NASCAR’s changes give hope to those who were previously driven away from the sport
For former and current black NASCAR employees, the Confederate flag ban and Bubba Wallace’s statements are steps in the right direction
NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s bold, #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme drew both praise and ire from NASCAR fans last week.
The emergence of the newly-revealed paint scheme made some fans uncomfortable, but nothing would cause a bigger uproar than NASCAR’s announcement that came less than 24 hours later — and two days after Wallace called for the organization to get rid of the Confederate flag. NASCAR’s announcement stating that it would ban the flag sparked criticism from fans in the Deep South — their patriotism rooted in fabric that tells tales of heritage and history for some, and a history of hatred for others.
Bill Lester took in the gravity of NASCAR’s statement. The former NASCAR driver, who debuted in 1999 and remains one of only four black drivers to race in NASCAR’s top series, raced at a time where diversity and inclusion sounded good in theory, but was not prioritized. There was no movement behind Lester and the changes he dreamed of making. There were initiatives at best, but none that fully aligned with the changes Lester would have wanted to see happen.
“There was no awareness during the mid-2000s,” Lester said. “It took a movement, such as Black Lives Matter and the atrocities that have taken place with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor to really get us organized so that we’ve said, ‘enough.’ We’re tired of being tired, we’re tired of the inequality and the disparities and the targeting, the profiling. … Now that there has been such a public outcry, the opportunity was right for NASCAR. For Bubba to do what he did, and for NASCAR to do the right thing, that was something I would’ve loved to seen happen back when I was racing in the mid-2000s, but I was on an island.”
To see Wallace’s bold declaration that black lives indeed matter painted onto his Chevrolet Camaro and the support thrown behind him, Lester was shocked.
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“To see that car was unbelievable to me,” Lester said. “I was just really pleased and it took a lot of backlash from the fans who are the die-hard because they keep thinking that the Black Lives Matter movement excludes them and is divisive. I’ve gone on ad nauseam on social media talking about that not being the case, that it is really a statement about equality and being treated fairly and the whole issue about police brutality. So even though it seems like some of the messaging of the BLM movement is being missed from their side of the fence, I do what I can to bring it to their attention that no, we’re not asking for anything that makes us a black power movement in terms of being superior. No, we’re just asking to be treated equally as Americans.”
Upon finding out that NASCAR would also ban the Confederate flag from races, Lester reflected on his own experiences. He remembers how uncomfortable some environments became as soon as he entered. Looking up to see the Confederate flag caused uneasiness and, to Lester, was a glaring indication that he was not necessarily welcome. Although Lester made a name for himself as the first black driver to win a Grand-Am race, worked his way through the ranks at NASCAR and eventually broke into the sport’s highest level, his achievements did not exempt him from hatred and insults.
“Each driver in succession from Wendell Scott to Willy T. Ribbs to myself to Bubba, has enjoyed the environment to be a little more accommodating than the prior driver. It was difficult for me to be out in those races in the Deep South in those venues where a lot of those fans made it very clear I wasn’t welcome,” Lester said. “I’ve been booed during driver introductions before. It was very clear that as I would pass through the parking lot to get to the racetrack, that fingers pointed and conversations stopped. I’ve heard the N-word murmured. It was a very uncomfortable environment and even though change is in the air, it’s not gonna happen overnight.”
Changes came in rapid succession, causing angst for fans who believed their patriotism was being threatened and others who decided to stop watching NASCAR altogether.
“I hope those that are so opposed and angry about the changes that are taking place stay home,” Lester said. “If you don’t like it, stay home. We’ll find others to replace you. The face of America is changing. The white majority will no longer be the majority in terms of sheer number. They try to hang on to NASCAR with both hands, but they’re losing their grip and they’re getting desperate. And that’s unfortunate that they feel they have to keep it to themselves. It’s not their sport. NASCAR is America’s sport.”
But in the middle of the chaos, there a silver lining. The crack in the NASCAR door that black fans and other fans of color stood behind had now been widened. The goal of NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban was to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans and, in this moment, this was a start.
