Covering NASCAR’s ties to the Confederate flag and conservative politics: 5 tips for journalists

In the days after NASCAR banned Confederate flags from its events and properties, journalists and political commentators have raised questions about why the auto racing giant took so long to make the change and how its fans, primarily white men, will respond in the coming months and years.

To fully understand NASCAR’s decision and its impact, researcher Joshua I. Newman suggests studying the history of NASCAR, its ties to conservative politics and its role in developing stock car racing as a sport that mostly attracts white drivers and white fans.

Newman, a professor of media, politics and cultural studies at Florida State University, has studied the relationship between NASCAR and U.S. politics for more than a decade. He has co-authored several peer-reviewed research papers on the topic as well as a bookSport, Spectacle, and NASCAR Nation: Consumption and the Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism.

His prediction: A backlash from traditional fans against NASCAR’s new stance against the Confederate flag, a symbol of racism often used by white supremacists. Defenders of the flag say it doesn’t represent hate — that it’s a tribute to their Southern heritage and veterans of the Confederate Army.

“These are folks who see the sport — as it has evolved — as a last bastion of Old South conservatism and traditionalism,” Newman told Journalist’s Resource by email. “The removal of the flag effectively signals the end of their ability to use the races to promote not just nostalgia for old times there not forgotten, but for Old South racial and gender politics that have been platformed at NASCAR for decades.”

We asked Newman, who also serves on the editorial board of the Sociology of Sport Journal, for tips to help journalists better understand and report on the link between NASCAR and U.S. politics. Here are five tips, based on his guidance.

  1. Read up on NASCAR’s historic alignment with conservative politicians and issues.

Conservative politicians have long associated themselves with stock car racing, Newman pointed out. NASCAR’s founder, Bill France, and other members of the France family with top positions in the business have publicly supported conservative candidates. In 1972, France managed the presidential campaign of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a segregationist.

Newman discusses NASCAR’s ties to the Republican Party in a paper that appeared in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport in 2007. He delves deeper in his book.

“What has been consistent throughout the sport’s history is that only conservative politicians have been welcomed to speak, drive a pace car, or make a public appearance at a race weekend,” Newman explained. NASCAR’s target market, he added, “came to overlap with the ‘base’ of the Republican Party in the latter part of the 20th century — and a synergy was formed between a sport brand and a political movement.”

“Think of a NASCAR race as a ready-made political rally 10 times the scale of what was on offer in Oklahoma late last week,” Newman asserted, referring to President Donald Trump’s political rally in Tulsa, held the day after Juneteenth, the annual celebration of Black emancipation from slavery in the U.S.

  1. Scrutinize NASCAR’s role in developing stock car racing as a sport that promoted and celebrated the Confederate flag.

Look into the partnerships NASCAR and racetrack owners have had with vendors that sell Confederate memorabilia. Selling such merchandise has been good business for NASCAR and its affiliates, Newman advised.

“Ask NASCAR what role they have historically played in bringing the Confederate flag into the superspeedway spaces,” he suggested. “NASCAR seems to be transposing the burden of how these flags came to be popular symbols at their races onto the fans. But in the early days, track owners and even the league officials often adorned the spaces with these symbols.”

Years ago, a man dressed as a Confederate soldier would ride on the hood of the winning car, waving a Confederate flag, at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. The flag has long been a fixture at racing events, whether worn on fans’ clothing, flown atop recreational vehicles parked on the infield or waved by people watching the race.

Newman noted that NASCAR’s success in building its brand identity is a result of “promoting certain symbols, collaborating with certain brands and vendors, largely excluding certain drivers (drivers of color and women drivers), and aligning with certain politicians over the years.”

  1. Note that the sport began to shift culturally before the flag ban.

In recent years, NASCAR officials have been trying to bring more women and racial and ethnic minorities to the sport. In 2004, for example, the auto racing league launched its Drive for Diversity program, which helps women and minorities pursue career opportunities within NASCAR, including as drivers and members of pit crews.

Driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, who initiated the Confederate flag ban, is a graduate of that program, according to his personal website. Wallace made NASCAR history earlier this month when he drove a car featuring a paint scheme dedicated to the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement in a race at Martinsville Speedway, located in Virginia.

NASCAR recently announced it had named Brandon Thompson to a newly created position — vice president, diversity and inclusion — to lead its “strategy for diversity and inclusion, as well as programs and initiatives designed to champion and enhance diversity across the NASCAR industry.”

“In the long term, the sport will change,” Newman wrote to JR. “It might still serve as sporting shorthand for the Republican Party, at least for a while, but Bubba Wallace is breaking a number of cultural fixities in the sport loose, bringing in new fans.”

  1. Follow the money — from race sponsors to NASCAR to the Republican Party.

Identify the companies and organizations that have sponsored races and drivers over the decades. Find out which political candidates and organizations have received public or financial support from prominent NASCAR drivers, officials and racetrack owners. Look into the different kinds of government assistance NASCAR receives.

“Look at the grants NASCAR gets from state governments,” Newman recommended. “Look at the relaxed tax deals they get for track developments.”

One place to start is the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics and its effect on U.S. elections and policy. The center’s website offers information on how much money and to whom NASCAR affiliates, such as its employees, owners and political action committee, have donated.

  1. Pay attention to the way sports are used in politics.

For generations, sports have been an important vehicle for promoting certain political ideologies, Newman explained. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew nationwide criticism and praise in 2016 when he declined to stand for the national anthem, a protest against racial injustice and police brutality. That year, professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe made national headlines for emulating Kaepernick by kneeling during the anthem at an international match.

“Many people tend to see the politics in the acts of Colin Kaepernick or Megan Rapinoe but ignore how deeply political an assemblage of 200,000 almost exclusively white stockcar fans saluting a flag, a fighter jet flyover, or a head of state, can be,” Newman wrote to JR.

For additional insights into why the sport remains unattractive to some groups, Newman suggested seeking out people who avoid NASCAR.

“Talk to folks who don’t go to NASCAR events,” he urged. “The best way to understand NASCAR’s politics is to see who is excluded, and why they would avoid or feel unsafe at these events.”

The article was published at Covering NASCAR’s ties to the Confederate flag and conservative politics: 5 tips for journalists.

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