South Carolina

‘This is my tradition’: Confederate flags still fly at Darlington race

Race fans tailgate Saturday afternoon at the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina. Following the June massacre in Charleston and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds the traditional symbol for southern race fans continues to face scrutiny. 9/6/15
Race fans tailgate Saturday afternoon at the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina. Following the June massacre in Charleston and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds the traditional symbol for southern race fans continues to face scrutiny. 9/6/15 Special to the State

Darlington Raceway, the track called “Too Tough to Tame,” had a tough time taming fans from flying the Confederate flag this weekend.

NASCAR and its tracks have asked fans to refrain from flying the Civil War battle flag in wake of the shooting nearly three months ago of a pastor and eight parishioners at a Charleston African-American church.

But during the season’s only NASCAR stop in South Carolina, where the nation’s Confederate flag controversy began, some fans decided Sunday to add to their campsite displays rather than listen to leaders of the sport they love.

“I bought a couple extra,” joked Jamie Herndon of Reidville. The 40-year Darlington race veteran’s camper was surrounded by Confederate flags, including one with the words “Heritage Not Hate.”

Fans said track officials asked them to remove or lower flags to avoid television cameras, a claim Darlington Speedway operators deny.

The flag issue arose during the Darlington race’s return to its traditional spot on Labor Day weekend after 12 years. Ticket sales rose 15 percent from a year ago, as the 65-year-old track celebrated with throwback themes from tickets to paint schemes on the race cars.

But the track gave a nod to current events by offering fans the option of trading Confederate flags for free American flags. A Darlington spokesman said he did not know how many fans accepted the track’s offer.

“We hope fans will join us in creating an inclusive atmosphere that helps to broaden and grow the sport we all love,” Darlington Raceway President Chip Wile said in a statement.

Track officials are fighting against the rising furor of Confederate flag supporters upset about the Civil War icon coming down at the S.C. State House in July after five decades. They say flag opponents misunderstand its meaning as a symbol of Southern heritage.

Stock-car racing’s genesis has been steeped in Southern culture since it was founded in the region during the 1940s. Fans at the Darlington track, often called NASCAR’s most historic, want to hold on to the sport’s origins, as the series hold races from California to New Hampshire.

“They’re forgetting what put them where they are,” said Archie Braxton of St. George, holding a 1976 Southern 500 program with the Confederate flag on the cover. “This is my roots, and this is Darlington’s roots.”

Haley catches ire

Flag-supporting fans – like Debbie Nelson, retired to North Carolina from New Jersey – said they are not racists. Accused Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, who was shown in photos with the Confederate flag, reportedly told friends he wanted to start a race war.

“If you fly that flag up in New Jersey, sometimes it could be construed as hatred, but down here, no, it’s history,” Nelson said from her infield camp site. “And to me I think they’re trying to erase history.”

Some of the fans’ ire was directed at Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, whose call to remove the Confederate flag from the State House five days after the killings at Emanuel AME Church led to flag bans nationwide.

Haley attended the Darlington race Sunday. She declined comment while walking around the garage.

Several S.C. fans said they voted for her in two elections, in part because she had no plans to remove the flag.

“She thinks she’s going to be vice president,” said Herndon, a retired state transportation employee. “That’s not going to happen if I’ve got anything to do with it.”

Darlington, the top stock-circuit’s second-oldest track, promoted Civil War ties in its early years.

The speedway held a race with the name “Rebel” from 1960 until 1982, while a man dressed as a Confederate soldier was part of some victory lane celebrations. That’s in addition to Confederate flag-adorned programs.

“That flag deserves to be here and will always be here,” said Jeremy Shope, a Charleston fireplace installer who has come to the track for eight years.

But the track has changed as the stock-car racing matured from a regional sport to a mainstream force.

Fred Amaker, a 45-year track veteran who works in real estate in Moncks Corner, recalled when the infield would not have been a safe place for his grandchildren. He saw fights often, including one where a man drew a gun.

“I think it’s better,” said Amaker, from his camp site near turn 3 with three generations of his family. “There’s better crowd control for people who can’t control themselves.”

And he’s flown a Confederate flag at the track for 25 years. “This is my tradition,” he said. “When you start taking one thing down, it will lead to other stuff.”

‘Don’t want it on TV’

Some fans in the track infield said Darlington officials asked them to rid their RVs of Confederate flags.

Track officials said, however, that’s not true, and fans could keep their Confederate flags.

Fans said they were asked to lower all flags before cars take the track for practice, qualifying or the race to avoid blocking television cameras. The track said it has had that policy in place for years.

But Bo Bethoridge, a Tarboro, N.C., technician who has come to Darlington for years with a set of flags more than 20 feet off the ground, said he has never been asked to lower his flags until this weekend. Nine of the 10 flags flying above the viewing stand on top of his camper in the middle of the infield had the Confederate battle design.

“They don’t want it to get on TV,” Bethoridge said.

By the time the race started, all tall flags in the infield – American, Confederate and others – had been removed.

NASCAR was not saying what could happen if fans continue to ignore its request to keep Confederate flags at home.

Lesa Kennedy, chief executive of NASCAR parent International Speedway Corp. who attended the race Sunday, referred questions to a spokesman. The spokesman said the sanctioning body is sticking with its initial request that fans not fly the flag.

NASCAR said in a statement issued two weeks after the Charleston shooting, “We are committed to providing a welcoming atmosphere free of offensive symbols. This is an opportunity for NASCAR Nation to demonstrate its sense of mutual respect and acceptance for all who attend our events.”

Still, some fans say their heritage needs respect as well.

“That’s all politics. That’s what this is all about,” Herndon said. “I don’t like it, but I can’t stop it. … I had family that fought in (the Civil) War. And I’d like to keep my heritage. They have a whole month of February that’s Black History Month. If they can teach that to my kids, why can’t their kids teach white history?”

If the track won’t let Herndon fly the Confederate flag in the future, he has a solution. He plans to paint the Confederate flag on top of his camper.