Flat Spot On: NASCAR’s Chance to ‘Walk the Walk’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 18 2020

Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace and the Black Lives Matter car.

By Jonathan Ingram
Senior Writer | RacinToday.com

In the late fall of 1971, a time that now seems so long ago, I was riding back to college with friends from Washington, D.C., headed for North Carolina. Shortly after leaving Richmond, Va., we lost the radio signal from the broadcast of our NFL team’s Sunday afternoon game. We were bummed out, because Washington had suddenly become a respectable outfit under “The Future is Now” regime of head coach George Allen. We then came across one last, desolate little toll booth in the pine-studded forests just past Petersburg, Va., where a solo operator collected a dime from each car passing on the newly built I-85.

After rolling to a stop, we heard a radio inside the toll booth and asked the operator if he had a score on the Washington game? “I’m listening to the stock car races,” came the reply. “White folks’ sport.” Delivered to a carload of white teenagers, the older gentleman’s face held a condescending and not all together friendly smile.

A few years later, I found myself covering the sport of “white folks” as a reporter for the Durham Morning Herald. After a stint as a utility infielder on the Duke baseball team ended with a broken shoulder, I started covering sports for the school newspaper, then took a job as a sportswriter at the local newspaper following graduation in 1976. My new editors sent me stock car racing, which I volunteered for instead of golf. My decision was influenced, in part, by my experience accompanying my older brothers to stock car races at the short track in Beltsville, Md., as well as an article I had recently read in Sports Illustrated on Richard Petty by Robert F. Jones. I had also been intrigued by Tom Wolfe’s landmark rendering “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”

At a race known as “The Granddaddy of Them All,” I was blown away by the passion of the fans at the Darlington Raceway and the running of the Southern 500, the first professional race I covered shortly after being hired. David Pearson clinched NASCAR’s so-called “Triple Crown” in the Wood Brothers Mercury about 24 hours after I’d first talked to him in the parking lot of the Sheraton Swamp Fox Inn, an impromptu interview that started by knocking on his motel room door. In addition to the redoubtable Pearson, how he handled himself, his driving and the challenges presented by 500 miles at Darlington on a hot, muggy Labor Day, I was impressed by the fact Jimmy Carter chose to launch his 1976 presidential campaign before the race with a “straightaway side” chat after delivering a speech that same morning in Warm Springs, Ga., at the so-called Little White House of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Buddy Baker was the winner of the 1970 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

I have been writing about NASCAR, as well as covering short tracks, sports cars, Indy cars, drag racing and Formula 1 ever since that first assignment. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit part of my initial fascination with covering NASCAR races in the Southeast for the Durham paper was its clear standing as a unique sports culture dominated by white working-class fans and Southern ways. Both of my parents spent their early days on farms in the South before migrating to Washington during World War II and all my aunts, uncles and first cousins lived in the South. I felt a kinship and liked the idea of writing about a sport that represented southerners from Scots-Irish, German and English extraction, including heroes like Johnson, Pearson, Petty and soon enough Dale Earnhardt. 

Starting with that first race at Darlington, it was clear black fans were not welcome. When I arrived, a sea of Confederate flags waved amidst the cordite-flavored smoke from firecrackers and rock music from a band on flatbed truck in the sprawling parking lot across the four-lane highway from the track. The Sunday before Labor Day was an off day for track activity and an opportunity for fans to revel. Square-shouldered South Carolina State Troopers dressed in crisp khaki stood every 15 yards along the yellow center line of the highway behind the main grandstand, but their role seemed more ceremonial as a steady stream of fans trundled and staggered back and forth, drinking beer, dodging the slow-moving traffic and firecrackers thrown by those sitting next to coolers in lawn chairs in the back of pick-up trucks parked alongside the highway. 

When I look back now, I’m ashamed that the prevalence of Confederate flags at Darlington didn’t bother me more or the absence of black fans such as those I’d seen regularly while at Washington Senators games. Black Americans had been an important and decisive part of my life from the time I was 14 years old. As a result of my experiences, I continue to feel a kinship to black people, because some experiences, such as holding a dying man’s hand when you can hear his death rattle from kidney disease, transcend all.

I did have a sense of being in foreign territory, if not a war zone on that first trip to Darlington, where my values were not necessarily shared, which I found alternatingly intimidating and exciting. Because I found this form of competition and its participants so compelling to report on (and a challenge due to the presence of cars and major corporate sponsors), I wanted to know more about stock car racing and the people in it. 

From the beginning of my career, the “white folks” world of NASCAR seemed to me to come in two parts, like the American electorate in general. One faction appreciated a Democratic presidential candidate from the South, and another faction was just as likely to dismiss him. In his easy south-Georgia drawl, Carter promised that if elected he would “invite all these drivers and their beautiful cars to the White House where they belong.” Two years later, he made good on that promise.

