Ryan: Anthem controversy reveals how patriotism can take many forms in NASCAR

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What if a race was held in NASCAR’s premier series, and nary a single driver was present and at attention on the grid when the national anthem was played?

Would there be the usual cheers as drivers flipped their dashboard switches, rumbled out of the pits and onto the track for a few hundred miles of fender banging?

There were for more than five decades. That was typically how drivers took part in honoring America at the crescendo of a pageantry-filled prerace – strapped inside their cockpits and waiting as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played.

Because within seconds of the anthem ending, engines were starting.

But that run of show changed at Dover International Speedway just more than 16 years ago.

In the first Cup race after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, drivers stood outside their cars with their team members as Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem for a sellout crowd of 140,000, virtually all of whom were waving U.S. flags that had been distributed at the track’s gates.

Given that the sacred ideals about honoring the military and respecting the flag (deeply held truths in NASCAR and among its fans) became the largest point of contention and conversation this week, it’s somewhat astounding to consider that the sport’s heroes once had on their helmets and harnesses during the anthem before it gradually became a standard practice to observe the song while outside their cars.

On Sunday, there will be a five-minute gap between the conclusion of the anthem and the command to start engines at Dover, where it all started on a patriotic Sunday in 2001 that ended with the race winner grabbing an American flag from a team member for a triumphant victory lap with Old Glory flapping around the 1-mile oval.

Just as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the focal point that day in one of NASCAR’s most memorable moments of the 21st century, so has he also emerged as its most outspoken star in the tumult that followed comments by team owners Richard Childress and Richard Petty before Sunday’s race at New Hampshire. Both intimated they would fire any employees who kneeled during the anthem the way many NFL players did in the wake of President Donald Trump calling on teams to terminate players who kneeled.

On Monday morning, the president tweeted his support of NASCAR. About thirty minutes later, Earnhardt used a quote from JFK to support peaceful protests in what quickly became the most popular of his 12,500 tweets (drawing 150,000 retweets and nearly 400,000 likes).

“I kept seeing a lot of negativity about NASCAR on social media,” Earnhardt said on his podcast in explaining the stance. “It’s just the same tired stigma that we’ve dealt with for many, many years.

“So I didn’t feel like that Richard’s comments and Richard Petty’s comments were the way the entire sport felt. They have the right to their opinion. I just didn’t want anyone speaking for me. I felt like that you could assume that those were my own personal feelings as well. I wanted to make that clear.”

Earnhardt’s points are well taken.

NASCAR waited until Monday afternoon to release a statement (which attempted to thread the needle of placating its old-guard supporters’ love for anthem heritage while noting “the right to peacefully express one’s opinion” in a nod to a more diverse audience it seeks to build). That created a vacuum of leadership on a national controversy that was filled by two Hall of Famers associated with several of the greatest championships, moments and triumphs in stock-car history.

Many outside NASCAR presumed that Childress and Petty spoke with a monolithic certitude for the thousands who work in the country’s most popular racing series.

But there isn’t a consensus industry opinion on how anthem protesters would be handled.

There are many who would disagree with the beliefs of Childress and Petty (namely, the majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports).

Of course, there are many who would agree with them as well, reflecting stock-car racing’s longstanding leanings and strongly held feelings of allegiance and faith.

Few sports leagues wrap themselves in God and country as much as NASCAR. Its deep roots in the Bible Belt are evident in the invocation delivered before every race, just before the anthem – a 1-2 combination of social conservatism and flag-waving patriotism that is unique in professional sports and intrinsic to the fabric of stock-car racing.

It’s why Brad Keselowski used Twitter to take issue with those who took a knee but also to reaffirm that his support of the anthem didn’t signify a lack of respect for civil disobedience. As someone who has raised millions to help wounded veterans and likely would have joined the armed services if he hadn’t pursued a racing career, the Team Penske driver was speaking from the heart.

But so was Earnhardt, who has his own patriotic bona fides (the No. 88 Chevrolet once carried National Guard sponsorship, and the Navy backed his Xfinity cars).

“I stand for the flag during the national anthem,” he said. “Always have, always will. We have an incredibly large military presence at our races. We go above and beyond to show our patriotism and what it means to be Americans and how proud we are of that and how proud we are of the flag and what it stands for.

“No surprise to me everyone at (New Hampshire) stood and addressed the flag during the anthem, which I think will continue. But I also understand that the man next to me, if he wants to do something different, that’s his right. I might not agree with everything somebody does, but it’s their right to have that opportunity to do that. I can’t take that away from them, and I don’t want them taking it away from me.’’

Free speech is an inalienable right, but it also is accompanied by consequences – and not just for those who choose to protest.

As business owners well within their rights to hire and fire personnel while weighing how their actions can impacts a team’s image, Childress and Petty are entitled to their opinions and to express them, and there are many fans who probably feel better about hearing them voiced.

But there are repercussions to classifying actions that you view as disrespectful with the disrespect of implying those who chose that tack should be humiliatingly stripped of employment or citizenship.

At best, it’s fodder for clickbait headline hyperbole. At worst, it negatively affects how NASCAR is perceived in the wake of protests that began because former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick wanted to raise awareness about minority oppression and police brutality.

This puts a new spotlight on NASCAR’s long slog toward diversifying, which hasn’t come easy (as detailed in the struggles of Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, the first black driver to win in Cup, and mentioned in a recent interview by Bill Lester, the first black driver to run Xfinity and one of four in Cup). There have been Twitter memes about the Confederate flag (which remains a presence in racetrack campgrounds despite NASCAR’s efforts to eradicate its presence), stern rebukes from coaches in other sports and late night talk show jokes about the lack of black drivers in NASCAR.

Meanwhile, NASCAR is making incremental progress in becoming more of an inclusionary and welcoming league. It needs and wants to be that if it intends to stem recent audience erosion by becoming more demographically reflective of a multicultural and multiracial America.

Its Drive for Diversity program, which is in its 14th season, has a hit-and-miss record, but graduate Darrell Wallace Jr. recently became the first black driver to race Cup in more than a decade. Mexico’s Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity champion and another product of the D4D program, became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR title. There are more black pit crew members than at any point in NASCAR’s 69-year history.

Kyle Larson, the only Asian-American to race full time in Cup, has a legitimate chance to win the championship.

Those are realities – just as it is that drivers weren’t outside their cars more often than not in NASCAR history when the anthem has been played.

Those, of course, weren’t signs of disrespect. Patriotism can be expressed in many forms, and the enthusiastic and overt celebration of its cherished spectacle on race days is an indelible and laudable attraction of NASCAR.

What the industry learned this week is that publicly judging the manner of expression can be fraught with its own debates about respecting the flag.