The Confederate flag, once a symbol of pride for whites in the Deep South but anathema to African Americans everywhere as a symbol of servitude and slavery, may still be keeping black drivers -- and spectators -- away from NASCAR.
So said several African-American leaders involved with NASCAR's high-profile Drive for Diversity campaign at a recent National Press Club conference in Washington D.C. to showcase Waste Management's documentary "Black Wheels" on the history of black racecar drivers.
"The Confederate flag has historically been offensive to African Americans [so] if NASCAR is committed to diversity, what can we do to find a way to remove the flag, and I guess really remove the stigma of all of what comes there, because it is going to be difficult, frankly, for African Americans to go to a track and see those flags flying around," said Ed Gordon of National Public Radio, moderator of the program.
In an earlier era, when NASCAR was a regional sport primarily in and around the Carolinas and nearly all the drivers were homegrown products, the infields and parking lots were a sea of Confederate flags flying from nearly every car and truck. The Stars and Bars of the Confederacy were part and parcel of the sport's foundation. At one time, the flag was part of the Southern 500 logo.
As NASCAR expanded across the country, fewer and fewer flags became noticeable at the races, although they still fly at places such as Darlington, S.C., and Talladega, Ala.
Sam Belnavis, the first black NASCAR team owner in more than 30 years and now chief diversity officer for Jack Roush's stable of cars, sees improvement in the area.
"There are things that are contrary to African Americans, one being the Confederate flag, and thus, there are some policies that have been eliminated," Belnavis said.
"We race 36 weekends out of the year and there are certain tracks that I would go to and I'd walk in the infield and I say, 'Hmm, not too many Confederate flags flying around here.' So that tells me that it is working to a degree."
NASCAR has a policy that prevents use of the Stars and Bars or other controversial subjects on any car, uniform, licensed product or track facility under its control, but that doesn't stop hard-line rebel fans from displaying it.
"We recognize that the Confederate flag is an important issue for a lot of people and as our fan base grows, we are doing what we can to break down its use and be more in the mainstream," said Ramsey Poston, NASCAR director of corporate communications.
Bill Lester, who has an engineering degree from the University of California and drives a Waste Management-sponsored Toyota Tundra in the Craftsman Truck series for Bill Davis, says the atmosphere is changing -- for the better.
"When I started racing, it was road racing in northern California-sports cars, open-wheel racing," Lester, who is black, told the gathering. "My images of stock car racing were ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' where I saw Confederate flags and what-have-you. If you had asked me in the early '90s if I would have ever thought I would race in NASCAR, I would have looked at you like you had two heads because I couldn't see anything I would have thought less appealing to be involved in."
With NASCAR presenting a more favorable financial platform for a young driver, Lester switched. The flags are still flying, but Lester says the job at hand -- racing Davis' truck -- keeps him so busy he barely notices them.
"Yeah, I realize the flag is still there, but it's not as prevalent as it once was," he said. "I think it'll be a little bit later in the future before it completely disappears. But the fact of the matter is that nobody has taken a Confederate flag and waved it in my face and made me feel uncomfortable or anything like that. And as long as nobody is waving it in my face, I don't have a problem with them."
As for the NASCAR nation itself, Lester says the welcome mat is there.
"I feel very comfortable whenever I'm in the garage area, whenever I'm interacting with fans," he said. "I've never got anything derogatory. The fact of the matter is I'm just a racecar driver who happens to be black, not a black racecar driver."
After 57 years, NASCAR has had only one race won by a black driver in any of its three major divisions, and that was 42 years ago when Wendell Scott won a Grand National (now Nextel Cup) event in Jacksonville, Fla.
Late model stock cars of NASCAR's Dodge Weekly Series will contest the Firecracker 100, double their normal race distance, Saturday night at Irwindale Speedway. Tim Huddlestone of Agoura Hills has won six of the 10 late model races this season. Support races include USAC Ford Focus midgets with teenager Chase Barber of Morgan Hill trying to win a third consecutive race, super stocks, mini stocks, Figure 8 and fireworks.
A Damion Gardner-Cory Kruseman feud, stimulated by a fender-banging incident last week, will resume Saturday night at Perris Auto Speedway in the Firecracker 50 for USAC/CRA sprint cars. After a 30-lap A-main and the 50-lap main event will be a fireworks display. Perris will open its eighth-mile drag strip next Friday in the shadows of the half-mile oval. Irwindale conducts side-by-side racing on its eighth-mile drag strip on Thursday nights. California Dragway, on the speedway grounds in Fontana, has street-legal racing one night a month on the quarter-mile track. The next event is July 9.
Twilight Cruise Night, a monthly gathering of hot rod enthusiasts at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Pomona Fairplex parking lot. Details: 909-622-2133.
Ron Capps, who won his first NHRA funny car event in two years last week, is only 39, but he will try his hand at nostalgic racing when he drives Jeff Gaynor's 1970 Plymouth Barracuda funny car at the Goodguys eighth Pomona Nitro Nationals, Aug. 5-7 at the Fairplex. After NHRA car owner Don Schumacher gave him an OK to race on an off weekend, Capps said, "I'm stoked, I can't wait to do a long smoky burnout to give the fans a little taste of how it used to be."
Infineon Raceway raised $167,944 for Speedway Children's Charities during last week's NASCAR race festivities. Included was an auction of racing memorabilia, including an autographed Dale Earnhardt Jr. race helmet for $5,500.... BFGoodrich Tires announced that it would service teams in the 2006 world rally championship, in addition to its continued participation in SCORE Baja events and the Dakar Rally.