On Sunday afternoon, I sat down to watch the only live sport on TV… NASCAR. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but if there was ever a time to get into stock car racing, maybe it’s during a time when virtually every other league is dormant.
I changed the channel to FOX a few minutes after 3 o’clock expecting to see the first laps in Atlanta, but I got something else.
On the right side of the screen, I saw face-masked drivers with their hands over their hearts. On the left, Keydron Byrant was singing the national anthem from his home in Jacksonville, Fla.
You probably saw Byrant in a viral video singing his original song, “I Just Want To Live.”
Then I saw Bubba Wallace, the only black driver at the top level of NASCAR, sporting an American flag facemask and a t-shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe Black Lives Matter.”
Wallace was not the only one to make a peaceful statement before the race. While Bryant sang the national anthem, NASCAR official Kirk Price took a knee while bowing his head and raising his fist
And after the anthem, NASCAR President, Steve Phelps, spoke to drivers and fans about racial injustice and the need for the sport and the country to “do better.” And while Phelps spoke, a white pit crew member from Wallace’s team held up the driver’s BLM t-shirt.
When Wallace arrived at the top level of NASCAR in 2017, he acknowledged his place as a black man in an overwhelmingly white sport.
That same year, a USA Today story discussed the enduring presence of confederate flags at NASCAR races.
And in April, Wallace addressed comments made by fellow driver, Kyle Larson, who used the n-word in a live iRacing event. Since the race, Larson has been suspended and fired from his team.
In order to address its image as a predominantly white sport, NASCAR started the Drive For Diversity program 16 years ago. The program serves as the sport’s diversity initiative to promote women and people of color to engage in all facets of the NASCAR industry. It is a program that has helped pit crew members like Brehanna Daniels become the first black woman to change tires inside the track. It is also a program that graduated both Wallace and Larson, whose mother is Japanese-American.
Even though Larson is one of three NASCAR drivers to reach the top level of the sport from the Drive For Diversity program, his racist language put NASCAR back in a stereotypical box it has been working to escape for years. It doesn’t take a sociologist, or even a sports blogger, to tell you that NASCAR openly flirts with these sensibilities.
Remember, this is the same sports league that, four months ago, hosted a makeshift parade for President Donald Trump at the Daytona 500.
The beginning of this year’s “Great American Race” looked more like a presidential rally than a NASCAR event.
Daytona’s military flyover and makeshift MAGA celebration lie in stark contrast to the silence and the solidarity exhibited by NASCAR drivers and teams in Atlanta.
NASCAR may think it can present itself in two, completely separate ways. But it can’t call Wallace’s statement “powerful” when it rolls out the red carpet for a president that can never, and likely will never, say “Black Lives Matter.”
Watching the NASCAR pre-race event was like watching Mitt Romney in the Black Lives Matter protest. Both chose sides Sunday. But based on historical precedent, I wouldn’t blame you if you assumed both stances were disingenuous.
Like Romney, NASCAR surprised me. It’s too early to say if the league will stick to its word. But at least it said something. And the drivers took a stand, too.
The steps NASCAR took this weekend are encouraging. But what they do next is what we’ll be watching. Will they “drive for diversity” merely to appeal to socially conscious viewers? Or will NASCAR actually change course?