He also, paradoxically, wore a hat celebrating Darrell Wallace Jr., 26, the racecar driver known as Bubba who is the only African-American driver in the sport’s top tier. Wallace, an Alabama native, instigated the flag ban by calling for it amid protests about racial injustice in the United States and the rest of the world, after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. He also changed the paint scheme of his racecar to feature #BlackLivesMatter logos.
It was a subversive move. The paint jobs of stock cars are unique in sports because NASCAR fans do not passively absorb brands — they actively support them. If a favorite driver is sponsored by an energy drink, for instance, or a washing detergent, race fans will seek out those brands.
After Wallace’s call, NASCAR made its announcement banning the flag. Some fans were furious because they see the flag as a part of their Southern heritage — not as a symbol of racism.
NASCAR hasn’t always embraced its new spirit of inclusiveness, but in recent years its fortunes have declined. In 2013, for instance, when Danica Patrick started on the pole, the Daytona 500 drew 16.5 million television viewers. Since then, the sport’s greatest stars — Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart — have largely retired from racing. Last year, the Daytona 500 drew just nine million viewers.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic is having an abrupt effect on live crowds. Organizers in Talladega restricted Sunday’s attendance to 5,000 for a race that would often draw more than 80,000.
A general decline in attendance and the current restrictions have changed life in Talladega, where many people depend on auto racing. Earl Smith, 82, lives directly across the highway from the track. Before the race, he jounced along in a golf cart, surveying the large yard where he rents spots to RV campers for $50 per night.
“Before all this, we’d have 65 campers out here, and 15 more on a waiting list,” he said. But this weekend, he said, “I’ve got one.”