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NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace on banning the Confederate flag and a new generation of fans

NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag represents a major shift for a sport at whose races they have been ubiquitous. Successfully pushing for the ban this week was Bubba Wallace, a driver in NASCAR’s top series. He joins Amna Nawaz to discuss how his sport is showing leadership, why he sees the demographics of NASCAR fans changing and his own experience with the Confederate flag.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now for NASCAR.

    The decision to ban the Confederate Flag represents a major shift. The flag has long been a hard-to-miss presence at races. This photo shows some flying at a Homestead-Miami Speedway. This was back in 2018.

    Now, the driving force this week pushing for the ban has been Bubba Wallace, a driver in NASCAR's top series who's been elevating the issue of racial equality in that community. At recent races, he's worn shirts with the message "I can't breathe." And Wednesday evening, he raced 500 laps in a car sporting a special Black Lives Matter paint scheme.

    NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace joins us now.

    Bubba, thanks for making the time, and welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you about this decision, because it happened pretty quickly. It seems like, within days of you making that request, NASCAR said, all-out ban on the flag.

    But they have wrestled wit before. I remember, back in 2015, they encouraged fans to stop bringing the flag, and the fans ignored them. So why do you think they did this ban, an all-out ban now?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    Well, good to be talking to you, first of all.

    Really, it's something that is — that needed to be done. Since then, obviously way before then, we have been trying to get this change going.

    And, Dale Jr. said way back then, the flag belongs in history books and museums now. And I'm proud of NASCAR for stepping up and taking that action to get rid of the flag.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you think there's something about this time that we find ourselves in right now that said to them, this is something we have to take; it's not enough to encourage fans to stop bringing it; we have to just ban it?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    Yes, for sure.

    I had conversations with NASCAR leadership, specifically Steve Phelps, the president, and talking of how we need it take affirmative action to get rid of the flag immediately and just do a whole culture shift with the sport.

    Our sport has this such bad stigma about us. And I want to show that we can provide so much more than the histories past and make this about inclusion, diversity, unity, and coming together as one.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Bubba, let me ask you about the future of the sport, because it's worth noting, like a lot of sports ratings, NASCAR has been in decline, right?

    Viewership has been going down. Do you think that their concerns about turning away or alienating potential new fans were part of their decision right now?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    Actually, the stats we have been getting, the viewership's been going up.

    So, we have — obviously, all sports have gone down from across all boards, but our sports teams kind of leading in the forefront. And us being the first sport back after this COVID-19 pandemic really shows the leadership that we have, and how we can take on what's new for us and create the new normal for right now.

    So, fans are going to start coming back soon. And I'm excited for when it's back to the old ways of fans being able to just come up and purchase the ticket and enjoy the race, because that demographic is going to be a lot different than what we have seen in the past. That's my hope. And I truly believe in that. And the change has started and it's coming and still in full form.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you mean by that when you say the future demographic is going to be different than you have seen in the past?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    It's just going to be a different face, I feel like.

    We have always talked about having a more diverse background, a diverse fan base in the stands, people of all races and colors going to be there to support their favorite driver. It doesn't even have to be me, but just being there and enjoying their time, cheering on their favorite driver, buying their merch, eating — eating in the concession stand, just having a good time with the family.

    It's a family sport. And we encourage all families to come out and have fun.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bubba, it's worth pointing out to anyone who doesn't know that you're the first full-time black driver since 1971 in NASCAR.

    And you mentioned before that you heard from some first-time racegoers, they came to races, they saw the flag, and it made them uncomfortable. You didn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable.

    But what about you? In all your years participating in what's an overwhelmingly white sport, did the flag ever make you feel uncomfortable?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    It didn't.

    I always had the mind-set — and maybe I was blind to it — of just going out there and chasing checkered flags. And now being more open and more of a leader on the matter, it's not about me. It's about the people I'm representing, my fan base.

    I want my fans, I encourage my fans to come out to races. And if fans have a problem with something, then it's — I feel like it's up to me to stand up for what's right and to create equality, and make everybody feel comfortable going wherever they are.

    That's what's wrong. We're so afraid of stepping outside of our box to enjoy, you know, the unknowns. And I'm a person that lives life on the edge and has no holdbacks. And I encourage people to do that as well. But when there are certain things that we can control as people that's holding a different demographic back, then let's just come together and meet in the middle and get rid of it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bubba, I have to ask you, because we're having this conversation after millions of people watched the video of George Floyd dying.

    And you shared recently that you have seen it, that your mom saw it, and that she sent you a message after that. What was that message?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    Yes.

    She just said, you know, she hopes, she prays that she will never have to see me lying on the ground saying, "I can't breathe," and that my life matters to her.

    So, that was — that was a pretty impactful message. And that just pushed me to keep doing the things that I'm doing off the track to change — change the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can I ask you what you first thought when you saw the video?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    I was — it was disgusting to see, and I was hurt.

    I was hurt for two or three weeks prior to that over the Ahmaud Arbery video, being hunted down and killed in broad daylight. So, I have been feeling at lot of hurt and pain and anger, just like the African-American community has.

    And so this was the tip of the iceberg, where we're simply tired of trying to peacefully protest and say something, and nothing happens. So, you see all this chaos and whatnot going on. We're tired. We're hurting. We're in pain.

    The African-American people are trying to speak out and say they want change, and change is coming.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bubba, very briefly, in the few seconds we have left, there are people who are going to look at the ban and say: OK, this flag is important to me. It's part of the heritage. If NASCAR is done with the flag, I'm done with NASCAR.

    What would you say to them?

  • Bubba Wallace:

    It's tough to change the simple-minded people, people that are stuck in their ways and don't want to adapt to change. That's tough.

    But a good friend of mine, Marty Smith of ESPN, said, NASCAR is not closing the door on you. They're opening the door to many others.

    And that stuck out to me. So, it's pretty powerful there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Bubba Wallace, a driver for NASCAR, joining us tonight from North Carolina.

    Bubba, thank you so much for making the time.

  • Bubba Wallace:

    Yes. Thanks.

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