Column: Race and racing is not a lost cause

HAMPTON, GEORGIA - JUNE 07: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 McDonald's Chevrolet, wears a "I Can't Breath - Black Lives Matter" T-shirt under his fire suit in solidarity with protesters around the world taking to the streets after the death of George Floyd on May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis, Minnesota police on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 07, 2020 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 McDonald’s Chevrolet, wears a “I Can’t Breathe – Black Lives Matter” T-shirt before the NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 07, 2020 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

I sat down to write this month’s column and wanted so badly to be able to talk to you about racing’s return – in phases – from COVID-19 and how grateful I was for that. I wanted so badly to be able to focus on the joy of being at the racetrack again myself.

I’m not sure how any of us do that in 2020, with the world seemingly burning down all around us.

Whether we like it or not, our sport is seen as one of the symbols of why there’s unrest – that we’re the epitome of old-world, exclusive, backward-thinking. I wanted to write about how dirt racing can be part of the solution. I wanted to write about how our sport has a tremendous opportunity to be inclusive. But then I figured, what’s the point? Am I screaming into the void? Is it a lost cause to try to appeal to the humanity of people I see at the racetrack?

It’s not a lost cause. But it is going to require us taking an uncomfortable look at ourselves.

Since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May, we’ve been inundated with tweets, posts and clips of protests. While dirt racing has been almost entirely silent on it, we’ve seen NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace lead a wave of acknowledgement in the driver corps for our pavement brethren as the only Black driver in the sport right now. We’ve seen tension and division, but we’ve also seen healing and unity.

Social issues and sports have never actually been separate – save for racing. Racing has been overwhelmingly conservative, white and male its entire existence, and the cases of social activism within the sport are almost non-existent. That’s not a matter of opinion. 

We fight the perception that we’re all redneck racists. We fight the perception we’re backward because we go play in the dirt, drink Busch Light and fight. 

A good plenty of people wish sports to be a safe haven from all this. Their wish is that we can go to the track and not have to think or talk about the uncomfortable and divisive parts of the world. Plenty of social media posts have specifically said to leave all this away from the racetrack, in fact. In theory, I’d love that, too. But if we ignore what’s going on completely and we don’t even acknowledge other people’s suffering, we are part of the problem.

Black people go to the racetrack, but not enough. LGBTQ+ people go to the racetrack, but not enough. I want every person to come enjoy it with us because it’s the best sport in the world, in its best form. I hate the idea that someone doesn’t feel comfortable coming because they feel they might not be welcomed.

I’m not an expert in race relations and have never claimed to be. I’m also not an authority on how to change our society for the better. But I want to challenge anyone who reads this to truly question why you think someone might feel uncomfortable coming to the racetrack, and how you can be part of the change.

I don’t have any idea what it really feels like to not be welcome at the racetrack. I’m a white guy from a small town who grew up at the track and have been involved in the sport in one way or another since I was eight years old. I can’t speak to those feelings. But I can listen.

You’ve seen a million different statements from prominent athletes and leagues, sharing that it’s time to listen and learn. I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to do that, especially if it makes everyone’s world a little better. 

It feels disingenuous to just talk about Tim McCreadie winning The Stream at Eldora, or even Kyle Larson – who has been tight-lipped with everyone since his ouster from NASCAR for using a racist term himself – winning a smattering of races with the All-Stars. I want to get back to the fun of all this, and I promise this space won’t become a social justice column, but I couldn’t send words out to you all right now without sharing what I feel in my heart.

I don’t know if dirt racing can really make an impact on inclusion and acceptance. I don’t know if we’ll ever be a community where people of color or different sexual orientations feel like they have a place. Some of you are OK with that, some are not. I can’t tell you how to feel in your heart, but a guy can wish.

I love racing with all my heart. I want my racing friends to understand that Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean all lives don’t matter, but rather that the phrase simply acknowledges the suffering of others without taking away anything from the majority. I want my racing friends to stop making gay jokes. I want my racing friends to live the Christian ideals so many espouse – to treat others how we wish to be treated.

I don’t think I’m asking a lot here. But maybe if we put our egos aside and try to move forward together, we can all make the world better, and go back to having fun at the races.

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