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Associated Press

NASCAR fans love to debate.

From the most action-packed tracks and the most talented drivers to the severity of NASCAR rulings and the abundance of television commercials, the campgrounds are usually abuzz with animated conversations.

The major debating topic among fans over the first half of the 2015 season dealt with the impact of the new aerodynamic rules package, which led to lower downforce and a decrease in horsepower. Due to those modifications and the continual search for clean air, drivers have been unable to execute passes.  Naturally, that has led to fan frustration.

But a new issue has dominated campground chats and social media circles in recent days.

Following the June 17 mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, government and sports officials reacted by removing the Confederate battle flag from public display or making statements against the flag.

On June 27, NASCAR chairman Brian France generated headlines in an interview with The Associated Press interview where he described the Confederate flag as an “insensitive symbol.” France added that he wants to work with the industry to get the flag “disassociated entirely” from NASCAR events.

That statement came one day after NASCAR’s 12-time most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,  called the Confederate flag “offensive to an entire race.”  Earnhardt had made earlier comments along the same lines in past years.

At Bristol Motor Speedway, vice president and general manager Jerry Caldwell stands behind the views of France regarding the display of the flag.

“Brian has made comments that we always strive to be an inclusive sport, and we want to continue that,” Caldwell said.

While Confederate flags and associated apparel can still be found in small pockets around BMS and other NASCAR tracks,  Caldwell said that his staff works to create a welcome mat for fans of all races.
“We ask people to respect that, but thankfully we’ve really not had any issues here in Bristol,” Caldwell said.

In the June 26 edition of USA Today, longtime NASCAR beat reporter Jeff Gluck created more of a stir when he called for an outright ban of the Confederate symbol at all NASCAR events. Gluck pointed that out since tracks are private property, NASCAR and track officials have the right to remove signs or symbols.

“I don’t know of that happening yet, but we will see what the future holds,” Caldwell said. “I think we are evaluating what are the right steps there. Right now, NASCAR has made statements and we are beside in them with that.”

BMS officials are taking a wait-and-see approach along with NASCAR, according to Caldwell.

“We are having ongoing conversations regarding what are the appropriate measures, not only with this issue, but with everything to make sure that we are an inclusive sport with a fun, family environment for all to come and enjoy,” he said. “Our track really has a family environment where everyone is welcome.”

Judging from a sampling of comments from fans, the hot-button issue is drawing impassioned debate on both sides.

Wes Adkins of Johnson City, Tennessee, expressed his frustration with the controversy and the reaction of NASCAR officials.

“I’m a big race fan and I am just disappointed with NASCAR in general,” Adkins said. “I think Bill France is rolling over in his grave.”

Adkins voiced his support for the Confederate flag

“I’m really disappointed in the remarks by Dale Jr. regarding the flag,” Adkins said. “I fly it every day, will continue to fly it and I will be flying it at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.

“There is not one racist bone in my body, but if NASCAR is going to turn on its fans, then I will save my money and there will be more empty seats for the August race.”

Frankie Carter is a 43-year-old black Abingdon, Virginia, native and longtime motorsports fan.

“I’ve always believed that NASCAR never made efforts to bring minorities to their gates. With their new stance, they have created an atmosphere that is more welcoming to everyone, not just the good ole boys,” said Carter, a systems analyst and high school recruiting specialist who has lived in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area for the past 20 years.

“I have heard many fans who are against removing the flag say they won’t go to races anymore. History shows that those that truly love the sport will support it, along with their new followers.”

Bristol, Tennessee respondent Randy Wood has an opposing view on the France stance regarding the Confederate flag.

“Yes, this issue will affect my support of NASCAR,” Wood said. “I respect the right of every individual to have and voice their opinion. I shall choose my path based on my own opinion.”

Bristol, Virginia, resident Jack Lester said he has no issue with a ban of the Confederate flag at BMS and other NASCAR tracks.

“I feel it helps bring NASCAR out of its perceived redneck image to a modern, progressive organization and shows they continue to make the sport more inclusive,” Lester said.

Abingdon, Virginia native Jerry Castle is another longtime devotee of Bristol Motor Speedway events who supports a change in symbols.

“I grew up at the track and have had just as much Southern pride as the next person, but clearly the Confederate flag represents hate, racism, and bigotry to the majority of the world,” said Castle, who works a musician in Nashville, Tennessee. “Why would NASCAR or its fans want to continue to be associated with those things in any capacity? Plain and simple, if you look at the issue from a place of love and compassion, it’s time for the Confederate flag to go.”

David Munro, a resident of Lake Placid, Florida, who said his family in Southwest Virginia once held 16 season passes for both races at BMS, feels that NASCAR officials have overstepped their bounds in this case.

“NASCAR should not be involved in this matter,” Munro said. “When we begin to censor, where do we draw the line? Who determines this?  

“Although NASCAR would love to find support within the continental 48 states, it has failed to reach the support that it receives in the south. Boycotting will affect the little guys. There are other flags that could be removed as long as we are censoring freedom of speech.”
Daytona International Speedway president  Joie Chitwood said that his track will not ban the Confederate flag but will instead offer a flag exchange.

As the summer racing season heads to the south, look for the Confederate flag debate to heat up in the NASCAR campgrounds and beyond.