Carter was followed by speeches from South Carolina Senator and renowned “Dixiecrat” Strom Thurmond and Republican vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole. The political tradition at Darlington, I later discovered, started in 1968 with Alabama governor and third-party presidential candidate George Wallace, when his presence at the track prior to the Southern 500 was meant to rouse segregationist fervor. 

In any political climate, there have always been those NASCAR fans who don’t give a damn. The day of speechifying at my first Southern 500 ended with this benediction from the PA announcer. “We want all you people to enjoy today’s race,” he intoned, “get plenty of sunshine, eat lots of fried chicken, drink lots of beer and come back next year when all these politicians ain’t here.”

Bill Elliott became “Million Dollar Bill” at the 1985 Southern 500 at Darlington. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Fast forward 44 years and my perception of NASCAR crowds at tracks in the South has not changed significantly from that first race at Darlington. They continue to be a cross-section of predominantly working-class whites and those who have worked their way into management without a college degree. They likely represent a cross-section of the broader white working class that is 40 percent of the American population.

Historically there are about 39 percent of voters in the white working class who either vote or lean toward the Democratic Party. This was certainly the case among southerners if a candidate was from the South like Carter or Bill Clinton, both of whom received a warm welcome from enthusiastic followers at Darlington. There are now a majority of 50 percent of the white working class who either vote or lean toward Republican presidential candidates, especially since the Reagan revolution in the 1980s, including a trip to the Daytona International Speedway by President Ronald Reagan, where he saw Petty win his 200th race. The remaining 10 percent of white working-class voters are independent.

I suspect the NASCAR fans who vote for Democratic presidential candidates favor the values of their party, which hold that white people have an advantage in American life when compared to blacks. Those who vote Republican probably share their party’s view that individual effort and values are more important to success than one’s background or skin color. There’s little doubt that it’s not always about political philosophies and that some of these Democrats or Republicans are bigots who believe black people are inferior to whites. What percentage hold such beliefs is not clear — how to you poll for such things and who openly admits to it?  

NASCAR races, particularly the infield, have always been a place for transgressive behavior, often manifested by Confederate flags. The first time I saw a sea of these battle flags at Darlington, I didn’t connect them to the previous decade of the 1960s as much as something I’d see on occasion around the South. But as we now know, after the Civil Rights movement these flags were recast as a symbol of resistance to the federal government’s move toward equality for black Americans, including the enforcement of voting rights in Southern states. 

NASCAR in its earliest days of bootleggers like Johnson wrought the image of a unique sport, one viewed in some quarters as a caricature more like Al Capp’s comic strip Li’l Abner, a satire on hillbillies, than Wolfe’s “Last American Hero.” If there was prejudice against blacks at the stock car races, it could work both ways. “Can stock car racing fans read?” That was a hurtful question I’ve heard far too often. In this sense, white stock car racing fans also suffered a prejudiced view based on working with their hands or not having a college degree and are too often presumed to be ignorant or racist by those in the upper middle-class. Such disdain gives credence to the world view of many working-class whites that they have been disenfranchised from their traditional role as stalwarts in the pursuit of the American dream.

Once I started covering stock car racing, an inescapable conclusion arrived that the sport had a national following and was hardly confined to the South.  The Cup Series of NASCAR held races in California, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The popularity of stock car racing on short tracks across the country, I quickly learned, further underscored that the sport had a broad appeal. Celebrated short tracks spanned the U.S., from the Evergreen Speedway in Washington to the Thunder Bowl in Barre, Vt., from Wisconsin’s Slinger Speedway to the Corpus Christi Speedway in Texas. This suggested the sport had a class appeal, which should, theoretically, have included more black Americans, who were predominantly working class. 

Because Durham was relatively close to Danville, Va., the story of a black bootlegger who raced in NASCAR during the 1960s, a decade largely marked by segregation, was inescapable. Wendell Scott shared all the same racing goals and racing values as his white counterparts and eventually proved it by winning a race in Jacksonville, Fla. in 1964, one that notoriously brought out a vehemently racist response from some of his competitors, who could not tolerate being beaten by a black man.

Wendell Scott was an early black driver in NASCAR. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

Those outside the sport have historically held up the example of Scott to prove that NASCAR was a racist operation. But this doesn’t fully explain how he managed to win a race run under the NASCAR rulebook with the sanctioning body’s officials in charge. The officials initially handed the trophy to another driver, before being overruled on Monday morning by NASCAR’s ownership in Daytona Beach, which had the official scoring and did not have an angry group of white competitors in front of them insisting the trophy go to a white man.

NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. cannily understood the fundamental appeal of stock car racing beyond the universally compelling honor of getting to the finish first by being the smartest mechanic, the fastest and bravest driver.  At its core, stock car racing became the powerful suggestion of an American dream. A farmer, mechanic, lumberjack, plumber, mill worker, bootlegger or oil field roughneck could find freedom and independence from the workaday world in a relatively affordable stock car. To beat the status quo, you didn’t need to be hailed by scouts at a young age or go to college, which made the stock car racing, in many respects, far more universal than America’s other home-grown sports of football, basketball and baseball.

Before the opening of the high-banked, Daytona International Speedway in 1959 became the ace that defeated his rivals, France Sr. faced stiff competition from other race promoters such as Ed Otto in the Northeast, Bill Barkheimer on the West Coast, Johnny Marcum in the Midwest, John Caveness and Bruton Smith in the Southeast. This pursuit of stock car racing by numerous promoters throughout the 1950s further confirmed the sport’s longstanding appeal to working class Americans all over the country. Eventually, Otto and Barkheimer became partners with France, who was the first to see the possibilities of a national stock car racing series. Marcum’s ARCA series survived long enough to be acquired by NASCAR, and Bruton Smith became one of NASCAR’s biggest promoters. 

Cup driver Bubba Wallace in pits at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

From its very earliest days, stock car racing has been pursued by black Americans. Dewey Gadsen, a black competitor respected by his peers who claimed to be Portuguese and went by the name of Rajo Jack to calm racial tensions, won the 200-mile stock car race at Mines Field in Los Angeles in 1936, a story typical of the self-reliance and opportunity represented by stock car racing and its low barrier to entry compared to the more expensive Indy cars. (The Mines Field track, located at the present site of the Los Angeles International Airport, was the inspiration behind the decision by the city fathers of Daytona Beach to try stock car racing on their local sands after speed record attempts proved too dangerous and were moved by participants to Bonneville’s Salt Flats. That decision eventually enabled France, who drove in the inaugural Beach & Road Course races in Daytona, to launch his promoting career.)

Other evidence of stock car racing’s universal appeal within the working class was the presence of an African-American circuit in Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s. As reported by Rick Minter, a longtime writer on the subject of stock car racing, the Atlanta Stock Car Club circuit was formed by blacks who were barred from racing with whites or who suffered racism even if they were able to race with white drivers at local tracks.

Once it became the dominant force in stock car racing, NASCAR remained segregated well past the Civil Rights era. NASCAR’s owners, always concerned about federal intervention in their privately owned sport, did nothing overt other than France’s very public friendship with Alabama’s Wallace. (The concern about federal intervention helps explain why Scott’s victory was upheld.) Over the long haul, the Frances, including second and third generation leaders, have been far slower than Major League Baseball team owners ever were to recognize the opportunity for a broader base of competitors and fans if blacks were participating.

Until its Driver for Diversity (D4D) began, NASCAR’s ownership largely looked the other way on the subject of racial prejudice unless events became public – such as the race in Jacksonville. (The n-word was an occasional, but regular occurrence in the NASCAR garage through the 1990s.) A de facto segregation was kept in place within the fraternity in the garage that pursued the sport. On the other hand, Scott succeeded due to being accepted by the majority of participants when it came to opportunities to buy used parts from the bigger teams, for example, or temporary assistance from other competitors due to racing’s all-too-frequent misfortunes.

Johnson, for one, fully endorsed Scott, one of a cadre of independent drivers who drove the car he owned. “I thought he was a great person,” said Johnson during his team ownership days in the 1990s. “His lifestyle was not to hurt anybody, not to do anything to make anybody mad, to help everybody he could. If you were in his shoes to go through what he went through, you’d have to take your hat off to him. A lot of people resented him at that time, attitude and stuff. It didn’t make any difference. He just went and did his thing the best he could.” 

Driver Kyle Weatherman drove the Blue Lives Matter car last weekend.

When the $2.4 billion TV contract with three major networks arrived in 2001 and crowds were boosted by the death of Dale Earnhardt and subsequent publicity, NASCAR found itself on the verge of major league status. In my view, the Driver for Diversity (D4D) arrived shortly afterward in 2004 as a program to placate car manufacturers who recognized minorities as employees and car buyers, to continue to protect against federal intervention, which could also apply to discrimination toward women or Hispanics, and to sustain recognition as America’s fifth major league. It was pushed in part by Brad Daugherty, a black All-American basketball star at the University of North Carolina and NBA all-star who had parlayed a lifelong love of stock car racing into a NASCAR team co-ownership. While playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Daugherty wore a jersey numbered 43, the car number of his hero Petty. 

