Opinion: Soon we'll see what's more important to NASCAR fans: The racing or racism

Dan Wolken

In 1997, then-Ole Miss football coach Tommy Tuberville told fans of his program something many of them didn’t want to hear: The presence of the Confederate flag inside the stadium, at tailgates and woven all through the iconography of the program was killing its ability to recruit.  

So Ole Miss fans did what any reasonable group of people would do: After some initial resistance, they dumped the flag, moved on with their lives and enjoyed game days as much as ever. 

You’d like to think NASCAR fans will take the same route to the 21st century after the organization announced Wednesday that displays of the flag “will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.” 

So pretty soon we’ll learn what matters more to NASCAR fans: The racing or the racism? 

In the complex world we live in, things are rarely that simple. But this one is. 

You can argue that NASCAR’s move to ban the “stars and bars” will only cause more rebellion among those who build their weekends around showing up at the racetrack, that the ban will be impossible to enforce given the expansive grandstands and the tens of thousands who park their RVs on the infield. Many will say NASCAR’s good intentions are doomed to fail. 

A general view of an American flag flying above a Confederate and President Trump flag in front of the main grandstands during the Fircracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway.

But that lets fans who cling to their treasonous flag off way too easy. Asking them to choose what’s more important to them — the race or the flag — is not a very high price of admission. 

The only problem with this debate is that it implicates far too many NASCAR fans — almost certainly the majority of them — who don’t give a hoot about the Confederate flag and go to the races because of the competition and the drivers and the sensory overload no other sport can match. 

The Confederate flag has as much to do with what happens on the racetrack as the 150-year-old decomposed body of Robert E. Lee. If that’s why you’re there, if the comfort of flying that flag is what drew you to the racetrack in the first place, go find another safe space. There are plenty of more fulfilling and less expensive weekend hobbies. 

The bottom line for NASCAR — and let’s not give them too much credit for waiting until 2020 to figure this out — is that the country is in the midst of one of the most significant shifts on race that we’ve seen in most of our lifetimes. 

Playing footsie with the Confederate nostalgists isn’t just morally repugnant, it’s a bad business strategy. NASCAR doesn’t have the exact problem Ole Miss had in terms of appealing to black recruits, but the general theory is the same. You can either hitch your brand to racism via that flag or you can reject it. For the vast majority of us, there’s really no in-between.

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All over the country, Confederate monuments are being ripped down by people who understand full well the difference between honoring a failed rebellion against the United States to preserve slavery and putting that history in a museum where it belongs. 

But NASCAR isn’t a museum, it’s a sport. And on race day, it’s a sport that invests more time and pageantry honoring America than anyone.

The people who insist the Confederate flag is an important part of that pageantry are not amplifying the values inherent to American sports, they’re mocking the long road to progress that has once again arrived at a defining, historic moment.

Maybe it’s impossible to force people’s hearts and minds to change by press release. Maybe someone whose life has revolved around the deranged notion that the Confederacy is alive and well rather than a failed coup that ended in disgrace is too far gone at this point to be swayed by sports. 

But if there’s a single person whose main reason for showing up at the track was to fly that flag, they never really cared about NASCAR in the first place. They were only using the sport as a proxy for a culture war that was lost a long time ago.

NASCAR didn’t know how or when it would happen, but the removal of that image was inevitable all the same. Just as it has been in every other facet of American life, any tacit approval or association of a flag that symbolizes slavery is not tolerable unless you care more about the feelings of the racists than the rest of us.

NASCAR is one of the last to make that choice. Now it’s up to the fans to decide what really matters to them. If it’s not the racing, there’s only one other option.