INDIANAPOLIS — Who speaks for auto racing?
Is it the fan who is boycotting NASCAR because they won’t let him display the flag he favors? Is it the city sportswriter who refers to motorsports as a backwoods, racist throwback to an earlier age? Is it Bubba Wallace? Or is it the people who write on his Twitter feed that he should take his dark skin and go back where he came from?
It’s me who speaks for auto racing. And you. And all of the above.
Throughout our history auto racing has operated in a bubble, mostly oblivious to the various social changes that swept through American culture. That bubble has burst in recent weeks and as our nation wrestles with social upheavals related to racism, motorsports has been thrust into the national limelight — with a great deal of discomfort.
Some within our sport wish the discussion would go away, while others welcome it as a long overdue conversation about some very uncomfortable elements of our history.
American auto racing is a sport overwhelmingly filled with and followed by white people. That fact is as obvious today as at any point in our history. The reasons for that are historic, complex and subject to debate.
Frankly, it’s an issue the sport hasn’t contemplated much over the past century because in our bubble we were never confronted with the topic.
But we’re confronted with it now.
The uncomfortable truth is that there are people in our sport — sometimes in a position of leadership — who say and do things that are openly racist. They position it as a joke, of course, and those who take exception are ridiculed as a snowflake.
If a track owner, for example, decides to go public with an asinine racist promotional idea and it lands him on the national news, mainstream people with no connection to our sport might assume that everyone in racing holds the same views as that promoter.
We cannot allow that to happen.
The rest of the world needs to know that those few misguided people do not speak — or act — for the rest of us. I have spent a lifetime covering American auto racing and I can say with conviction that a few racist voices do not represent the feelings of the vast majority of motorsports people.
If black Americans — or any persons of color — feel they aren’t welcome in our grandstands and garage area, that should be deeply troubling to all of us. Worse yet, if a small segment of people in our sport privately don’t want black fans or competitors here, that is the most troubling element of all.
So I’m going to go on the record and say this: I welcome anyone and everyone to be a part of the sport I love. NOBODY should ever feel unwelcome at a racing facility or event because of the color of their skin or because of their political beliefs.
Diversity is one of the most cherished American ideas and a principle that generations of fighting men and women shed their blood to protect. We are a big, wide melting pot of faces and ideas and to believe otherwise is to ignore the essence of what America is all about.
For my part, this isn’t meant to be a political statement. Frankly, I have come to loathe contemporary politics. The discussion of race in America — in my opinion — goes far beyond simple political beliefs. No, my sentiments come from the gut and a lifelong belief that our nation is stronger when ALL Americans can enjoy our immense freedom and opportunities.
Sentimental hogwash? That’s your opinion. But even if you can’t see that welcoming all people is the right thing to do, you can’t ignore the obvious long-term impact of thinking otherwise.
Money is the fuel for every race car ever built and the sport requires outside money to survive. That takes the form of the Fortune 500 sponsor on the side of a top-level car all the way down to signage for a neighborhood restaurant at the local bullring.
If America’s mainstream — including business owners, large and small — begins to believe auto racing is filled with racist people and racist beliefs, they won’t invest here. If motorsports is tagged with a negative connotation and it sticks, that is a very bad thing. Trust me.
In our previous bubble, motorsports people could say and do things well beyond the line of acceptance of mainstream America. But we were mostly off the radar, so it didn’t matter. But that has changed. The spotlight can be withering and it is crucial that each of us in motorsports — particularly those in a leadership role — be proactive in making sure the world knows our sport welcomes all people.
That’s why it’s important for you and me to speak up; not later, but NOW. Putting our head in the sand and wishing the conversation would go away is the wrong approach. We must send a message — loud and clear — that the people of our sport are not racist and we welcome everyone. From the superspeedways to the backwoods quarter miles, it’s crucial that we face the issue of race honestly and directly.
Uncomfortable? Most definitely.
Necessary? Absolutely. Let there be no doubt.