NASCAR banned the Confederate flag in 2020. Company insiders explain how it happened—and why that single decision has supercharged the business since
Bubba Wallace has always attracted a crowd.
The legendarily popular athlete is known for being personable and authentic. He’s also the only Black full-time driver to win the NASCAR Cup Series in the modern era (following in the footsteps of Wendell Scott, who won in 1963). The 28-year-old is often besieged by fans wanting autographs or just to lay eyes on him and his No. 23 Toyota Camry. Before the start of a recent race at the Richmond Raceway, Wallace stood in front of his car on pit road with his pit crew as a steady stream of spectators with VIP tickets headed in his direction. It was a diverse but predominantly Black crowd that formed. Wallace took a minute to engage in a brief conversation with a spectator wearing a T-shirt with his image on it, as a father and his toddler son wearing matching Howard University sweatshirts watched.
These days it’s a pretty typical pre-race scene, but the makeup of the NASCAR crowd is quite different than it was when Wallace started driving in Cup Series about four years ago. “There’s a lot more diverse people in the stands,” he said. “Maybe it’s somebody that’s always been like that closet NASCAR fan but was afraid to come out and say that because they haven’t seen representation. So now that we show, ‘Hey, NASCAR is cool. NASCAR is where you want to be,’ now they can be more comfortable. It’s really all about making everyone feel comfortable in their own skin, in their own voice and elevating those voices.”
Two years ago, NASCAR was mostly known as—there’s no delicate way to put this—a mostly white sport for mostly white fans, a subset of whom gloried in waving the Confederate battle flag at races. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, and calls for racial justice began holding companies accountable for business practices, Wallace was a catalyst for NASCAR to finally make the decision it had been mulling over for years—banning the flag.
“I was just seeing all of the social media replies on why people were not coming to NASCAR races,” said Wallace, who remains the only full-time Black driver in the Cup Series. “And the Confederate flag was the common denominator.”
The ban didn’t arrive without much internal and external debate. But it’s just one way NASCAR is fixing what’s under the hood. For the first time, in 2021 all members at the national series levels, the truck, Xfinity, or Cup Series, all competitors had to participate in diversity and sensitivity training, said Brandon Thompson, VP of diversity and inclusion, since 2020. The company will be participating in the racial and gender report card produced by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. NASCAR also has ongoing partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities as well.
The ban has opened the door for more diversity of team owners, says Jackie Glenn, the founder of Glenn Diversity and HR Solutions, and former VP and global chief diversity officer at Dell EMC. There are four Black team owners at NASCAR’s Cup Series level. In comparison, in the NFL, where 70% of the players are Black, of the 32 teams in the league, there are no Black owners. “NASCAR is letting their audio match their video,” says Glenn. “They’re not just talking.”
“We’re a sport where some didn’t feel welcomed,” says NASCAR president Steve Phelps. “And now they do.”
NASCAR past, present, and future
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), a private company, was founded by Bill France Sr. in the 1940s, and his son, Jim France, currently serves as CEO. It’s headquartered in Daytona Beach, Fla. In 2019, NASCAR purchased the International Speedway Corporation for about $2 billion. It holds races at 39 different tracks in the U.S. and Canada.
NASCAR’s roots in the Deep South came from moonshiners outrunning the police. But when Prohibition ended and the demand for bootlegged alcohol decreased, “the runners found themselves with souped-up cars yet out of work—though they continued to take part in organized races,” according to Smithsonian magazine. One of these runners, France Sr., held a meeting on Dec. 14, 1947, with other drivers, to put in place some standardized rules for the races. NASCAR was born.
The company’s culture was largely unchallenged for nearly 50 years, but the first strands of NASCAR’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work began to emerge around 2000. That’s when the company started a Diversity Internship Program, offering hands-on experience in the motorsports industry, said Thompson, whose career began through the program. The company’s Drive for Diversity program, of which Wallace is an alum, launched in 2004 to increase race, gender, and ability diversity in motorsports. But then you’d get to an actual race—and there were plenty of Confederate flags in the stands.
It took 20 more years for serious consideration of a ban.
In 2015, following the murder of nine Black people at a Charleston, S.C., church, the company discouraged fans from flying the flag at races. “NASCAR will continue our long-standing policy to disallow the use of the Confederate flag symbol in any official NASCAR capacity,” the company said on June 23, 2015. “While NASCAR recognizes that freedom of expression is an inherent right of all citizens, we will continue to strive for an inclusive environment at our events.”
“We had been talking about the ban of the Confederate flag for some time,” NASCAR president Phelps said. “I knew it was something that we were going to do; the question was when.”
“In April 2020, we pulled together a diversity council of 40 diverse employees,” Phelps explained. The employee diversity council includes senior leaders, who are involved in NASCAR’s executive ally council, along with Black employees and other diverse team members across the company. Phelps and his senior leadership team launched the council to have regular communication and discussion with diverse employees to hear their experiences in the sport, and a way to receive feedback on how NASCAR can address their needs.
