NASCAR, Sonoma Raceway address Confederate flag

Is the Confederate battle flag the “Pride of Dixie,” a symbol of healthy rebellion or an icon that represents one of the darkest times in American history?

It depends who you ask.

If you ask T.J. Woodward of Sonoma why he was seen wearing a “Stars and Bars” flag around his waistband at Sonoma Raceway on Friday, he’ll tell you what he told a Press Democrat photographer: It’s “because I wanted to.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., a fan favorite in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series and a native of Kannapolis, N.C., got straight to the point in a Friday press conference.

“I’ve made my comments on the Confederate flag several times, and I stand behind NASCAR’s stance to remove it,” he said. “I think it is offensive to an entire race. It really does nothing for anybody to be there, flying. It belongs in the history books and that’s about it.”

As the Sprint Cup visits Sonoma for today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, the debate surrounding the flag in the wake of the shootings at a Charleston, S.C., church hasn’t gone away. Today’s race is the first since the shootings, and the sport with deep historical roots in the South has had to state its position on the matter, due in part to the fact that fans often fly the flags on their RVs and trailers, in addition to wearing it occasionally in the stands.

A Sonoma Raceway spokesperson said Thursday that “we have not seen Confederate flags flown at the raceway in a number of years, but do not have an active policy to restrict the types of flags that can be displayed by our guests.”

As of Saturday, a track spokesperson said there had been no incidents involving the flag at the track this weekend.

The Confederate flag has been thrust into the public consciousness by the mass shooting at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine churchgoers were killed at Bible study class on June 17. Police called it a racially motivated attack and arrested 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who is awaiting trial on multiple murder and hate crime charges.

In the days after the shooting, attention was brought to the fact that South Carolina continued to fly the Confederate flag along with its state flag at the capitol building in Columbia, S.C.

NASCAR released a statement early last week, saying the Confederate flag would not be tolerated. “While NASCAR recognizes that freedom of expression is an inherent right of all citizens, we will continue to strive for an inclusive environment at our events,” racing leadership said in a statement.

On Saturday, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France reiterated the association’s stance. “NASCAR will maintain its longstanding policy preventing the use of the Confederate flag in any official position at our events,” France said in a statement. “In all areas that NASCAR controls on a given race weekend, the flag has no presence.”

According to NBC Sports, Speedway Motorsports Incorporated, which owns Sonoma Raceway, released a similar statement last week and also urged “any third-party vendors to remove such items from their inventory on our property.”

Regionally, a San Francisco 49ers spokesperson said the team, per its fan code of conduct policy, would ask for any representation of the flag to be removed because the policy “doesn’t permit offensive flags, banners, signs, language or clothing.”

The San Francisco Giants also have a policy stating that “any fan wearing culturally insensitive attire, using obscene or abusive language, engaging in antisocial conduct offensive to those around them or displaying any other offensive behavior is subject to removal from the ballpark.”

In the Santa Rosa area, outgoing North Bay League commissioner Marie Sugiyama said there is no specific NBL policy on the flag for the league’s member high schools, but that it could fall under the NBL’s sportsmanship guidelines, which requires teams to respect their opponents.

“If the school feels it’s a derogatory remark,” she said, “that would (fall) under the sportsmanship rules of the individual schools.”

But it remains an emotionally charged issue, and the growing sentiment to remove the flag from public display is likely to meet passionate support and resistance.

Even Earnhardt got a strong taste of the passion after his remarks about supporting NASCAR policy. His fans responded to his quotes on Facebook, some supporting him, others saying they were no longer his fans, some saying they couldn’t support a man who “turns on part of his heritage.”

Similarly, a USA Today sportswriter who wrote a column saying NASCAR should ban the flags at all its tracks received backlash from some readers. The most ardent objectors not only denounced his commentary, but added derogatory comments and racial epithets.

On Saturday, in the heart of NASCAR country, a woman climbed the flag pole at the South Carolina statehouse and took down the Confederate flag. According to the Associated Press, the woman released a statement through her attorney saying, “We couldn’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day.”

The flag, which is protected by South Carolina state law, was hoisted back up one hour later, in advance of a pro-Confederate flag rally scheduled for the capitol building later in the day.

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