by Julian Spivey
NASCAR did things a bit differently at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga. on Sunday (June 7). The race itself didn’t look any different than it has since returning from a multiple month Covid-19 hiatus as the series competed without fans in attendance and Kevin Harvick dominated the race for his second Cup Series win of the season. But the broadcast and start of the race certainly was different than fans are accustomed to and it was a much-needed, but also divisive way to begin things at Atlanta.
For much of the past two weeks our nation has seen protests against police brutality after Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin killed an African-American man George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes. Video of this incident, along with a spate of other racial killings and the killing of black people by police, has led to calls for police reform and a movement to remind the country and the world that black lives matter.
Fox Sports began its race telecast on Sunday by airing an emotional video that Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., the only active African-American driver in the Cup Series, shared earlier in the week about current events in the country that led into broadcaster and former four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon sharing his thoughts on the matter by saying, “We are listening, we are learning, we are ready change.” While standing on pit road before the race Wallace wore a T-shirt that said: “I Can’t Breathe. Black Lives Matter.”
NASCAR held its weekly invocation; the National Anthem was performed and the drivers were told to start their engines. The 40-car field took its pace laps, but with one pace lap to go before the field took the green flag to start the race something unprecedented happened. The pace car brought the field to a halt right at the track’s start-finish line, the crew members of all the teams lined up against the pit road wall and Steve Phelps, the President of NASCAR addressed the drivers and the viewing audience at home (something I’ve never seen in my 20 years watching this sport).
Phelps said: “Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard. The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”
At the end of the statement the network rolled a video featuring nearly every driver in the race’s field talking about how it’s time for everybody to listen and do better for those in the black community.
Once Phelps’ statement ended and the field continued back on its final pace lap before the start the Fox Sports camera panned to a black NASCAR official who had taken a knee on pit road during the statement paying tribute to other protestors, like former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who had protested police brutality by doing the same.
This is an important moment in the history of NASCAR, a sport whose fan-base is almost certainly on the conservative majority side. It was an important step to take for the sport to go into the future. However, it was a moment that was certainly divisive among its fanbase as a search of the word ‘NASCAR’ on Twitter would show in the moments and even hours after the statements by NASCAR, its drivers, Gordon and Fox Sports and Wallace.
Seeing a chunk (though you can’t tell what percentage of the fanbase was happy or angry with the statements simply by perusing social media) of angry NASCAR fans claiming that they would never watch the sport again was not surprising to me as someone who’s followed the sport for two decades. It once again made me angry that so many who claim to be fans of the sport could be so misguided, ignorant and racist. But it also made me hopeful that their statements of “I’ll never watch the sport again” might possibly be true, because the sport doesn’t need racist and ignorant fans and if this step into the future rids NASCAR of these deplorables than it’s a win-win.
The aspect of so many of those complaining that truly threw me for a loop was how many accused the sport of being political. This bugs me for two main reasons. The first being that equality and black lives mattering are not political issues. They are humanity issues. The second thing that really bugged me about folks accusing the sport of being political and saying they’d never watch NASCAR again is these are the same fans who’ve been watching races this season after President Donald Trump attended and spoke before the season-opening Daytona 500 this year. So, the President, the leading political figure in the country isn’t NASCAR being political, but standing up for the basic human rights of an entire race of people somehow is?
Some fans had well-intentioned questions about whether or not NASCAR will continue to support the movement of equality for all and against police brutality, and one Twitter user who goes by the screen name @RunAloneRunner brought up the reasonable point that “NASCAR doesn’t so this with fans in the stands” saying the sport took advantage of its largely conservative fanbase not being in attendance due to the sport’s current Covid-19 restrictions. I would hope NASCAR would’ve had the courage to do it regardless, even if the crowd’s reaction might have given the sport a huge blackeye on live television in response (or possibly the crowd could’ve roared and cheered in agreement), but I guess due to Covid-19 we’ll never truly know. Either way I was proud of NASCAR and its drivers today for standing up for what’s right.
If the sport ends up losing fans over this I say, “good riddance.” The sport and the world will be better off without them in the long run.