Still, many longtime observers of NASCAR perceived the change as largely a business imperative to try to revive a fading sport.
“I think it was the historical moment, and they felt like they needed to do something, and here was something that really wasn’t going to cost them, especially in an era when you’ve got at most 5,000 fans at a race,” said Daniel S. Pierce, a professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville and the author of “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France.”
“It’s not necessarily a brave stance,” he said.
Ribbs noted NASCAR’s struggles with television ratings and attracting a broader audience.
“Their TV numbers have fallen, their fan base has fallen,” he said. “We’re into a new generation. The millennials are coming along, and they want to see a sport that looks like what this country looks like.”
Yet Harmon, a team owner whose cars include one emblazoned with a “Blue Lives Matter” message, worries that NASCAR has alienated some of its most steadfast fans and upended the atmosphere of race weekends at places like Talladega.
“It’s going to definitely feel different,” said Harmon, who said he has never owned a Confederate flag himself. “They say time heals everything, and I hope it does. I think there will be a lot of complaining, and I think you’ll probably see the flag on some of the campgrounds that have nothing to do with NASCAR. In fact, you’ll probably see more of them.”
Even those who do not want to see the flag acknowledge change could come slowly.
“It’s going to be tough,” Ragland, the Talladega mayor, said. “There are definitely going to be people who test the bounds. I’ve seen people who say they’re not going to watch NASCAR and all of that kind of stuff. But it’s a different time.