SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
America's reckoning with its racist history has found an unlikely arena - auto racing. On Sunday, reports of a noose found in Bubba Wallace's garage in Talladega turned the racing world on its head. Wallace is the only Black driver on NASCAR's top circuit, and he had successfully lobbied for the ban on Confederate flags at NASCAR events. Tonight authorities announced that the FBI has concluded its investigation and determined that no federal crime occurred. They say the noose had been in the garage for at least eight months before the space was assigned to Wallace. All of this has forced NASCAR to face its history, where Confederate flags were long-visible at NASCAR races, even on the tops of some cars. Daniel Pierce is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and a NASCAR historian.
DANIEL PIERCE: Thank you.
MCCAMMON: So there's been an association for a while between the Confederate flag and NASCAR racing. Where'd that come from?
PIERCE: Well, of course, NASCAR's roots are in the South, particularly the Piedmont South - Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. And so the Confederate flag was part of life in that part of the South as NASCAR is beginning in the late '40s. Particularly when the civil rights movement comes into its own in the '50s, you began to see more Confederate flags in the region and at NASCAR events, particularly certain tracks. Darlington Raceway in South Carolina is one that was - has a long association with the Confederate flag. By the early '60s, Darlington has a person in a Confederate uniform with a big rebel flag. And the winner of the race would stop at the start-finish line and he - and then Johnny Reb, as they called him, would get on the hood of the car and then they would do a parade lap around the track with him waving this Confederate flag.
MCCAMMON: A lot of people will think of "The Dukes Of Hazzard," which aired on CBS for seven seasons. The General Lee Dodge car was beloved and, of course, brandished the Confederate flag. What did it mean for them at that time?
PIERCE: Yeah. I think at that point, you're getting the morphing of the image in some ways. It's also an era where you're getting things like, you know, Lynyrd Skynyrd and "Sweet Home Alabama." And so I think at that point, it's more of an image of the outlaw, of the person who defies authority and thumbs their noses at Boss Hogg or whoever.
MCCAMMON: NASCAR, as you know, is a sport that was born out of rebellion during the Prohibition era. Describe, if you would, the tie between bootlegging and racecar driving that goes back, as I understand it, to the '30s.
PIERCE: In those early days, you have people like Lloyd Seay showing up at races, at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. Lloyd Seay is a 19-year-old. No one's heard of him. And he comes to his first race, and he wins the race, which was a big race. No one really knows who this guy is. Well, the next day, there's a column that says, well, no one at the racetrack really knew who Lloyd Seay was, but the Atlanta police sure did. He made his living, you know, going between Atlanta and Dawson County, Ga., hauling liquor. And Lloyd Seay, really, kind of begins a wave of the most successful stock car drivers, from the very beginning, were almost universally had their first high-speed driving experience behind the car of a V8 Ford hauling liquor on a curvy road.
MCCAMMON: And, of course, NASCAR has moved to ban the Confederate flag now. How important is this moment for the sport?
PIERCE: Of all the things that have happened - two things - escorting Bubba Wallace down pit road, that spoke volumes, I think, to the public. The other thing I think was really important was Richard Petty very publicly making a statement in support of Bubba Wallace. Of course, Bubba Wallace is his driver, and he already supported him. But, again, I think those were incredibly positive developments in the last few days.
MCCAMMON: Daniel Pierce is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and a NASCAR historian.
Thanks so much for your time.
PIERCE: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.