This year, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson is calling it quits on a legendary career. While Johnson’s legacy will center around his wins on the track, he’s also been very supportive about some efforts around the sport that have little to do with actual racing.
Johnson was recently asked about NASCAR’s progress with regard to racial justice. The future Hall of Famer had plenty of thoughts.
The history of NASCAR and racial justice
NASCAR’s history in race relations is fairly complicated and not altogether positive. The sport is tightly interwoven into Southern culture. For much of its history, it’s been a predominantly Southern sport.
The American South has been something of a powder keg when it comes to racial politics, particularly throughout the 20th century and the civil rights era. That means that the social and racial justice affecting all of society may have come a bit slower to NASCAR than it did for other sports.
NASCAR’s drivers have largely been white men for the majority of the sport’s history. The sport’s fan base is also predominantly white. Until very recently, fans were allowed to display Confederate flags at some NASCAR races. This made for a sport that wasn’t exactly friendly to ethnic minorities.
The calls of racial justice that made their way to NASCAR this year
2020 was a major step forward for NASCAR when it came to leveling the playing field of racial justice. For one thing, CNN reported that the sport banned Confederate flags at all events. This was a significant sign of progress, as there were NASCAR races where the flag was prominently displayed by some fans. Removing it moves the sport farther into the 21st century.
Also this year, Black driver Bubba Wallace drove a “Black Lives Matter” car. After Wallace was thought to be the victim of a potential hate crime, the rest of the drivers publicly supported Wallace by walking with him as he drove the track.
To some, this might represent the least the sport could have done. But progress is progress, no matter how incremental. As one of the best and most influential drivers, Johnson had plenty to say about just how far NASCAR has come when it comes to addressing racial injustice.
Jimmie Johnson’s comments on NASCAR’s racial progress this year
Jimmie Johnson is retiring this year after a long and storied career. Sports Illustrated interviewed him about his life, career, and reflections on the sport he holds dear. They also asked Johnson what he thought about NASCAR’s progress over the past year. Johnson was encouraged by what he’s seen from NASCAR, saying:
“It’s been a big year for our sport to grow, and I have to commend NASCAR leadership. I have to commend the drivers and everybody collectively wanting to have a voice and to be involved. Some would say this is the most progressive year our sport has had on that front, and I’m proud to be a part of that.
I feel like the growth inside the sport has been there for a long, long time, but toward the public we crossed a few bridges that should have been crossed a long time ago.”
Growth may have been a long time coming for NASCAR, but it’s here. One could argue (as Johnson does) that these developments were long overdue. But the fact remains that they’re happening.
While Johnson is leaving the sport as a driver, it’s clear he intends to remain involved in some capacity. It sounds like Johnson and his fellow drivers are leaving the sport in better shape than it’s ever been. There’s a long way to go, but NASCAR is more inclusive than ever.