MARTINSVILLE, Va. — NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its races and venues on Wednesday, formally severing itself from what for many is a symbol of slavery and racism.
The move comes amid social unrest around the globe following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis while being detained by several white police officers. Protests have roiled the nation for days and Confederate monuments are being taken down across the South — the traditional fan base for NASCAR.
The Cup series’ first nighttime race at Martinsville Speedway followed the flag ban announcement. Martin Truex Jr., driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, surged late for his first win of the season.
Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, who has two wins this season, and Joey Logano made it a 2-3-4 finish for Team Penske.
Confederate flags have been a familiar sight at NASCAR races over its 72-year history, dotting the infield atop RVs or being waved by fans in the grandstands, though the stock car series with its roots in moonshine running has in recent years taken cautious steps to sever the connection.
“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,’’ NASCAR said in a statement. ‘‘Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
The issue was pushed to the fore this week by Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s lone black driver and an Alabama native who called for the banishment of the Confederate flag and said there was “no place” for it in the sport. Wallace drove the Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Chevrolet with a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme. Wallace, wearing an American flag mask, clapped his hands when asked about the decision before the start of the race.
“It’s been a stressful couple of weeks,” Wallace said on FS1. “This is no doubt the biggest race of my career tonight. I’m excited about tonight. There’s a lot of emotions on the race track.”
Wallace wore a black “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt but did not kneel during the national anthem. His Chevy had “Compassion, Love, Understanding” emblazoned on the hood. He finished 11th at Martinsville.
The 26-year-old Wallace, who finished second in the 2018 Daytona 500, also had a dose of newfound fame. Already outspoken on social causes in NASCAR, Wallace denounced the flag and his message spread throughout sports. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James tweeted a “BIG S/O” to Wallace and retired NFL star Deion Sanders tweeted he was proud NASCAR “recognized the sensitivity of our country while confronting the racial injustices.”
Wallace even made some new NASCAR fans — for a night, at least — out of other athletes. New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara replied to NASCAR’s statement with a tweet asking “when the next race??” with a popcorn emoji. He followed along on social media, as did Carolina Panthers safety Tre Boston. Boston tweeted questions about the race and seemed to enjoy the action at Martinsville: “Do y’all be pinned to the TV. I’m watching the standing more than the drivers I feel. Is this ok? Am I doing this right? Do y’all flip channels?”
Former NFL safety Bernard Pollard Jr. joined in on the social media action and had a question on cautions answered on the FS1 broadcast.
But NASCAR’s decision angered a contingent of flag loyalists, who stewed on social media. NASCAR helmet artist Jason Beam, who paints designs for some of the sports biggest stars, was among the loudest critics. He unleashed a string of tweets blasting the move, writing “You can’t erase history by picking and choosing what parts you want to keep and don’t won’t to keep.”
Oh well, Reese Witherspoon gave the ruling a high-five emoji on Twitter, and that alone might be enough to outweigh the haters.
Martinsville capped a stretch of seven straight Cup races since it resumed without fans at the track. That streak ends Sunday when 1,000 Florida service members, representing the Homestead Air Reserve Base and US Southern Command in Doral, are allowed to attend the Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway as honorary guests and view the race from the grandstands.
The following week at Talladega Superspeedway, up to 5,000 fans will be allowed to attend the race. NASCAR says all fans will be screened before entering, required to wear face coverings, mandated to social distance at six feet, and will not have access to the infield.