In an instant, curiosity was piqued. Those who had never watched a full NASCAR race were now ready to tune into the race at Martinsville Speedway, and those who didn’t know NASCAR even had a black driver sent tweets of support to Wallace while, in some cases, simultaneously purchasing his merchandise. Naturally, newcomers had questions, and some veteran fans were beyond happy to help, patiently answering questions through funny exchanges and lighthearted banter.
In a short time, the newly-implemented flag ban had begun to create socially distanced unity.
Brad Daugherty praises NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban
The little changes were all that were needed to catch on and create a miniature social movement across social media platforms. The newly self-proclaimed fans also began to look beyond Wallace and found others in the organization, such as Brehanna Daniels, NASCAR’s first African American female tire changer, as a way to create visibility for other NASCAR employees of color.
“I just released my first set of NASCAR shirts as part of my clothing line and it started getting a lot of attention,” Daniels said. “When people were learning that I was in the sport, they were like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m going to watch NASCAR now.’ The fact that they see Bubba in the Black Lives Matter car, that really did something. People really don’t have any idea or a lot of people really don’t know that there are a few African Americans, minorities in this sport. They’re learning that.”
Daniels is a graduate of Norfolk State University, a historically black university, and entered NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program for pit crew members before making the cut. She has been in the sport for four years now and believes NASCAR’s statement could not have come at a better time.
“I’m glad to be part of NASCAR right now because NASCAR is really changing for the better and I’m glad we’re taking the steps necessary to have a better environment for everyone,” Daniels said. “It’s a real important time right now. We’re getting tired of things not changing. George Floyd didn’t have to go out like that and a lot of people are making it seem like we’re just raging because of the death of George Floyd, but there were many others that went out like that, and it’s just not right. We shouldn’t get treated a certain way because of the color of our skin. We’re getting tired of seeing things swept under the rug when it comes to our own people. So many things are overlooked. At the end of the day, we’re human just like everybody else. The color of our skin should not matter.”
Lester also believes the bold statement by NASCAR is a giant step in the right direction.
“I’ve been a part of NASCAR for about two decades now and while they’ve done programs like Drive for Diversity, they’ve never really made such a strong statement as they did prior to that race,” Lester said. “Not only did they run a video with the drivers talking about equality, but for [NASCAR president] Steve Phelps to make a very strong, pointed statement to the NASCAR fan base indicating that NASCAR believes in inclusion and a welcoming environment for everybody, he made that very clear so that anybody who doubted where NASCAR stands, they couldn’t act like they didn’t know where they stood after that.”
Three years ago, Wallace pinned a tweet to his Twitter page addressing those who may have felt annoyed or downright uncomfortable with the newest driver to enter the highest level in the sport. Not only was Wallace chosen to drive the legendary No. 43 with Richard “The King” Petty’s blessing, but he was the first black driver to race full time on NASCAR’s highest level in 45 years.
“You’re not gonna stop hearing about ‘the black driver’ for years,” Wallace tweeted. “Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey.”
And he turned out to be right. But Wallace could not have anticipated the events that would unfold to thrust him into emerging as one of the strongest black voices in NASCAR, and an advocate in one of the best positions to promote change.
“It’s definitely been a lot,” Wallace said. “It’s mentally taxing. But, it’s that part of the pedestal that you sign up for. It doesn’t say that on the front page, the book of being an athlete or an icon in the sport, it doesn’t say that on the front page of what you’re going to have to go through. It’s just part of it. It’s in the fine print, the underlying print there, that you have to go through. And when you sign up to become something, you’re signing up to become something larger than yourself and representing something more than yourself. And so, it’s part of it.
“I’m learning how to manage that, along with the racing side of things, the on-track things, I have to manage that, as well as manage what’s going on off the track. I would say off the track is a lot more busy and a lot more hectic. … It’s challenging, but I’m learning every step of the way.”