“It was interesting because they were telling their stories about how much they love working in this sport,” he said. “However, what their friends and families were saying was, ‘Okay, but what about the Confederate flag?’” he recalled. And employees said they didn’t really know what to tell their family in response, Phelps said.
“At that moment, for me, it was, let’s get the senior team together, and we’re going to discuss banning this flag. All of our senior leadership agreed. I said, ‘Well, you’ve just signed up for something that’s going to be a little more difficult than you probably anticipated.’ With that said, it has turned out to be probably the single most important move that our sport has made, perhaps only rivaled by when it was founded.”
On June 10, 2020, NASCAR announced that the display of the Confederate flag was prohibited from all of the company’s events and properties.
“It changed the perception of our sport,” Phelps said.
Wallace continued to be outspoken in championing causes to fight racial injustice, even though that same month the flag was banned in 2020, a noose was found on his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway. An FBI investigation concluded no federal hate crime was committed against Wallace, and the noose had been on the garage door since October 2019. Both NASCAR and fellow drivers rallied in support of Wallace during this time.
‘I didn’t have a plan B’
In the past two years, former NBA, NFL, and boxing champions have bought into teams. In February, former boxing champ Floyd Mayweather became an owner with the Money Team Racing. NBA great Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, announced on Sept. 21, 2020, they would co-own 23XI Racing team to begin Cup series competition in 2021. Wallace drives the No. 23 Toyota Camry for the team.
“He’s been a big fan of the sport for a really long time,” Wallace said of Jordan. “I know that everything he touches is successful. Like, how he would attack the season, and his approach for everything was just set up for success. And I wanted to be a part of that.”
“The potential ceiling was greater than anything that I had been in,” Wallace said of joining the team. “And so it was a fresh start for me, an opportunity to go back out and be competitive again. It’s been fun to navigate our way through sport and be one of those new upcoming teams trying to staple their name into the sport.”
Grammy Award–winning Latin artist Pitbull became co-owner of Trackhouse Racing Team in 2021, joining the team’s founder co-owner Justin Marks, a former professional racing driver.
“We want to be a company that amplifies NASCAR to as many people as possible,” Marks said before the start of the race in Richmond. “Pitbull has put our logo in music videos, and now we’re starting to get a lot of momentum in the Nashville area around music. We have a lot of people paying attention to our team and to NASCAR that wouldn’t normally do it. So we’re feeling this momentum, and that’s important to us.”
Daniel Suárez drives Trackhouse’s No. 99 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Cup Series. “Daniel’s got a great story,” Marks said. “He moved from Mexico to the U.S., and didn’t speak English. But he had the dream of being a NASCAR driver.” Suárez accelerated his English-learning process by watching movies with subtitles, but most effective was practicing English on his crew members at the shop, he told USA Today in 2016. “I think that those stories resonate with all different kinds of people,” Marks said.
Suárez, 28, a native of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, went from go-karts to the NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series in the early 2000s to a 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. He’s now a driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. “If I tell you it was easy, I would be lying to you,” Suárez said in a phone call. “There were so many different barriers I had to go through, including finding a sponsor.” His first trip to the U.S. was to Buffalo in 2011. Suárez lived with Troy Williams, a team owner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series who mentored him.
“I knew that I had to give it my best shot,” said Suárez, who now resides in North Carolina. “I didn’t have a plan B. My only plan was A, and I put all of my eggs in the same basket. “I don’t come from a family with money. So I’ve had to learn a lot of lessons in the process, and I learned some the hard way just by making mistakes.”
A pinnacle moment in his career so far was winning a championship in the Xfinity series, Suárez said. That was the first race in the U.S. that his mother and father attended. It was often a struggle to buy plane tickets from Mexico to the U.S., Suárez said.
Trackhouse owners Pitbull and Marks are his longtime friends whom he admires, he said. Suárez also explained his personal call to action. “My goal is to continue to win race championships and continue to make a path for future drivers, engineers, mechanics, you name it,” he said.
“There are so many different positions for Hispanics at NASCAR, not just Hispanics from Mexico, but Hispanics in general,” he said. “There are so many fans in Latin America that follow the sport, that I think would love to have an opportunity in the sport. I would love to see myself in 15 years, when I retire from racing full-time, looking back and seeing my championship races, but also see all of the new people I was able to bring into the sport.”
Last year, Dallas Cowboys great Emmitt Smith became a co-owner of a new Xfinity team with Jesse Iwuji, a driver and the other co-owner. Smith’s father was “a big NASCAR guy,” he told NBC Sports last year. “NASCAR is one of those things that obviously is a pastime for a lot of folks, and a lot of folks that don’t look like Jesse and myself,” Smith told NBC Sports. He hopes to change that. Entrepreneur John Cohen is the owner of NY Racing. And NBA great Brad Daugherty has been a co-owner of JTG Racing for many years.
NASCAR’s iRacing, a new on-ramp for future talent, is how Rajah Caruth, a 19-year-old D.C.-based driver, began his career. Caruth is now progressing through the various NASCAR-owned series including ARCA Menards and Xfinity. He is No. 1 in points for ARCA Series, followed by his teammate Nick Sanchez. Both are on the Drive for Diversity team led by Rev Racing.
