For decades, NASCAR had permitted its fans to fly the Confederate flag at races. Though the league asked fans to stop doing so in 2015, it had stopped short of an outright ban. But after waves of protests against racism and police brutality in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the sport took a stand.
NASCAR barred the Confederate flag at its races June 10 after Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in the sport’s top series, called for the change earlier in the week.
For part-time NASCAR truck series driver Jesse Iwuji, one of the sport’s only other black drivers, the move was a welcome change.
“I’m really happy that NASCAR has stepped up and made that decision and said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to allow this anymore,’” Iwuji said on Glenn Clark Radio June 15. “NASCAR and its events need to be a place where people feel comfortable to come and have a good time.”
Iwuji, a Naval Reserve officer and former Navy football player, first encountered the flag at California’s Auto Club Speedway before he became a driver. As he was walking from his car to the track, he noticed multiple trucks and RVs with the flag, something he found “interesting” and unusual.
Yet it did not deter Iwuji, and he credits his positive experiences with fans at races in keeping him in the sport.
“I never experienced any issues outside of [the flag],” Iwuji said. “I haven’t experienced any racism as far as fans toward me at tracks. It’s always been good. Most people are pretty supportive and pretty cool.”
Confederate symbolism has existed at races since the 1950s, when fans would fly flags and drivers would paint it on their cars. The sport had tried to distance itself from the flag the last few decades but with little success.
For Iwuji, 32, he believes a combination of factors led to the flag being flown for so long at races. Not many drivers and fans had previously raised concerns with the flag, so he said there would not have been enough pressure on NASCAR to expedite a ban. Iwuji also said he and other non-white NASCAR fans he has talked to have not experienced overt racism at tracks.
Further, a sizable portion of the fan base sees the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage rather than one of racism and hatred, and Iwuji said he believes that lack of understanding has contributed to its popularity.
“What we’re trying to do now with NASCAR is make sure that everyone feels comfortable, they feel good going to races and they’re not going to see something that’s going to remind them of a terrible history,” Iwuji said. “We can learn that at school but we don’t need to learn history at the track.”
Moreover, Iwuji believes the motorsports system in itself makes it difficult to attract a diverse array of drivers. Racing is extremely expensive, as drivers must be able to find sponsorships in order to make it to the highest levels. Further, it is difficult to practice for races without being part of an established team. Thus, the sport’s complicated logistics — plus limited outreach efforts to non-white communities — have caused a lack of diversity at every level of racing.
But Iwuji sees a way to fix that. Greater outreach and education efforts to non-white communities can help aspiring drivers learn how to get sponsorships, while putting the sport in front of more eyes, be it on TV or in-person, can ramp up interest.
And that interest could soon begin to rise as NASCAR continues making progress on diversity issues. The league announced June 16 that industry veteran Brandon Thompson will serve as the sport’s first vice president of diversity and inclusion. That and the ban on the Confederate flag are important first moves to opening the sport to all audiences, Iwuji said.
“I think the steps that NASCAR is taking right now will open people’s minds up more to come to a track, where they feel like, ‘OK, I can now come to a track because I don’t feel uncomfortable,’” he said.
For more from Iwuji, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Iwuji