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GREGORY COLUMN: Finally, race has taken on a whole new meaning in NASCAR.

GREGORY COLUMN: Finally, race has taken on a whole new meaning in NASCAR.

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As expected, the announcement set off a not-so-civil war on social media and talk radio.

Defenders of the flag are vowing to disown their sport and never attend another race. These furious folks point to heritage, rights and tradition.

Meanwhile, another segment of the NASCAR family has praised NASCAR for its courage and compassion.

The hero of this hot-button story is Bubba Wallace, the lone black driver in the Cup Series. Earlier this week, the native of Mobile, Alabama, spoke of the need to move away from the symbol which represents hate and horror to many.

Wallace may never win a Cup race, but he has already made an important contribution to a sport that has long been stuck in reverse in regards to diversity.

In multiple interviews this week, Wallace has pointed out how uncomfortable he feels by seeing the flag displayed at tracks.

Other black NASCAR figures such as team owner Brad Daugherty, official Kirk Price and former driver Bill Lester have expressed the same concern along with black media members, NASCAR employees and fans.

Even the sport’s most popular figure, Dale Earnhardt Jr., said the flag was “was offensive to an entire race.”

Those are strong words.

Leave the debates on Civil War history to the scholars. If a piece of cloth is so offensive to millions, why not just in store in a closet or museum instead of flaunting it in a public setting?

Confederate imagery was once a regular part of NASCAR races, especially at southern tracks such as Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Veteran observers can remember the Johnny Reb mascot, the Rebel 500, racial slurs and far-right political posturing in pre-race shows.

The treatment of underfunded black driver Wendell Scott was one of the darkest chapters in American sports. Overcoming death threats and various forms of sabotage, the Danville, Virginia, native competed in 495 Cup races from 1961-1973.

For good reason, Scott was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. Scott’s story of bravery and determination is vital for understanding how far NASCAR has come from its humble beginnings on dusty dirt tracks.

Following the 2015 murder of nine black people by a white supremacist inside a Charleston, South Carolina church, NASCAR leaders asked fans not to bring Confederate flags to tracks.

The plea didn’t work.

Infields, camping areas and concession areas at some tracks still resemble Civil War reenactment sites. And it’s nearly impossible to spot a black spectator at NASCAR races.

Now, NASCAR has taken the next step with the outright flag ban.

From seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to rising star Ryan Blaney, the competitors have supported the move.

Major media outlets, which have long ignored or ridiculed stock car racing, have mentioned NASCAR in glowing terms. Many of the nation’s top journalists have bared their souls with hard-hitting and personal commentaries.

Like much of America society, NASCAR has reached a crossroads following worldwide protests to the recent death of George Floyd.

Does the sport cling to its checkered past or does it finally extend a welcome mat to fans of all backgrounds?

Banning the Confederate flag may seem like a symbolic gesture or business move to some, but NASCAR had no choice but to act here.

The sport will lose some disgruntled supporters. It will also gain interest from fans who once felt shunned and appreciation from longtime followers and corporate leaders have become weary of having to defend the sport from critics.

Wallace drives for NASCAR’s biggest legend in Richard Petty. It’s interesting to note that the 82-year-old Petty is an outspoken conservative Republican.

On Wednesday night at Martinsville, Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet featured a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme that included interlocking black and white hands and the phrase, “Compassion, Love, Understanding.”

The Petty team lacks the horsepower and manpower of the multi-car titans, but Wallace still managed an 11th place finish Wednesday. The Mobile, Alabama, native called it “the biggest race of my career.”

Like it or not, the Martinsville event was one of the biggest events in the history of the sport.

Finally, race has taken on a whole new meaning in NASCAR.

agregory@bristolnews.com | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544

agregory@bristolnews.com | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544

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