“Seeing Bubba racing on television, that was important because it made it seem a career in racing was not impossible,” Caruth, a sophomore at Winston-Salem State University, said at the Richmond Raceway. “So now I feel like I have that responsibility, and I welcome it because representation is important.” Another up-and-comer is Toni Breidinger, the first Arab-American female driver to participate in any NASCAR national series. She races full-time in the ARCA Menards Series for Venturini Motorsports.
The sport can be a lucrative business. The value of a NASCAR Cup Series team charter, an agreement between NASCAR executives and team owners, reached $12 million, doubled from $6 million last year, according to Sports Business Journal. The charter values have increased exponentially, due in part to the creation of the Next Gen car, according to the company. Jordan and Hamlin’s 23XI Racing has expanded to two cars for its second season. It’s reported that 23XI Racing purchased StarCom Racing’s NASCAR charter for $13.5 million. The race purses have been “record-setting” for every Cup Series race in 2022, NASCAR said. The purse for the Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway in April was $7,420,008.
A new following
For a company’s profitability, diversity continues to be a business imperative, Glenn said. Companies are holding themselves and even their clients accountable, she said. “When you come in to pitch to them, they’re asking you, ‘What are you doing in regard to diversity?’” Glenn explained.
NASCAR has been keeping track of how the brand is being perceived. A recent survey of 2,507 respondents conducted by Directions Research on behalf of NASCAR found 93% of fans say the brand is on the right track. By demographics, that includes 96% of Gen Zers and millennials, and 97% of Hispanics and African Americans. In 2020, a poll from Morning Consult ranked NASCAR as the ninth fastest growing brand among Gen Z adults ages 18 to 23. From January 2020 to November 2020 there was 7.9% growth, Morning Consult found.
There has been a 25% increase in total current followers across all platforms compared to March 2020, and a net follower increase of 1.43 million since 2020, according to NASCAR. Since the beginning of 2022, the company has gained 303,000 net followers this year across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. NASCAR.com is up 24% in unique users and up 10% in video views.
The company is also trying some out-there experiments to reach new audiences. On Feb. 6, NASCAR debuted the Busch Light Clash, its first-ever race in downtown Los Angeles at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans, which featured the Next Gen car. The event included a performance by L.A.-native rapper, actor, and filmmaker Ice Cube, which Jordan’s 23XI Racing shared on Twitter. The race aired on Fox TV and earned a 2.32 rating and 4.283 million viewers, which is a 168% increase in viewership from last year’s season opener, according to Nielsen Media Research, Motorsport.com reported.
The Clash in L.A. was 71% new fans and had approximately 35,000 new NASCAR fans in attendance, according to the company. The Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500 in February was a sellout. And so far this season, new-fan ticket sales are up double digits, according to NASCAR.
“Every corporation has traveled this road that NASCAR is traveling”
“Everything that we’re doing now really is about evolution,” Phelps said. “It is about being bold and having people understand whether they’re sponsors or they’re fans, or media partners, or whomever is involved in the sport, that we’re going to continue to push the envelope.”
But to create this evolution, the company had to have tough conversations internally and bring in talent to work toward bolstering a sense of belonging. John Ferguson, SVP and chief HR officer at NASCAR, joined the company in August 2021. Ferguson was previously VP of people and culture at Monumental Sports & Entertainment in Washington, D.C., with the company for almost 10 years serving in HR roles. When the opportunity to work at NASCAR presented itself, leading the HR function was appealing to Ferguson. But he had some doubts.
“I will be transparent,” Ferguson said. “My gut was hesitant about NASCAR. Because, while it might have presented the opportunity to lead the HR function, was it an environment where I could show up as myself and feel supported, and be able to really make a change and have impact?”
He continued, “One major thing had already happened by the time I was in conversations with NASCAR—the Confederate flag had been banned. Candidly speaking, if the flag was still flying, it would have been a nonstarter [for me].”
Still undecided, he called his mentor, who is also African American, for guidance. “‘My grandson is the biggest NASCAR fan I know,’” Ferguson recalled she told him. “She continued, ‘One day, when he was a little kid, we were flipping through the channels and he saw those cars going around the track. And ever since then, he kept watching it. I tell you that story to let you know there are Black NASCAR fans. Secondly, I just want to remind you that every sports league, every corporation has traveled this road that NASCAR is traveling. And you have been preparing yourself with the tools, the skills and knowledge, the relationships, to go into an environment and to be a change agent and to make an impact.’”
Phelps was very open and transparent in the interview process, Ferguson said. “He told me the narrative of how the Confederate flag was banned, and so we talked about that.
“I am a Black man,” Ferguson recalled he said to Phelps in the conversation. “I am probably not your core fan. I will be a new fan to NASCAR. So it’s important for me and you to have this candid conversation.”
“Will the road ahead be easy? No,” Ferguson said. “Will the road ahead require us to think, collaborate, and partner? Yes. But I think we have a great team and a dynamic energy and a desire to elevate from where we were, but also being mindful of the journey that got us to where we are.”
In other words, as many at NASCAR will tell you: Diversity and inclusion isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.
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