Like many organizations, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) had big choices to make this summer beyond the typical business decisions. NASCAR leaders had to manage safety precautions for holding races during the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to public outcry for social justice following the killing of George Floyd in late May.
“June was an extraordinary time for us,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps during Wednesday’s general session of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) INCLUSION 2020 virtual conference.
“We had a lot going on in a very short time,” he told SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP.
Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top racing series, spoke out against racial injustice this summer and led efforts to ban the Confederate flag from events. “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race,” Wallace told CNN’s Don Lemon on June 8. “So it starts with [removing] Confederate flags.”
NASCAR leaders responded on June 10 by officially prohibiting displays of the Confederate flag from all events and properties. “The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” NASCAR said in a statement. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special.”
NASCAR’s senior managers supported the direction Phelps wanted to take to tackle social justice issues and improve diversity, equity and inclusion within the organization and the broader industry.
When the leadership team agreed, Phelps told them, “You just signed up for something that’s going to be difficult.”
The team talked about doing better and listening more when it comes to issues of race and social justice, he told Taylor. “It’s not just about the words we are going to say. It’s really about the actions.”
Phelps said NASCAR leaders were “willing to accept the consequences of those actions.”
Taylor noted that there are moments when leaders have to be courageous in the face of criticism.
“I got some nice handwritten notes in the mail that were colorful,” Phelps recalled. Some people wanted to express what the Confederate flag meant to them, and others “had hateful things to say.”
Messaging is critical, he noted, so NASCAR spent time explaining why the Confederate flag ban was important to NASCAR employees, fans and potential fans who have been hesitant to explore the sport.
“What are we going to do as a sport to use our platform to try to heal, to try to listen?” Phelps asked.
NASCAR’s June controversies didn’t end with the Confederate flag ban. On June 21, a member of Bubba Wallace’s team found a noose in Wallace’s stall at the Talladega Superspeedway. NASCAR said the noose sent a “heinous” message of racism, but an FBI investigation later concluded that the “noose” was actually a pull-down rope that had been in the garage since 2019.
“We took a lot of heat” for calling it a hate crime, Phelps told Taylor. But he challenged people to “take a step back” and perhaps celebrate the fact that it wasn’t meant as a hate crime toward Wallace.
Taylor asked Phelps if, in hindsight, he would have done anything differently. Phelps said he wished they had used the word “alleged” when referring to a hate crime during the investigation. “If that was a mistake I need to take responsibility for, I will.”
After the FBI concluded its investigation, NASCAR took two extra days to complete its own investigation and shared a photo of the rope. “As you can see from the photo, the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba,” Phelps said at the time of the photo’s release.
He told Taylor that too many people walked by what appeared to be a noose in the garage and didn’t say anything about it.
“The real goal here is to change our culture,” Taylor said of social justice initiatives in the workplace. So how do leaders ensure that the initiative doesn’t disappear in six months?
NASCAR is listening to employees’ stories about their experiences with injustice at the racetrack. “We were hearing story after story that would bring a tear to your eye or make you angry,” Phelps said.
In response to the recent dialogues, NASCAR established a diversity council, as well as an ally group made up of senior-level employees. The organization is hiring diverse workers to represent the community, conducting sensitivity training, and working with suppliers and sponsors to put programs in place that drive change.
“We have to lead from the front,” Phelps said. “I think it gets back to what Bubba Wallace said during this very difficult time. He never went to hate.”
Wallace tweeted on June 23 “Supporting and thanking the pre-existing fans, and encouraging the new ones. For all of those new to the sport, we welcome you with open arms.”