Updated with more information at 9 p.m. on June 10, 2020.
For more than 70 years, the Confederate flag has been a familiar sight at NASCAR races. Through the civil rights era and even at February's Daytona 500 to open the current Cup Series season, the flag dotted infield campsites and was waved in grandstands by stock car racing fans young and old.
As the nation comes to grips with race relations in the wake of the death of George Floyd, NASCAR finally decided it was to fully cut any ties to a flag from which it had tried to distance itself in recent years.
NASCAR banned the flag at its races and all its venues Wednesday, a dramatic step by a series steeped in Southern tradition and proud of its good old boy roots that include moonshine running. It must now hope to convince some of its most ardent fans that it is truly time to leave the flag at home, leave those T-shirts in the drawer, scrape off the bumper stickers and hit the track without a trace of the longtime symbol to many of racism and slavery.
Enforcing the policy may prove challenging, and NASCAR did not offer details Wednesday of how that would happen.
The issue was pushed to the fore this week by Bubba Wallace, currently the lone black driver regularly competing on the top-tier Cup Series and an Alabama native who called for the banishment of the Confederate flag and said there was "no place" for it in the sport.
The ban was announced before Wednesday night's race at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway, where Wallace was driving the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet with a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme. Wallace got a shoutout on Twitter from several athletes, including NBA star LeBron James, for using the paint scheme in the race.
Wallace, wearing an American flag mask as NASCAR's health and safety protocol amid the coronavirus outbreak continued, clapped his hands when asked about the decision before the start of the race.
"It's been a stressful couple of weeks," he said on FS1, which televised the race. "This is no doubt the biggest race of my career tonight. I'm excited about tonight. There's a lot of emotions on the race track."
For the second straight race, Wallace wore a black T-shirt with the words "I CAN'T BREATHE" and "BLACK LIVES MATTER" but did not kneel during the national anthem. His Chevy had "Compassion, love, understanding" emblazoned on the hood. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted "#NASCAR, family" after the announcement.
Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while being detained by police on May 25 in Minneapolis, has been a catalyst for fresh discussions about racism. Protests have roiled the nation for days, and Confederate monuments are being taken down across the South, historically the biggest geographic footprint for NASCAR's fan base.
"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," NASCAR's prepared statement on the matter read. "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."
Enforcing the ban could require added security in the often rowdy, booze-fueled infield filled with fans who may be intent on thumbing their noses at NASCAR. The series declined additional comment, and fans have not been allowed back at races yet amid the coronavirus pandemic. It won't be long, though: NASCAR plans to welcome a small number of fans during Sunday's Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida and more later this month at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
The decision had Confederate flag loyalists howling in protest and vowing to swear off NASCAR.
Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli wrote on Facebook he would quit the sport: "I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl that do and it doesn't make them a racist."
NASCAR helmet artist Jason Beam tweeted "ignorance wins again, NASCAR you realize the North had slaves too, lol not just the South, you want to remove the American Flag as well, idiots." And a publicist for one NASCAR driver tweeted the decision was "a joke."
Five years ago, the flag debate was front and center for NASCAR after nine black churchgoers were slain in Charleston, South Carolina. The man currently on death row for the murders had embraced Confederate symbols before the attack, prompting a reappraisal of the role such emblems play in the South.
Brian France, NASCAR's chairman at the time, said then his organization was "working with the industry to see how far we can go to get that flag to be disassociated entirely from our events." Tracks offered to exchange Confederate flags for American flags, but there were few takers and Confederate flags have continued to be seen at the events.
NASCAR's checkered history with race took another blow in April when Chip Ganassi Racing fired Cup Series driver Kyle Larson after he said a racial slur during a live-streamed virtual race.
Led by Wallace, some of NASCAR's stars have forged ahead ready to create what they hope is a new legacy in the sport. Several drivers — including three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin — said they supported Wallace in his quest to rid NASCAR of the Confederate flag.
The predominantly white field of drivers united this past weekend for a video promoting social change. In what may have been a first for the series, a black NASCAR official, Kirk Price, took a knee before Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where NASCAR president Steve Phelps addressed the drivers via their radios and vowed to to do a better job of addressing racial injustice in the wake of Floyd's death.
"Phelps and I have been in a contact a lot just trying to figure out what steps are next," Wallace said Wednesday night. "That was a huge pivotal moment for the sport. Lot of backlash, but it creates doors for the community to come together as one."