- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 18, 2021

RICHMOND — During the pandemic lockdowns, Candace Brandt has been going through what she calls “NASCAR withdrawal.” Sure the sport has returned, events have been televised and champions have been crowned. But nothing quite replicates the feeling Brandt experiences when she and her husband Scott attend a race in person. The Brandts have done so together since 1997 — almost entirely the length of their 25-year marriage.

She can even pinpoint what she missed most. 

“Just the smell,” Candace Brandt says, “The smell of fuel and tires and everything else.” 

The Brandts finally made their return to the track this weekend when they made the four-hour drive from their Pennsylvania home to attend the NASCAR ToyotaCare 250 and the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. The events marked the first time since September 2019 that Richmond Raceway has reopened for NASCAR fans — albeit at a limited capacity of 30%, or roughly 15,000.

But the sport the fans have come back to is hardly the same. There are now reminders at nearly every turn of how the world has changed over the past year, none more noticeable than the health and safety protocols in place to prevent the tailgating that was once a pre-race staple of any event. 

Then there are the cultural shifts. The Confederate flag is gone, now deemed a symbol too divisive for a sport trying to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional Southern roots. The flag was banned at the urging of Black driver Bubba Wallace and others who called for NASCAR to embrace the nationwide reckoning with race that has followed in the wake of police shootings.

With races conducted in front of socially distanced crowds as a result of COVID-19, it’s not clear yet whether the sports’ conservative, ticket-buying fans accept the new NASCAR — the jury is still out. 

Brandt, 45, said she’s glad NASCAR took steps last summer to show it wasn’t going to “stand for the division in the country,” adding she respects Wallace for speaking out against police brutality and was “very proud” to see the sport’s fellow drivers issuing their support of Wallace over the summer.

But …

“This is a group of people that, honestly, we all share one thing in common: NASCAR racing,” Brandt said. “And that’s what this should be about. Strictly the racing. Not the politics behind it.”

Traditions and transitions

Mac Harman has attended Richmond Raceway for as long as he can remember. The King George, Virginia, resident started going with his uncle when he was 4, and now has a family of his own to bring to the track.

Harman can recall seeing the Confederate flag prominently at events growing up. And when NASCAR banned the symbol in June, Harman said a number of people he used to tailgate with were so upset that they vowed to never attend another NASCAR event again. That viewpoint, though, didn’t resonate for Harman.

“I think it’s a generational thing,” Harman said. “I’m 30. My generation looks and says, ‘If the reason you go to the track because of a flag … ’ That’s kind of where we’re at. It’s not that big of a deal. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

Harman could have a point. Other younger fans like Jason Boleman and Devin Foster — both 23 — said they had no issue with banning the flag. 

Those from an older generation like Rusty Gilfillan, 74, and Clint Harrington, 71, were unhappy with the ways the sport has changed. Gilfillan said he doesn’t come to a NASCAR to get “somebody’s views on the world,” suggesting it was “cancel culture” that played a role in banning the flag.

Harrington echoed a similar line of thinking.

“It doesn’t matter what color you are, you’re a racecar driver or you’re not,” Harrington said. “To go in there and try and change history because you don’t like what a flag looks like? I mean, I don’t know. I have a real problem with that, you know?”

The controversy around the flag, of course, is about more than aesthetics. Wallace, NASCAR’s lone Black driver, has long said the symbol was alienating and made him uncomfortable. Groups like the ACLU and Broad Colation also deemed the flag hateful. 

At Richmond Raceway over the weekend, there were policies in place to prevent the flag from being displayed. A NASCAR spokesman said there are signs around the facility emphasizing the ban, adding the league has not had “substantial issues” at any other events that have brought back fans. 

“It’s a well-established policy at this point,” the spokesman said. 

If the new NASCAR is losing fans, it’s hard to tell for now. 

Racing, like basketball and other sports, has seen year-to-year ratings decline. But experts say the reasons are multitude. 

This year’s Daytona 500, for example, drew 4.8 million viewers — a 34% drop from 2020, which was already a record low. But was the lower number due to the ban — or the five-hour rain delay that pushed the start time to later the night? According to Sports Media Watch, NASCAR’s first five Cup Series events posted lower ratings compared to the corresponding week of the previous year.

Since then, however, there have been gains, depending on the event. Last weekend’s race in Martinsville (2.3 million viewers) boosted a higher rating than the same event drew in 2020 (1.71 million), which took place midweek. 

Different vibe

In some ways, the events that led NASCAR to change were just as relevant this week in the lead-up to this weekend’s races. In Minneapolis, an officer was charged with second-degree manslaughter for shooting and killing Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man whose death led to nationwide protests. In Chicago, city officials released the video of a police officer fatally shooting Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino who died last month. 

Wallace sounded off on the incidents Thursday.  He said pushing for racial justice is a “never-ending battle,” but said he was frustrated over what he felt like was a lack of progress. He noted how Toledo was still shot despite putting up his hands.

“It seems like every day now is a different hashtag,” Wallace said. “Just sad.”

Wallace, who was booed upon introduction and started from the 15th position in Sunday’s race, said he is proud of the way NASCAR has made an effort to try and become more inclusive. On Wednesday, the racing league tweeted out a video that highlighted the organization’s efforts to promote equality. “Now, it’s time to accelerate change and empower communities,” NASCAR tweeted. 

Dennis Bickmeier, the president of Richmond Raceway, told The Washington Times that NASCAR “can’t start and stop” its focus on diversity and inclusion.

“Our job is to create a welcoming environment for all,” Bickmeier said. “I think we’ve done that through our training of our guest service members who are. When you’re here, you’re a guest, you’re a race fan and it’s our job to create a welcoming environment.” 

Even with the pledge, the weekend’s events in Richmond took no special note of the incidents in Minneapolis or Chicago. There was no display of solidarity like the one in June, when drivers walked with Wallace in response to a noose being found in the drivers’ garage. (An investigation later revealed that Wallace was not the target of a hate crime and the rope had been in a noose-like fashion since 2019) 

Instead, for lap after lap, the focus was on racing. Even that, though, felt new and altered. 

Candace Brandt, for instance, said it was “weird” to not see a parade of people tailgating outside their cars. Harman said he missed the routine interactions between drivers and fans that ordinarily took place under normal circumstances. Those have been put on pause as a way to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Some of those changes are likely temporary. Others could be long-lasting. 

“Anytime NASCAR makes a change, there are so many people that don’t want to see it,” Scott Brandt said. “It’s, ‘Oh, we need to stick with what we were.’ You can’t.”

“You have to evolve with the times,” his wife and fellow racing fan added.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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