Following weeks of debate over whether the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride or one of racism, the second-biggest professional sports franchise in the U.S. behind the NFL in terms of TV ratings has revised its prior stance on the issue.
Auto racing organization NASCAR asked fans on Thursday to "refrain from displaying the Confederate Flag at our facilities and NASCAR events."
"We're all trying to be, as we should, the most inclusive sport that we can, and you can't say that on one hand and then fly a very offensive flag to an entire race of people on the other," NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said on SiriusXM's NASCAR Radio on Wednesday. "It just doesn't comport. That's where we are, and there's no daylight between that. And I was clear on that over (last) weekend, and our tracks are working on the right kind of solution to work with our fans."
The organization, which boasts a huge fanbase in the South, acknowledged in a Thursday media alert on its site that the the flag issue has taken prominence after the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting on June 17 that resulted in the deaths of nine African-American worshipers. The accused, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was found to have a supremacist manifesto and Confederate flag images.
"As members of the NASCAR industry, we join NASCAR in the desire to make our events among the most fan-friendly, welcoming environments in all of sports and entertainment. To do that, we are asking our fans and partners to join us in a renewed effort to create an all-inclusive, even more welcoming atmosphere for all who attend our events," said a statement posted on the NASCAR site and attributed to "industry members."
"We are committed to providing a welcoming atmosphere free of offensive symbols. This is an opportunity for NASCAR Nation to demonstrate its sense of mutual respect and acceptance for all who attend our events while collectively sharing the tremendous experience of NASCAR racing."
Some of the sports' biggest stars have now stepped into the debate supporting the move.
"I've made my comments about the Confederate flag several times, and I stand behind NASCAR's stance to remove it," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, before opening practice at Sonoma on June 26. "I think if it's offensive to an entire race, it really does nothing for anybody to be there flying. It belongs in the history books, that's about it."
Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, who is in his final full season of competition and, like Earnhardt, is a driver for Hendrick Motorsports, also said at Sonoma: "As far as the Confederate flag ... I know how we approach it at Hendrick Motorsports ... We have eliminated the ability to use it in any way or it show up in any of the things that we are involved with.
"I think that is the stance I see that NASCAR has taken and have had that stance for several years," Gordon continued. "To me I'm in support of what they are doing. It's a delicate balance. We race all over, but the South is an area where we have a lot of fans. Everyone has different opinions and expression of that. I support NASCAR and the stance that they are taking."
Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood announced Tuesday that the track would hold a flag exchange in which fans could trade their Confederate flags for American ones during the weekend's Coke Zero 400. The 57th annual event will be held on Sunday night, July 5 and sees NBC's return to NASCAR.
Signatories listed on the NASCAR statement included the following:
International Speedway Corporation (ISC)
Auto Club Speedway
Daytona International Speedway
Michigan International Speedway
Phoenix International Raceway
Richmond International Raceway
Route 66 Raceway
Watkins Glen International
Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI)
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Bristol Motor Speedway
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Texas Motor Speedway
Dover International Speedway
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
Canadian Tire Motorsport Park
Gateway Motorsports Park