'We're fighting for change': Bubba Wallace on Nascar and the Confederate flag

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May 8, 2002
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Nascar still has a long way to go on its journey towards inclusion, but its only black driver has helped usher in an extraordinary week of change It would be the height of understatement to say the previous week was hectic for Bubba Wallace. Hunkered inside an infield motor coach at Homestead-Miami Speedway hours before a Nascar Cup series race last Sunday, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver was still struggling for battery life amid a deluge of texts and tweets. “I think everybody was kinda shocked to see LeBron reach out,” Wallace says “I’ve been talking with Alvin Kamara, running back for the Saints. He’s out here for the race today. It’s been pretty cool to have some new support.” Excessive attention is a given for any sports figure who accomplishes a lofty goal. But Wallace, of course, didn’t triumph in a race. No, he appeared on cable news and called on Nascar to ban displays of the Confederate flag; then, barely 48 hours later, he showed up to his next race, in a state that once was home to the seat of the Confederacy, with a Black Lives Matter-themed car. That night his demand for a ban on the flag was met. And though Wallace would finish no better than 11th in that contest, posterity will remember the Nascar statement he won as a sort of Emancipation Proclamation for the sport. That all these dominos could fall in fewer than 72 hours makes Wallace’s Gettysburg moment the fastest three days in stock-car racing history.> We will listen and learn!BlackLivesMattters pic.twitter.com/AYoYdY8IlX> > — Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) June 7, 2020As Wallace tells it, the momentum shift began in Atlanta on the Sunday of 7 June, when Jimmie Johnson corralled Wallace and other star drivers for a goodwill video, so affected was the seven-time Cup champion by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Nascar would drop the video on its social channels. Then, before a race in Atlanta, drivers observed a moment of silence to acknowledge racial injustice in the United States.While Wallace spent that pregnant pause crying inside the cockpit of his No 43 Chevy, an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt clinging tightly to his heaving chest, a black 49-year-old Army veteran turned Nascar official named Kirk Price charged his right fist skyward, dropped to one knee and saluted the flag – an act that some team owners may have considered treasonous three years ago. “And then you had media wanting to get me on and talk,” Wallace says. The following Monday he appeared on CNN and told Nascar to, “Get rid of all Confederate flags.”To be sure, this was a big ask of a sport that cloaks itself in the stars ’n’ bars as heavily as it does the bootlegging mythos of Prohibition – which, at least, lasted more than twice as long as the Confederacy. And despite the best efforts of Nascar’s more progressive-minded executives to distance the sport from the flag and, by extension, the legion of good ol’ boys in the fanbase bedrock over the past decade, there was faint sense that the suits would actually betray their core constituency. But then Wallace’s team announced that his Chevy would be dyed matte black and covered in Black Lives Matter hashtags for last Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville. Come Wednesday morning the mulish paragraph addressing conduct during the national anthem was suddenly nowhere to be found on the pre-race handout, leading to much online murmuring. Then, later that afternoon, those murmurs turned into shrieks. “The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all Nascar events and properties,” said the statement read ‘round the world. When the news broke, Wallace, who was commuting to the track at the time, was hardly caught sideways. “I had sent [Nascar president] Steve Phelps a note before going on CNN about next steps of getting rid of the flag,” he says. “I didn’t have a timeline set in my head. But I think, you know, [that appearance] kind of expedited the process.” Unsurprisingly, Nascar’s long overdue flag ban has not been unanimously cheered. On social media, the sport’s less progressive fans decry political correctness as they threaten to cast off their trucker hats and airbrushed tees. Their nearest on-track delegate – Ray Ciccarelli, a driver so dreadfully obscure I had to look him up to confirm that he does in fact race in the truck series – vowed to quit the sport and liquidate his team assets at year’s end. Kamara was one of a thousand spectators who were allowed inside Homestead-Miami for Sunday’s race. And he couldn’t even tweet about how happy he was to be there without being called the n-word by some white thug with a keyboard.As Wallace and I spoke earlier that day – Flag Day, as it happened – a driver named Kyle Weatherman was bringing up the rear of an Xfinity race in his own black-clad Chevy hash-tagged with the phrase “Back the Blue”. “Geez, I just had a conversation with him last night about it,” Wallace says. “He was worked up about it. He reached out, wanted to talk and was just like, ‘Man, I have an uncle that’s a firefighter, and I was just trying to show support that we’re all in this together, and the frontline workers are important to me.’“I’m like, ‘Yeah, I get that. I understand where you’re head’s at. But the Back the Blue message makes it seem like you’re standing on the side of racial inequality, which is the exact opposite of what we’re fighting for – change.’”And lest this exchange not suffice as proof that Nascar’s ban is just the beginning of its reckoning with race and not the happy ending, remember: there’s still no clear protocol on how the ban will be executed, let alone what constitutes a Confederate flag. (A bikini top? A tent? An Ole Miss shirt?) Also: Nascar has yet to truly atone for its original sin: screwing its first black driver, Wendell Scott, out of celebrating the lone career victory of his much-contested 13-year career.Still: as swiftly as change has arrived at the Nascar track, the nation at large remains stuck in a loop. In the week since the ban came down, we’ve seen, among other headlines, yet another black man shot in the back by police, others hanging lifeless from trees, and a prominent teenage Black Lives Matter activist go missing after sharing descriptions of a sexual assault only to later be found dead. These are the people for whom Wallace speaks.Clearly, Nascar has a long way to go on its journey toward mass inclusion. At least now, thanks to Wallace, it can say it is on the right path. Finally.

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