EDITORIAL: NASCAR seems to be turning corner on its checkered racial past

Bubba Wallace, left, congratulates Kyle Larson after Larson won a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
  • NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag on its racing properties.
  • Kyle Larson won his first race Sunday after a suspension for uttering a racial slur.
  • During his suspension, Larson underwent senstivity traning, along with other steps.
  • Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver on the Cup Series, offered Larson a handshake after his win.

For so long, NASCAR got it so wrong.

The sport was born 73 years ago in the south and it has long celebrated the Dixie culture.

Unfortunately, the sport’s southern “heritage” also came with a checkered racial past.

NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. endorsed Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace for president, and the Hall of Fame biography for Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first Black driver, is whitewashed of his unrelenting battle for equality in the sport.

And then there’s the Confederate flag.

For decades, that symbol of racial oppression was ubiquitous at nearly every NASCAR stop, flying atop the campers that flocked to the races, especially during events below the Mason-Dixon Line.

And for decades, NASCAR turned a blind eye to the flags, for fear of angering a segment of its traditional fan base.

Of course, that attitude assured that the sport would never appeal to a larger, more diverse audience. After a surge in popularity in the 1990s, television ratings and race attendance plummeted over the past 20 years.

The organization made a half-hearted attempt to ban the Stars and Bars from its events in 2015, but it lacked meaningful enforcement.

Turning a corner: Now, however, NASCAR seems to have turned a corner when it comes to racial justice.

Recently, the sport has taken its firmest position yet on the Confederate flag.

FRYER: NASCAR's Confederate flag ban opens sport to more diverse new crowd

A sign at the entrance to Daytona International Speedway recently warned spectators the Confederate flag was not welcome on property. Its presence, NASCAR wrote, “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment.”

Amazingly, not a single Confederate flag could be seen flying over the campsites.

That is a true sign of progress.

The Larson-Wallace handshake: Another sign of progress came Sunday when Kyle Larson won the Cup Series race in Las Vegas.

One of the first folks to congratulate Larson after the race was Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only Black Cup Series driver.

Kyle Larson celebrates return with 1st NASCAR Cup Series win since suspension

That is the same Kyle Larson who last spring was — justifiably and correctly — suspended from the sport by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race.

And it’s the same Bubba Wallace who was instrumental is pushing NASCAR toward its Confederate flag ban.

That those two men could share such a moment is a tribute to both of them.

Larson did all the right things: Larson, after his banishment, didn’t lament his punishment as unjust or run away from his mistake.

Instead, the talented 28-year-old driver went about rehabilitating his image by completing the required NASCAR sensitivity training. He didn’t stop there, either. He also volunteered with organizations that serve minorities and underprivileged communities while meeting with Black leaders to educate himself. And he did all that on his own and without any fanfare.

Wallace, to his credit, recognized the sincere efforts that Larson has made over the past year by offering his hand in congratulations.

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“Told him way to keep his head thru it all! We all knew it was a matter of time,” Wallace wrote on Twitter.

Bill Lester, once NASCAR’s lone Black driver during seven seasons of Truck Series racing, joined Wallace in lauding Larson online.

“You got your second chance and absolutely made the most of it!” Lester wrote on Twitter. “Your talent was never in question, only one of your decisions.”

It was a feel-good and redemptive moment for everyone involved and a much-needed boost to NASCAR’s reputation.

Hopefully, it’s also a sign that the sport is ready to embrace a new, and more diverse, future.

The Associated Press provided information for this editorial.