The NASCAR racing circuit has long positioned itself as an iconic all-American brand, despite the extremely limited demographic range of its drivers. The organization has made an effort to diversify in recent years, but now the viral “Let’s Go, Brandon” chant threatens to set NASCAR back to the beginning.
NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The organization launched in the 1940s, in an era when segregation in professional sports clouded auto racing as well as team sports including baseball, football and basketball.
However, in its early years NASCAR stood out for its embrace of racism in unique and symbolically powerful ways, such as encouraging displays of the Confederate flag. NASCAR founder Bill France was also known for his close relationship with former Alabama Governor George Wallace, a leading supporter of Jim Crow segregation laws at the time.
“When Wallace deigned to challenge President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Democratic primary, France featured Wallace at NASCAR events, served as Wallace’s campaign chairman in Florida and gifted the governor free rides on his private planes to canvas the country,” Guardian reporter Andrew Lawrence writes in a 2020 article in The Guardian, describing NASCAR’s racist past.
In all, Lawrence counts just four Black drivers in NASCAR history. Only one of those four, Bubba Wallace, is currently active. It is a miserable track record in an era in which black athletes have emerged as dominant forces in other sports.
“Four black drivers, all of them disrespected because of their skin color in one way or another, all but Wallace tarrying at the outermost reaches of the sport,” Lawrence concludes of NASCAR’s record. “That’s the list. That’s all NASCAR has to show for its 72-year history. Given that glacial rate of change, it makes sense that all of these men had to endure Confederate flag displays on top of other forms of bigotry.”
Lawrence was among those who criticized NASCAR in the summer of 2020, when the organization finally banned the Confederate flag at its events.
“Too little, too late” is the common refrain. NASCAR imposed the ban on June 10, 2020, after protests erupted across the nation on the heels of the murder of George Floyd.
Part of the problem was that NASCAR failed to articulate why the Confederate flag is offensive. The June 10 statement read in full:
“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
That certainly leaves a gaping hole in the story. The Confederate states launched a treacherous, bloody conflict under that flag, with the aim of making human slavery a permanent feature of American life. Given that history, the phrase “runs contrary to our commitment” is weak tea indeed.
Despite the criticism, NASCAR has organized diversity efforts prior to 2020.
In 2000, NASCAR launched a gender and racial diversity internship program for various fields that support the auto racing industry. It also has a supplier diversity program, and it runs the “Drive for Diversity” program,” which focuses on drivers and pit operations.
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An article on the NASCAR website explains that the organization has established four distinct employee resource groups and a Diversity & Inclusion division, which “strives to create an inclusive environment in all facets of the NASCAR industry recognizing the value of diversity.” The program includes fan relations as well as industry operations.
“In 2021, NASCAR formed an Industry DE&I Committee that includes influential names like NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace, NASCAR President Steve Phelps and NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, along with representation across teams, tracks, manufacturers, rightsholders and official partners,” NASCAR adds.
Building inclusive relationships outside of the sport is another aspect of NASCAR’s diversity planning. The organization currently lists the Urban Youth Racing School, The Trevor Project, the Women’s Sports Foundation and UnidosUS among its associations.
A big assist to the effort came in May 2021, when basketball legend and entrepreneur Michael Jordan became the first Black principle owner of a NASCAR, as co-owner of the 23XI Racing Team with Bubba Wallace behind the wheel.
And, then came the “Let’s Go, Brandon” chant.
It’s not easy for an organization to erase generations of association with white supremacy. That became abundantly clear on October 2, 2021, at the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Talladega, Alabama.
During a live NBC television interview with NASCAR driver Brandon Brown at the venue, the crowd could be heard in the background enthusiastically slurring President Biden with the obscene chant, “F— You, Biden.”
The NBC reporter suggested the crowd was actually chanting “Let’s Go, Brandon,” and the rest is history. In the following weeks, “Let’s Go, Brandon” went viral and merchandized as a stand-in for the racist appeal of former President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” 2016 campaign slogan.
On November 6, NASCAR President Steve Phelps attempted to distance the organization from the sloganeering. However, he failed to address the white supremacist roots of the rhetoric. Instead, he adopted a “both sides” posture.
“Do we like the fact that it kind of started with NASCAR and then is gaining ground elsewhere? No, we’re not happy about that,” Phelps said, but he also stated that "unfortunately it speaks to the state of where we are as a country. We do not want to associate ourselves with politics, the left or the right.”
Unfortunately for Phelps and NASCAR, the controversy only grew over the ensuing weeks.
Earlier this week, news broke that Brandon Brown’s Brandonbuilt Motorsports team has engaged the cryptocurrency meme coin LGBcoin as a sponsor for its Chevrolet Camero racing car, clearly evoking the obscene meme.
NASCAR is reportedly reviewing the deal, but the Brown team claims that they already received written approval for the sponsorship. Meanwhile, in case there are any doubts about the meaning of “LGB,” LGBCoin itself has laid those doubts to rest.
"If we do our job right, when you think of us, and you hear, 'Let's Go Brandon,' you'll think and feel, 'Let's Go America,'” said LGBcoin leading holder James Koutoulas, in a press release cited by CNN.
NASCAR is not the only brand to fall flat on diversity and inclusion in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. Although brands like Ben & Jerry’s set a high bar for action by demanding that then-President Trump denounce white supremacy, corporate leaders have barely moved the needle to counteract waves of race-based voting restrictions sweeping through state legislatures this year.
With public hearings in Congress on the January 6 insurrection finally set to take place, now is the time for NASCAR, NASCAR sponsors and all corporate leaders to make their position clear on white supremacist violence.
“Both sides” did not invade Congress with intent to kill on January 6, 2021. “Both sides” do not continue to insist, against all evidence, that former President Trump won a second term during the 2020 presidential election. “Both sides” do not perpetuate and amplify the lie that massive voter fraud propelled President Biden into office.
The simple fact is that President Biden won his office on a coalition platform that mobilized millions of Black voters and other non-white citizens, and that is the truth the “Let’s Go, Brandon” set will not accept.
Image credit: Caitlyn Wilson via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.