Dale Earnhardt Jr a rare popular figure who can challenge populist view

Nascar’s most popular driver supports anthem protests but then stands for it himself

Dale Earnhardt Jr runs a gauntlet of fans with US flags as he is introduced before the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Apache Warrior 400 race in Dover. Photograph: Reuters

Dale Earnhardt Jr’s monopoly on Nascar’s most popular driver award has endured for 14 years, about as long as he has competed at the highest level.

His winning streak owes less to voter fraud (and his legion of supporters cast their ballots early and often) than to his self-effacing southern charm and a freewheeling racing pedigree one degree removed from Nascar's patron saint. That would be Dale Earnhardt Sr, the seven-time champion who died in the 2001 Daytona 500 while protecting his son's position in the race. All of this means when Earnhardt Jr talks, Nascar and its fans listen.

The impact of his influence has been hard to miss over the past weeks, when Nascar wasn’t so much sucked into the national debate over anthem protests as shoved into the fray by a band of racing team executives — a debate ratcheted to intensity levels unforeseen after Donald Trump called NFL players protesting against racial injustice “sons of bitches”.

Two days later, Richard Childress, the racing team owner who rose to prominence through his collaborations with Earnhardt Sr in the 80s and 90s, let it be known he agreed with the White House. Childress said that any employee from his company who knelt during the presentation of his nation’s colors would have to hitch “a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over.”


Richard Petty — another seven-time champion who helms a racing team that, alas, is miles from approaching his competitiveness behind the wheel — went even further. “Anybody that don’t stand up for (the anthem),” he told reporters, “ought to be out of the country. Period.” Andrew Murstein, the majority owner of Petty Motorsports, offered a more diplomatic opinion. Nascar, meanwhile, didn’t say much of anything at all.

The comments by Childress and Petty conformed rather neatly to Nascar’s conventional perception as a pastime by and for rural, conservative whites. It takes Earnhardt Jr – unique in his ability to represent those rural whites while disagreeing with them and win over hearts in minds well beyond the track in the process – to correct the record.

Moments after Trump tweeted his support for the Nascar owners' threats, Earnhardt responded with words from a 1962 speech delivered by John F Kennedy: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." (The Root, a black culture website, was quick to reward that statement with a provisional seat at the proverbial family cookout.) Two days later, on his weekly podcast, Earnhardt dug even deeper. "I kept seeing a lot of negativity about Nascar on social media," he said. "It's just the same tired stigma that we've dealt with for many, many years. So, I didn't feel like [Richard Childress's] comments and Richard Petty were the same way that the sport felt."

Certainly over the last half of Earnhardt’s career, Nascar has been a sport divided against itself. On one side there’s the whiskey bootlegging, Confederate flag waving tradition that the spectacle was built upon. On the other there’s Nascar corporate, from branch offices on New York’s Madison Avenue and in Los Angeles’s Century City, pushing to make the sport more inclusive – and always just one token at a time. The feel-good stories of, say, Daniel Suárez (the Mexican import who debut in Nascar’s Cup division in February), or Kyle Larson (a rising star with Japanese ancestry), or Darrell Wallace Jr (who earlier this year became the fourth black man in Nascar’s 69-year history to race at the top level and while driving for Richard Petty, which totally isn’t awkward now at all) never quite undercut the fact that fans still insist on toting their rebel standards to the track. Or that Brian France, Nascar’s CEO scion, stumped for this president — and then said “nobody wants to hear my political views” when they backfired worse than a congested V8.

All the while Nascar struggles to attract new viewers and hold onto old ones. You almost want to feel bad for them, and the moral weaklings they call their corporate sponsors. One struggles to imagine the day their CEOs become as brazen, collectively, as the ones who deserted the president’s economic councils in August after his equivocating commentary following the violent white supremacist riots in Charlottesville. It’s perhaps unsurprising that only around 2 per cent of Nascar’s fanbase is black, a proportion far lower than even golf and NHL.

And though typically it’s Earnhardt — whose No88 banner can be reliably spied planted around infield campsites, amid the confederate flag and Trump-Pence lawn signs — who’s caught in the middle, that rarely stops him from staking a position on the right side of history. Consider: he’s condemned the Confederate flag as “offensive to an entire race”. Following the Charlottesville violence, he tweeted “Hatred, bigotry & racism have no place in this great country.” But defending anthem protesters? That’s especially bold for Earnhardt — who owes a not-insignificant measure of his career longevity to tens of millions of dollars in annual support from the National Guard at a time when the Department of Defense was piloting a new, more “native” form of advertising for professional sports. In time, this strategy got a name: Paid Patriotism.

So when Earnhardt pledges his support for the anthem protests but stands when it’s his turn anyway, as he did before last Sunday’s Cup race in Delaware, it isn’t hypocrisy. Rather, it’s what F Scott Fitzgerald called evidence of a first-rate intelligence — that is, the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind and still retain the ability to function. It’s the military’s whole raison d’être — all but implied in their sales pitch that they are here to protect American freedom, after all. No wonder Earnhardt understands. Still, his empathy has limits.

Earnhardt has just seven weeks left in his Nascar career before a long-ago planned retirement takes effect, at the season finale next month. And, of course, even the occasion for that decision — the driver’s alarming history of traumatic brain injuries and post-concussion symptoms — provided him yet another opportunity to take leadership. Whereas once his peers wouldn’t have given a second thought to staying in the car after a big shunt, now they take a few days, even weeks sometimes, to assess the long-term risks.

It’s here, not so much in the racecar, where Earnhardt’s true value lies: he’s the rare popular figure who can challenge the populist view without denting his likability. He should seek higher office – maybe president, even. Maybe then Nascar might find the courage of its convictions.

(Guardian services)