As the only major team sport in the United States to resume regular action, NASCAR currently holds its biggest platform in quite some time.
What the sport is doing, now that it holds the spotlight, cannot be understated.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps spoke to viewers and competitors during the pace laps of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway to denounce racism and admit that both the sport and country have to do better for the African-American community, a response to the protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. A black NASCAR official who formerly served in the Army knelt on pit road with his fist in the air during both the invocation and national anthem.
On Tuesday, the sanctioning body followed that up with a partnership with You Can Play, an organization "dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and/or gender identity" with programs to support the LGBTQ+ community. Later that night, Bubba Wallace announced he would pilot a No. 43 Chevrolet honoring the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
These actions alone are the most visible actions NASCAR has ever taken to move toward inclusion.
NASCAR’s history of racing cannot be one told without mentioning its ties to racism. In the 1960s, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. endorsed Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was a supporter of segregation. Wendell Scott, the sport’s first black driver, won a NASCAR Cup Series race in 1961 but wasn’t announced the victor until years later.
Stereotypes have surrounded NASCAR’s fan base forever, largely regarded as a Southern, conservative crowd who strongly maintain their values. A racist label has come with those and other stereotypes, accentuated by many fans who don or fly the Confederate flag at the track.
For the sport to so publicly take steps to remove those labels, particularly with a nation longing for justice for its people of color, makes these past three days momentous in NASCAR’s history.
"I think it’s important obviously with what’s going on in our country today," Martin Truex Jr., 2017 NASCAR Cup champion, said in a Tuesday teleconference. "I think it’s the right thing to do and just to reiterate the message that everybody is welcome at NASCAR races. We want everybody to be included and not feel out of place in any way if they decide to come."
Ahead of the race at Atlanta on Sunday, a video message featuring many of the sport’s current drivers, as well as the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr., was posted via their social media channels as well as shown on Fox’s national telecast. The video, organized by seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, addressed social injustices around the country with drivers vowing to listen and learn to become more educated on racial issues plaguing the country.
"Listening and learning about what people think is part of the process," said Truex, who participated in the video. "And this is kind of the next step in that."
Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only current full-time black driver, has led the charge for the sport over the past two weeks, calling out the majority of his fellow competitors for not speaking out against racism, though some did. Wallace and Ty Dillon spoke via an Instagram Live session on June 1 in which Wallace described personal encounters with law enforcement in which he was profiled.
Johnson had his own private conversation with Wallace and pursued the idea to create a video via the drivers’ text group chat.
"I was just really proud of the drivers who got involved," Johnson said Sunday. "Honestly proud of NASCAR and what they did, but it's been a personal journey on a much deeper level this week for me to listen and learn, and as a lot of us drivers started chatting about the week and experience and a lot of this was led by Bubba. Really have to give him a ton of credit, including Ty Dillon, the accountability that those two really put on the garage area, put on me — not directly on me, but I could just see — it made a difference, and I think that resonated with a lot of people."
NASCAR waited far too long to make a truly impactful motion to distance itself from past stereotypes and behaviors. But the drivers and sanctioning body appear to be in the process of learning through all their listening.
"I think you're seeing a lot more people be a lot more proactive in these issues in the recent weeks of things happening," Kyle Busch, the two-time and defending Cup title winner, said Sunday. "As far as all the other drivers and us all getting together and just having a say, we wanted to put out a powerful statement and a message, and so I feel like we all did that together with NASCAR, and went well from all of our standpoints, so we're happy to be able to do that and show our support to the black community."