The American racing class NASCAR has been in the news frequently in recent weeks because the sport showed sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement and banned 'Confederate' flags along the track. What are the roots of this sport and how big is the change the class is going through now?
NASCAR, like many motorsport classes, is a white male-dominated sport. Driver Darrell 'Bubba' Wallace, partly of African-American descent, is one of the few exceptions to this. In recent weeks, he took the lead in making changes, such as the call to ban the Southern Cross flag, also known as the Confederate States of America flag, from circuits.
This flag evokes associations with racism and the slavery past of many of the southern states of the United States among many African Americans. NASCAR went along with his request: the flags are no longer allowed on and around the race tracks.
The first real baptism of fire of this measure is Sunday evening, during the 500-mile race in the Talladega course in Alabama. The decision to ban the flag was met with critical acclaim, but there was also criticism. That's what Wallace and the race organization got when he drove his car in Bristol, Tennessee, with a Black Lives Matters paint scheme two weeks ago . Some of the fans believe that NASCAR is increasingly drifting away from the traditional southern base.
The same sounds were heard earlier when the drivers held a moment of silence during a race in Atlanta to commemorate race inequality in the US. This was shortly after the great death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
A Confederation flag (bottom) at a NASCAR race. (Photo: Getty Images)
How 'southern' is NASCAR still?
NASCAR has its roots in the southern states of America. The great heroes of the sport come from those regions almost without exception. Big names like Richard Petty (North Carolina), David Pearson (South Carolina) Dale Earnhardt (North Carolina) and Bobby Allison (Alabama) are all great sports legends in the southern US.
Today, the southern drivers are in the minority. California is purveyor to the Royal League, with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson as the figurehead and four-time champion Jeff Gordon now retired. The last champion from the south is Texan Bobby Labonte, who took his only title in 2000.
Still, the election of 'most popular driver' is won year after year by southern drivers. For years, that title went to Dale Earnhardt Jr of North Carolina. His successor as a southern hero is Chase Elliott, from Georgia. Both drivers have in common that they are sons of popular NASCAR champions.
President Donald Trump with NASCAR legend Richard Petty at the February Daytona 500 (Getty Images)
Republican presidents like to show up at NASCAR
Although today drivers come from all over the US, it is still mainly a southern sport. This can also be seen in the calendar: 19 of the 36 races are held in the traditionally southern states. Virtually all teams are also located in and around Charlotte, North Carolina.
It is no surprise that this is related to a right-wing conservative image. Republican presidents like to count NASCAR audiences among their constituencies. For example, Donald Trump visited the Daytona 500 in February, and drivers such as Elliott and Ryan Newman were seen on stage during one of his campaign meetings in 2016.
Racing legends Petty and Bill Elliott (Chase's father) also showed up alongside the current president. Another notable name in the sport is team boss Richard Childress, who sits on the board of gun lobby group NRA.
Why is the confederation flag so controversial?
Wallace drives the car of sports icon Richard Petty
Characteristic of the turnaround that NASCAR has made is that Wallace drives for the Petty team, who thus agreed to the Black Lives Matters livery on his car, with the iconic start number 43 he made, while Trump usually puts the protesters away as' and 'mainly on the side of the police.
Almost without exception, the drivers receive support for the course their sport has chosen. Johnson, reigning champion Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, among others, said goodbye to their helmet designer after he spoke negatively about Wallace's special car.
Earlier, most drivers were already seen in a video message, which also admitted that many of the drivers should be informed more about race inequality in their country.
'Bubba' Wallace in his car with one-off Black Lives Matter livery (Picture: Getty Images)
For years, work has been done on a more diverse field of drivers
Above all, the sport wants to show that everyone is welcome at the races and has set up a special working group for this. NASCAR has also had a project for years to get a more diverse driver field. Wallace received support from this program, as did Mexican Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson, who is partly of Japanese descent.
It will therefore bother the sports organization that Larson had to be suspended in mid-April because he publicly used the n-word during an online racing event. The Californian lost several sponsors and was fired by his team Chip Ganassi Racing.
Larson is therefore not there when the drivers start on Sunday evening at 9 p.m. on Talladega. Like the confederate flags, though NASCAR has not yet said how they will enforce that policy. One advantage: Due to the corona crisis, only 5,000 fans are welcome along the track. The controversial ban of the controversial flag thus receives a cautious baptism of fire.