Bubba Wallace: I'm speaking up for the people made uncomfortable by the Confederate flag at NASCAR races

Bubba Wallace didn’t get much sleep after finishing 11th at Martinsville Wednesday night.

Wallace was on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today” on Thursday, a day after NASCAR said that it was banning fans from displaying the Confederate flag at tracks. NASCAR’s ban is a step further than its move in 2015 when it simply asked fans to refrain from flying the flag.

“Really proud of the efforts of NASCAR for stepping up and wanting to be part of change,” Wallace told GMA. “I know it’s tough, they’re in a tough situation. They’ve been in a tough situation for a really long time now, but I think this is the most crucial time and time is of the essence right now in the world we’re in, and the nation that we’re in to create change and create unity and come together and really try to be more inclusive.”

Wallace’s car on Wednesday night supported the Black Lives Matter movement. That car’s paint scheme was unveiled Tuesday after Wallace wore a shirt supporting Black Lives Matter in honor of George Floyd ahead of Sunday’s race at Atlanta.

Wallace told Today that conversations about banning the flag began last week. NASCAR president Steve Phelps made a speech before Sunday’s race addressing racial injustice and inequality, and there was a moment of silence before the race went green. He said that he had heard from too many people about the uneasiness they felt when going to NASCAR races and seeing the Confederate flag.

“I wouldn’t say surprised,” Wallace said when asked about NASCAR’s prohibition. “We started having those conversations last week talking to [Phelps], being very vocal with him. He’s a great friend of mine and I told him that. That’s how I started off the message. We’re friends here, don’t let me cross the line like I do — we’ve got to work together to get through it, but we’ve got to get rid of this flag. I’ve seen too many comments and too many stories from fans or first-time fans that had come to a race in years past and the first thing they say is ‘I’ve seen the Confederate flag fly and it made me feel uncomfortable.’

“And it’s just like we shouldn’t have anybody feeling uncomfortable. It’s not a race thing, it’s about walking into an event and feeling uncomfortable. That’s it. If you felt uncomfortable, you’d want change. So I’m speaking up for the people that show up to the race track and feel that type of way.” 

NASCAR asked fans to stop flying flag in 2015

NASCAR first made a move to disassociate itself from the Confederate flag in 2015 in the wake of a white supremacist’s mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina. While former NASCAR CEO Brian France said he wanted the Confederate flag gone from tracks, NASCAR simply said it would appreciate it if fans didn’t display the flag while at races.

That really didn’t work. While the prominence of the flag in track infields and campgrounds has lessened over the years, some fans were still flying it on race weekends up until March when the coronavirus pandemic halted fan attendance at NASCAR races.

As NASCAR realized in the days after Floyd’s killing on May 25 that it needed to do more than it did five years ago, banning the flag became the obvious next step. It offered no specifics on that policy on Wednesday, likely because there will be extremely limited attendance at select NASCAR races in the foreseeable future due to the pandemic. NASCAR has the benefit of banning the flag now and figuring out the logistics of enforcement in the coming weeks and months.

Wallace pushed others to speak out

Wallace is the only black driver who races full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three series, and when he won a Truck Series race at Martinsville in 2013 he became the first black driver to win a NASCAR race since Wendell Scott in 1964.

Wallace told Dale Earnhardt Jr. last week on Junior’s podcast that he had pushed other drivers to speak up about racial injustice and inequality after seeing the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia on video, as well as the video of a police officer having his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Multiple drivers spoke out against injustice over the past week, and Wallace’s friend Ryan Blaney said Wednesday night that he had gone to a peaceful protest in Charlotte in the past week.

“I'm not a person who if I go to a peaceful protest, I'm not going to like boast it out that I'm there,” Blaney said. “You're there to learn. You're there to understand and talk to people. You're not there to say, Look, I'm here. I just want to go there and learn and talk people and support them as well.

“I think it's great. I think a lot of people should check the peaceful protests out. You can learn a lot from people just talking and hearing their stories.”

Driver Bubba Wallace waits for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Martinsville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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