Florida State University professor Josh Newman, co-author of “Sport, Spectacle and NASCAR Nation,” said he was surprised by NASCAR’s announcement.
“I believe this was the most significant step toward inclusivity NASCAR officials have taken in decades,” Newman said.
Although NASCAR has for years banned the flag from cars and officially sanctioned merchandise, Newman said the public request “strikes at the heart” of two core values fans have held for decades. One is a free-wheeling, libertarian spirit. The other is “neo-Confederate” identity as part of the fan experience. Newman, who spent five years researching NASCAR culture, said that for many people flying the flag, it means Southern “heritage, simpler times, states’ rights.” For others, it is unabashedly racist. Either way, it creates “symbolic boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘insider’ and ‘outsider.’ “
That’s bad for business.
Exclusion, real or perceived, is a problem for NASCAR, a sport that has had marked declines in ticket sales and attendance over the past 10 years.
NASCAR fans are known for their brand loyalty, which advertisers love. But especially after recent events, companies such as Wal-Mart and Amazon have distanced themselves from the Confederate flag. Many NASCAR fans don’t take those moves lightly. “Rebellion runs deep in NASCAR’s soul,” Jay Busbee, author of the upcoming book “Earnhardt Nation,” wrote on Yahoo Sports. “NASCAR’s earliest drivers were bootleggers, and its earliest fans were only a generation or two removed from Confederate soldiers. The rebel flag was a pervasive NASCAR image for decades, used even as a promotional tool for the sport.”
An online search turns up programs featuring the Confederate flag on the cover from races in the 1970s with names such as the Southern 500, the Rebel 500 and the Dixie 500. On a message board, a fan upset with NASCAR’s position on the Confederate flag posted photos of Frank “Rebel” Mundy, a driver from the 1950s who had the flag painted on the side of his car. “The flag has been around NASCAR since (founder) ‘Big Bill’ France started consolidating racing circuits in the 1940s,” Newman said.
But he said NASCAR has since shifted gears “from seeing the flag as a marketing tool to an obstacle for market expansion.”
NASCAR has had diversity programs for years. It has a web page devoted to it. As far back as 2003, it had a program for about 75 minority high school and college students at what was then called Indianapolis Raceway Park, now Lucas Oil Raceway. In 2005, Brian France, NASCAR’s CEO and grandson of its founder, said on “60 Minutes” on CBS that the Confederate flag is “not a flag I look at with anything favorable.” There’s a business risk in taking that position, which NASCAR hopes will be offset by money coming in from new fans and sponsors.
“I suspect that will not be the case in the short run, and that NASCAR knows this,” Newman said, “which in some ways makes the policy and NASCAR’s actions more laudable.”
NASCAR has raced at IMS since 1994, but Sunday is the first race since the request that fans leave behind their Confederate flags. Boles said IMS would not make an issue out of fans’ clothing if it has the flag because “I’m not going to legislate T-shirts.” He did, however, say that any flag obstructing someone’s view of the race would not be allowed.
IMS owns campgrounds around the track, but a spokesman said there are no plans on “policing them” for Confederate flags. Officially licensed merchandise can’t have the flag on it, but, the spokesman said, “We can’t control what other non-licensed vendors do.” While tracks at other NASCAR races this month had a program where people could exchange their Confederate flag for an American flag or racing team flag, there will be no such program at IMS this weekend. Boles said those programs were not popular, which news accounts confirm.
The Brickyard 400 will be NASCAR’s fourth race since the announcement about the Confederate flag.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Boles said. “I just really don’t believe it’s going to be an issue with our fans. If we get to a point where somebody’s there to cause an issue with it, I’m happy to have a conversation and explain the sensitivities.”
Contact Mark Alesia at (317) 444-6311. Follow him on Twitter: @markalesia.