Since then, NASCAR has traveled far from its roots, which were planted in dirt tracks in places like Rockingham, N.C., and Talladega, Ala., by drivers who honed their skills by running moonshine and outrunning revenuers. The races once were predominantly in the Southeast, and its drivers hailed from the region. Now, NASCAR races are held on tracks from coast to coast, and only two of the top 10 drivers are from the Southeast.
Kyle Petty, the longtime racer and son of the seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, called the ban “a huge moment.”
“As we look at the sport and how the sport has grown, we were way behind the curve,” he said on the show “NASCAR America” on NBCSN.
And NASCAR’s recent efforts to grow, while also trying to make the sport more inclusive, have not been successful: The number of fans who have abandoned the sport since its peak is startling. For example, this year’s Daytona 500, NASCAR’s marquee race, had 7.3 million television viewers. Just five years ago, in 2015, that number was nearly double, at 13.4 million.
The organization also has made efforts to diversify, with programs aimed at hiring minority drivers. Yet when Wallace won a race in 2013 at one of NASCAR’s national series, it was the first time an African-American had won at that level in 50 years.
Matthew Bernthal, the marketing department chair at Florida Southern College, has studied NASCAR, and said the organization has grappled with the flag issue for a while. “I simply don’t think they had a choice right now but to ban the flag, given the mood of the country,” he said. “But I think the brand’s values have shifted because they have chosen to take such a strong stance.”
With the coronavirus public health crisis limiting fans at racetracks, it might be a long while before NASCAR feels the full impact of its decision. But Darrell Waltrip, the three-time Winston Cup series champion who retired in 2000, warned people not to view complaints about the ban on social media as an indication that fans will leave the sport.