Racing past racism: NASCAR and its haunting historical fanbase

NASCAR’s recent races in California and diversity programs are attempts to expand to a more varied audience. However, to what extent can it out-drag its white-dominant, and for some, racist audience?

A man lounges at the side of a NASCAR Black History Month signage at the NASCAR Fan Fest held in conjunction with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum on Feb 6, 2022. The signage features prominent Black members of the NASCAR Community, including current driver Bubba Wallace .

On June 22, 2020, prior to the NASCAR GEICO 500, hundreds of drivers and crew members pushed Bubba Wallace’s Car No. 43 to the front of the grid in solidarity against what appeared to be a hate crime toward Wallace. A day earlier, a noose was found in his garage right as the ban on Confederate flags at NASCAR races championed by Wallace came into effect.

Never mind the FBI declared that it was not a hate crime and President Trump branded the incident as a hoax, demanding him to apologize to the grid. What mattered was that for a moment, in a white-dominant sport where there are only four minority drivers in a grid of 36, NASCAR came together to support its only Black driver. It was a historic act in defiance of racism. In an act of poetic justice, Wallace would return to the Talladega Speedway in October 2021 to claim his first career win in the Cup Series.

Fast-forward to the inaugural Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in South Los Angeles in February, home to a population with 61% with Hispanic or Latino origins and 30% as Black (according to a 2017 LA City census). One expected the sport to have taken a step toward inclusivity. Yet what I saw as a photographer in the stands at the Coliseum was NASCAR being held back by its white-dominant audience. At every session Wallace was introduced, I could hear sharp boos and jeers from the audience around me.

A fan jeers as Bubba Wallace sets his qualifying lap on Saturday evening at the LA Memorial Coliseum (Photo by Michael Chow)

When I first heard it from a lone fan (see above) during qualifying on Saturday, I wrote it off as an isolated case. When it was then repeated louder by packed stands on Sunday as Wallace was announced to have made it through last-minute qualifying, and then again as he was introduced for the race, it became a sobering reality that was hard to ignore.

NASCAR’s identity has roots in the Prohibition era, where stock cars carrying moonshine were modified to outrun authorities, giving birth to NASCAR’s rebellious character that attracted many like-minded fans. When the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s did not sit well with people in the Piedmont South, home to NASCAR, flying Confederate flags became a perfect act of defiance for fans and cemented NASCAR’s identity as anti-authority.

In spite of that, Wallace has been an inspiring voice in recent years, successfully getting NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at races. He was also celebrated as part of NASCAR’s booth for Black History Month at the Fan Fest in front of the Coliseum. Yet the continuous jeers from the stands seemed to suggest that NASCAR’s inclusive agenda is disjointed from a particularly vocal and problematic fan base.

Bubba Wallace poses for a sponsorship shoot at the Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. (Photo by Michael Chow)

As a business, NASCAR is obliged to put the pedal to the metal and pull away from its troublesome past to keep up with many other sporting leagues such as Formula 1 and the NBA in attracting a more diverse audience. But as a national cultural phenomenon, it needs to keep up with the changing values of America and ensure the sport is welcoming and safe to people of different faces.

Addressing the boos that Wallace faced at the Coliseum, NASCAR Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Brandon Thompson said “I think it’s not a fair assumption to assume that every fan who’s booing Bubba Wallace is doing so based on the color of his skin. People have booed Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) and Kyle Busch.”

“There’s nothing wrong with booing in and of itself.”

Seven-time Cup Series Champion Earnhardt Sr. was booed for his controversial passes whereas Busch has been the subject of boos due to his controversial driving style as well as his many feuds that earned him his nickname “Rowdy” and cemented his position as “NASCAR’s villain.”It is clear both are being booed for their on-track antics whereas for Wallace, his role in the spotlight as the only Black driver certainly attracts boos for a more malicious reason.

Kyle “Rowdy” Busch racing in the Clash at the Coliseum as the number 18 car. (Photo by Michael Chow)

NASCAR has gradually sought to expand from its predominantly southern, White demographics over the years. After all, advocating diversity is good for business. The Hamilton Commission, created by seven-time Formula 1 world champion and only Black driver in F1′s history Lewis Hamilton, found that the most ethnically diverse companies are 30% more likely to have financial returns above the national average. Just this month, NASCAR has held two races in Southern California — the Clash in Los Angeles as well as the WISE Power 400 in Fontana. Since 2004, NASCAR has had a diversity program for drivers and pit crews named “Drive for Diversity.”

However, it has a long way to go to be truly representative, with less than a handful of minority representation on the Cup Series grid of 36 drivers (Wallace, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez). Thompson cites the achievements of Wallace, Larson (as the 2021 Cup Series Champion) and Suarez as examples of the program’s success over the years.

