Wallace, NASCAR's agent of change, doing 'what feels right'

Nascar drivers Kyle Busch, left, and Corey LaJoie, right, join other drivers and crews as they push the car of Bubba Wallace to the front of the field prior to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega Ala., Monday June 22, 2020. In an extraordinary act of solidarity with NASCAR’s only Black driver, dozens of drivers pushed the car belonging to Bubba Wallace to the front of the field before Monday’s race as FBI agents nearby tried to find out who left a noose in his garage stall over the weekend.

Of all the surprises in this most unusual of years, who’d have believed that NASCAR would be more sensitive and proactive than the NFL when it comes to racial progress?

Yes, critics had been advocating for years that NASCAR remove the Confederate flag from its events. But it took just one day for the France family to do so after its top series’ only African-American driver, Bubba Wallace, broached the subject in a recent interview.

And even if the noose found in Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway had been there since October, NASCAR showed how to handle a crisis. Every other driver helped push his car out of the garage before Monday’s race. That show of solidarity and support moved Wallace to tears and showed that NASCAR can address important issues with all the speed of Kyle Busch on the backstretch at Daytona.

Compare that to the four years NFL commissioner Roger Goodell waited to utter the words “Black Lives Matter” after Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police treatment of minorities. The league’s players are predominantly black, but it took a video featuring many of the league’s top African-American stars to induce Goodell to do the right thing.

Hats (or helmets) off to NASCAR, which hasn’t always been known as a particularly progressive organization. Its roots are in the South, and part of its mythology is that early racers were moonshine runners.

NASCAR’s ratings and attendance have slipped since its heyday in the 1990s, when it expanded outside the Sun Belt in search of a more diverse (and, some argued, affluent) audience. That ambition ruffled many of its “traditional” Southern fans, who felt they were losing their hold on the sport.

So although banning the Confederate flag was absolutely the right thing to do, it didn’t come without risk to the France family. The coronavirus means empty (or nearly empty) grandstands at most races and a huge drop in revenue. Will some lifelong fans tune out for good?

Fortunately for NASCAR, it’s a new era, with a new generation of young, socially conscious drivers. Rising star Kyle Larson lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing for blurting out the N-word when communicating with a crew member during a virtual race in April.

That decision came after many of Larson’s sponsors withdrew their support, showing NASCAR understands the bottom line and can read the room in an era of rising support for removing statues of Confederate generals. Larson will get another ride, as he should. Just not this year.

You can change the rules, but you can’t change people’s hearts. There will always be resistance to progress, and even if it didn’t manifest itself over the weekend, it’s not going away anytime soon. Wallace’s mother said in a satellite radio interview on Monday that “this is not his first incident,,,, If he gets into an incident with another driver, they’re quick to throw out the N-word. He’s been told he doesn’t belong.”

If anyone’s intention had been to intimidate or silence Wallace, it backfired. His profile has only grown in the past month—not bad for a guy who’s never won a Cup race. Millions were pulling for him on Monday, when he reached the top five in the final laps before fuel issues doomed him to a 14th-place finish.

Like all of us, NASCAR still has work to do. You’d hope that for every fan it loses, it gains two for being progressive.

The NFL, the nation’s most profitable league, isn’t in immediate danger of losing its fan base. The consensus reaction to Goodell’s recent video message has been, better late than never.

Thanks to baseball’s playground-style labor standoff, the NFL looks better by comparison. But this is a league that has mishandled and sometimes ignored key issues like domestic violence, concussions and, yes, racism.

For once, the NFL could look to NASCAR for tips on crisis management—and on doing the right thing.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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