The sanctioning body stepped up publicly when Bill Lester became the first black driver in 20 years to compete in the Cup series at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2006.  But Lester continued to deal with the n-word from fans at the track and the “stars-and-bars” flags, clearly confirming that a segment of NASCAR fans did not like seeing him at the track, much less behind the wheel.

Since 2008, NASCAR has struggled with issues far bigger than federal intervention. The Great Recession decimated its fan base, particularly older, longstanding NASCAR fans. These older, lapsed fans have taken exception to the current crop of drivers who do not come from working class backgrounds and whose fathers financed their rise through the racing ranks. These same older fans have objected to the change by NASCAR to a stage racing format and end-of-season Playoffs, which mimic other major leagues’ postseasons that promise a more exciting, unpredictable finish to the season for fans and TV partners.

What about the response to D4D by longstanding fans or participants? In 2005, I worked with the committee in Atlanta that proposed building the NASCAR Hall of Fame near Centennial Park in downtown. At that time, some retired racers in the Atlanta area not associated with this committee referred to Atlanta as “n-town,” a remark passed along to me during the Hall of Fame process that I did not hear directly. It is consistent with stories of racist antagonism toward blacks at the old Peach Bowl short track near downtown that operated in the 1950s and 1960s.

NASCAR veteran Bill Lester.

Since the launch of D4D, NASCAR has struggled with “walking the walk” on the issue of diversity when it comes to black Americans. After the arrival of Lester, promoter Smith, owner of tracks hosting 12 Cup events, openly suggested the sport was not ready for black fans in the grandstands. While the make-up of NASCAR officials now includes blacks, a current survey of pit crews on race day turns up precious few among the 40 or so teams that compete regularly.

The recent arrival of Bubba Wallace at Richard Petty Motorsports in the premier Cup series as a graduate of the D4D program (who also had financial help from his father) has been a major turning point. I believe team owner and seven-time champion Richard Petty represents the majority of NASCAR fans and participants who are glad to see a black driver who can, in the vernacular, “cut the mustard.” It was Wallace, currently in his sophomore season of Cup competition after posting wins or poles in the Truck and Xfinity series, who called for the removal of the Confederate flags that have plagued him. These same flags stand in the way of potential black fans and have always aggravated participants such as Daugherty, Lester, who raced in NASCAR’s Truck Series for six seasons and two Cup races, or Willy T. Ribbs, an accomplished road racer who tried unsuccessfully to transition into NASCAR. 

Anecdotally, it’s clear that many in the stick-and-ball world, especially decision-makers in the media, continue to view NASCAR as not necessarily major league. As soon as NASCAR began having ratings trouble, for example, newspaper sports editors nationwide ceased assigning beat writers. It’s an old bias, because the sport involves machines and does not involve colleges. It may even reflect disdain for white working-class Americans, whom Hillary Clinton referred to as “deplorables” during her 2016 campaign.

The dissing of stock car racing as a sport largely disappeared in the midst of large crowds and impressive network television ratings from 2001 until 2008. But now that those elements are in decline, NASCAR’s standing as a major league sport again suffers doubt. This may have something to do with NASCAR’s decision to ban Confederate flags. In the context of being the first major sport to return to competition, such a move helps further boost NASCAR’s standing.

NASCAR has suffered unfairly from a tendency by too many Americans to believe that white working-class individuals, particularly those in the South, are usually racist and are currently on the wrong side of history. But if racism is about a bias against people of another color simply because of their color as symbolized by Confederate flags, it’s a problem to be found in all strata of American life and all regions of the country, as sadly confirmed by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

If a black driver becomes victorious, it would exemplify the values about work and responsibility held so dear by the vast majority of Americans from all backgrounds, no differently than Wendell Scott’s victory more than half a century ago. Yet, these values of hard work and individual responsibility have long been displayed by black athletes—Daugherty, for example—in other sports without changing the attitude of some whites, who fail to recognize the shared core of American values found in the black community. For that, I am dismayed, sad and sometimes angry.

Five years after asking fans to stop flying them, I am glad to see NASCAR ban flags that have come to represent racial bias, not to mention the slavery that spawned the Civil War. It’s a chance for the stock car racing’s biggest sanctioning body to “walk the walk” and not just claim to be major league. It’s a chance for fans who love stock car racing to confirm it’s a sport that represents all of America and its mutually held values.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: “Winning in Reverse,” a motivational memoir by Bill Lester written with Jonathan Ingram, is scheduled for release by Pegasus Books in February of 2021. Ingram’s current book, “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing,” examines motor racing’s safety revolution.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 18 2020
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