For the pit crew diversity program, he shares there are “65 Black or Latino graduates of the program on the pit road (across NASCAR’s 3 national championship series that consists of approximately 900 crew positions, with minority crew members working across the sport that were not part of the program).” Prominent team owners of color such as Pitbull and Michael Jordan have been essential to welcoming diverse crews and drivers. Off-track in administrative positions, NASCAR’s diversity internship program has also reportedly brought in 450 students in its over 20-year history.

Objectively, the needle is shifting slowly but surely for NASCAR, with the proportion of fans who identify as people of color increasing from 20% in 2011 to 23% in 2021. While progress is gradual, Thompson remains hopeful of NASCAR’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“We are approaching our DEI efforts as a journey,” Thompson said. “It’s not some place where you reach a goal and say ‘OK we’re going to stop’. So we know and recognize that we’ve still got some ground to make up in this regard, but we are happy with the growth that we’ve seen.”

A fan watches the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum on Feb 5 2022.

George Floyd’s murder alongside Wallace’s stoic activism has pushed NASCAR to accelerate diversity-related actions. When asked about how NASCAR has been not just pro-diversity but also anti-racist, Thompson invoked NASCAR director Steve Phelps’ condemnation of racism in 2020 prior to a race in Atlanta as well as the banning of the Confederate flag, assuring that “NASCAR stands on the side of anti-racism.”

USC Race and Equity Center Strategic Director Richard Nassar said from the perspective of an “outsider looking in, NASCAR is suffering from its reputation” where its image has been associated with “beer, trucker hats and Confederate flags.”

“Any conversation of changing this image of NASCAR is seen by their core fans as an attempt to change them personally,” Nassar said.

Indeed in the aftermath of the ban on Confederate flags at the 2020 NASCAR GEICO 500, vendors sold the flag outside the track and a plane flew over with a streamer of the flag and a call to “Defund NASCAR” in an obvious refusal to comply with NASCAR’s call.

Despite being a self-proclaimed motorsports fan (specifically Formula 1) and having free tickets to the Clash right next to USC, Nassar bluntly admitted he intentionally passed up on the opportunity.

“I don’t want to go there to be made uncomfortable or see something that I don’t want to see,” he said. While it is not a zero-sum game between earning money from a problematic audience versus a more diverse audience, NASCAR needs to do more to assure a welcoming environment for audiences of color.

“I don’t think you can stop fans from booing,” Nassar admits. “They show up, they boo who they want to boo.” This is especially the case in motorsports, where engines roar against a crowd of 90,000 or more, compared to basketball, where organizers ejected two fans from an NBA game after they shouted death wishes for LeBron James’ son toward the Lakers star.

With audience-centered control strategies left as a last resort (seen with the Confederate flag ban), what more can NASCAR do?

“I think it starts with representation and education,” Nassar said. “It’s the responsibility of NASCAR to promote DEI and to be anti-racist. It can’t just be a message. You need to be explicit about racism in the crowds. It’s going to take a lot of events, programming and getting involved in communities that you don’t usually go to.”

As a start, Nassar complimented NASCAR’s partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of America where students in the community have the opportunity to view the behind-the-scenes of NASCAR. In the program, they learn more about the sport, career development and workforce readiness, particularly aimed toward students interested in engineering and motorsports.

“I think that’s the generation that we really need to educate,” Nassar said. “You put them in a car and take them around in a lap — at their age, you’re introducing something they fall in love with. They don’t see the politics. They just fall in love with it.” This hopefully is the pipeline for a new diverse generation of fans.

Martin Flugger (Far right), NASCAR vice president of engineering services, design and development, shares the engineering and math involved in building the track at the LA Memorial Coliseum with students from the Boys and Girls Club at Carson on Jan. 15, 2022. The club at Carson was the first club to go on a NASCAR tour as part of the collaboration in 2022. (Photo by Michael Chow)

But it is a difficult chicken-egg cycle between both audience and on-track representation that NASCAR has to break.

“It is both the fact that NASCAR cannot pull a diverse audience because there is a lack of driver representation, as well as the fact that drivers, engineers do not want to join because of a hostile culture and audience,” Nassar said. “It’s a feeling of loneliness and potential hostility historically that why would I want to bring myself to experience?”

NASCAR, however, appears to stand against bigoted fans in their messaging.

“We’re not going to allow the vocal minority to dictate anything that we are or aren’t doing,” Thompson said. “We are OK leaving those fans behind if they are not on the side of making our sport as welcoming and inclusive as it can be.”

Nassar is more skeptical.

“In this day and age, we have too much access to know when an organization is pretending to be inclusive when you’re not,” Nassar said. “Because we see it. Just look around, look at the crowd, look at the drivers.”

While Thompson shares his desired vision for NASCAR’s DEI efforts as ultimately “being a part of NASCAR’s culture and an everyday credo that NASCAR operates with, where (diversity) is not a shock anymore,” Nassar was blunt in how he would evaluate NASCAR’s success as an audience member.

“The mission isn’t accomplished until what NASCAR does is not just performative, and I feel like I could just go and enjoy the race and not have to deal with anything,” Nassar said. “Until then, I will not be going to a NASCAR race.”