Return to Racing

I got my job with NASCAR about a month before the coronavirus outbreak in March. This was truly my dream job. Going to Charlotte for my interview at the NASCAR building was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. I was thrilled to finally be a part of something I had admired as a fan for so long.

After I was hired, I drove back and forth to Charlotte twice a week, fueled by my love of the sport and an eagerness to prove myself. My first race was the Daytona 500 during which Ryan Newman suffered a devastating crash that shook me for days. It was a reminder that lives are always at risk in this sport.

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March, employees were asked not to return to the building in downtown Charlotte for safety reasons. I was devastated that my new job had come to a halt so fast. I have still not had the chance to return to work, but have watched the return to racing with a range of intense, changing emotions.

As soon as racing returned, my passion for the sport was reignited. I watched every race, followed every social media post, and yearned to be at the track. But things were definitely not normal. No fans in the stands, drivers and crew members in masks at all times, and a deserted victory lane. Winners sat alone in the dark on Skype calls after the race. Foxes kept appearing on the track as if trying to reclaim the former wilderness.

Then, on top of the turmoil of the pandemic, came the explosion of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s unjust death. I followed NASCAR’s reaction to the incident and the rising social unrest with scrutiny. For a long time, it was as if nothing had happened. Drivers refrained from comment. Social media accounts carried on as normal. After an uncomfortable silence, a few drivers started to speak out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests across the country. From there, things swiftly began to escalate. More drivers came out in support of the movement and voiced their commitment to change.

Then, at the Cup race in Atlanta, many things happened in quick succession. A short video was aired of drivers reading a prepared statement on racism and NASCAR’s intention to support black communities going forward. On the starting grid, Bubba Wallace wore a shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe” while standing next to his Black Lives Matter car. Wallace and Daniel Suarez, a driver from Mexico, as the only faces of diversity in the Cup series, were interviewed prior to the race about their thoughts on the movement. NASCAR president Steve Phelps read a statement, and the cars stopped on pit road for a moment of silence, during which NASCAR official Kirk Price took a knee.

Days later, after a public call from Bubba Wallace, came the pivotal decision to ban the Confederate flag at all NASCAR tracks, a move which gained intense responses on both sides. During this time of great upheaval, structures are being broken open and shown for what they are. Deep, uncomfortable things are being revealed. NASCAR has not been excepted from this sudden revelation.

Before today’s race at Homestead Miami, I read news that New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara would be attending the race in the wake of the Confederate flag ban. In a video of him riding to the track, Kamara sported his new Bubba Wallace gear. That was when it all hit home for me: this is the new NASCAR fan. For years, a more diverse fanbase has been continually shut out of the sport. I want to see more diverse drivers and crew members as well as fans. I want others to share in the great parts of this sport. Bubba Wallace summed up my feelings:

“Our sport has always had somewhat of a racist label to it. NASCAR— everybody thinks redneck, Confederate flag, racists— and I hate it. I hate that because I know NASCAR is so much more.”

If others can come to this sport and feel as included as I have, it will be a great thing. NASCAR is going through a rapidly transformative phase right now. The sport is swiftly rebranding, marketing itself towards a new fanbase. Drivers are swift to drop sponsors who express views in support of racist systems of thought. They are making strong statements for, and in some cases against, NASCAR’s new stance on racism.

I continue to watch and listen. I can’t forget what I love about this sport: the sounds and smells, the atmosphere at the track, the personalities of the teams. I have become increasingly aware of NASCAR’s exclusion of a diverse fan base, and continue to watch each move with optimistic criticism. I am also critical of my own participation in the sport as an employee and a fan. I wouldn’t be a true fan if I didn’t want others to experience the joy and love of racing that I feel.

Banning the Confederate flag at tracks is one step, and the vocalization of anti-racist statements is another. Yet it is important that NASCAR continues to follow through on its words with concrete actions. Dropping sponsors with pro-racist ideology is one way in which to do that. Creating a welcoming space for a diverse fanbase is another. But the effort must be continual.

Reverend Al Sharpton gave the eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral on June 9th. He spoke to the importance of this long-term commitment, calling out entities such as the NFL for their sudden reversals. Reverend Sharpton said:

“Many that are standing and coming today and skinning and grinning in front of cameras will not be here for the long run. We must commit to this family, all of these families, all five of his children, grandchildren and all, that until these people paid for what they did, that we’re going to be there with them. Because lives like George will not matter until somebody pays the cost for taking their lives…. So I want to give honor to the family and a commitment that we’re going to be here for the long haul. When the last TV truck is gone, we’ll still be here.”

I hope, as a fan and employee, that NASCAR is only at the beginning of a deep, intentional change, and will be in it for the long run. There is still much change that I want to see. But today, I hope that Mr. Kamara enjoys his first NASCAR race in Miami.