Demitrius Pickens was wearing his Jeff Gordon T-shirt and sipping a can of beer. It was warm out. He was feeling good.
This was in 2015, when Pickens and his friends took a road trip from Durham, N.C., to Alabama see their first NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway, one of the most spectacular tracks in the country.
They were walking near the venue, buzzing about the event, when something stopped them short: a large, inflatable monkey next to another attendee’s camper van and a hand-drawn sign that read, “Monkeys Lives Matter.” This was the year after protesters in Ferguson, Mo., decried the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining prominence around the country.
As a black man, Pickens was not naïve about his surroundings. To an extent, he was ready for this. And still it felt like a punch in the stomach.
“It was like an empty gut feeling, one of those moments where anger immediately rushed over my body,” said Pickens, who wanted to pop the balloon but thought better of it after considering how “outnumbered” he felt and what might happen next. “I knew where I was. But you still never want to be blatantly smacked in the face with overt racism.”
Pickens, now 26, clamped his emotions. He took a picture next to the monkey, middle finger up, and moved along. He still looks back on the weekend warmly.
NASCAR this month was thrust into the national spotlight after its lone black driver on its top circuit, Darrell Wallace Jr., began speaking out about the racism he perceived in racing. Directly responding to a request by Wallace, who is nicknamed Bubba, NASCAR banned the Confederate battle flag from its venues and promised to do more to battle injustice. The moves were widely praised and seen as a potential olive branch to welcome potential new minority fans.
But the ensuing conversation in many ways has overlooked the experiences of black fans who are already committed to the sport. They are relatively few — joked about sometimes as veritable unicorns — but they are indeed there, often executing delicate balancing acts to function in environments that until now have done little to embrace or accommodate them.
Being a black fan of NASCAR, they say, means having fun while never feeling 100 percent at ease. It means jokes from friends and family members. It means watching the sport religiously on TV but having reservations about seeing a race in person. It means keeping your head on a swivel at the racetrack and, at the same time, diverting your eyes from various discomfiting sights, like fans flying the Confederate battle flag.
This month, for some, the fanhood means something new: a cautious sense of pride.
Jason Boykin, who started a Facebook group a few years ago for black NASCAR fans (“Yes we exist,” its description reads), said he felt his emotions swell when he saw Wallace wearing an “I can’t breathe” shirt at Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 7. The phrase, the dying words of Eric Garner in 2014 and of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I was like, ‘Wow, we’re actually doing this!” said Boykin, 45, of Orange, Calif., who attends races around the country each year with his wife, Rochelle, noticing but trying to ignore the Confederate imagery everywhere. “I was excited. I was proud. And NASCAR took it seriously.”
Fans like Boykin now want to see what comes next. They hope what has happened over the last few weeks represents a real turning point in racing.
Many of them are long accustomed to feeling like outliers among their friends, forced to reconcile their love of the high-speed action and charismatic drivers with the stigma and stereotypes that the sport is only for white people.
“What if I rock a Tony Stewart hat?” said Ricky Smith, a television writer from Cleveland. “Am I not a good black person? Am I a bad example? Am I that black guy at a Trump rally?”
Smith, 39, said he spent the past 15 years “embarrassed” to be a NASCAR fan. But he said Wallace’s new outspokenness, and NASCAR’s surprising response, has quelled some of those old insecurities.
In a similar vein, Noah Cornelius, 20, a college student from Charlotte, N.C., called NASCAR a “guilty pleasure,” a pastime with which he had developed a “love-hate relationship.”
The love came first at his predominantly white elementary school, where NASCAR was a popular topic of conversation in the lunchroom. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson became his favorite drivers. But at his high school, where the student body was more diverse, he began to understand why his fellow black classmates viewed the sport so differently.
“I’d still watch the races,” said Cornelius, who is studying music, “but I wasn’t vocal about it anymore because I was just afraid of the stigma.”
Noting that NASCAR was struggling with a diminishing audience and sponsorships, Cornelius said he hoped the organization’s actions this month symbolized a deeper change that might revive the sport.
Leila Brown, 29, has gotten used to being the only black NASCAR fan she knows in Montclair, N.J. That has not stopped her from dragging friends and family members to races in nearby states, touting them as “like Coachella, minus music, plus cars,” with mixed success.
Even while proselytizing the joys of the sport, she acknowledged a moment of unease. She recalled a recent experience at Pocono Raceway in eastern Pennsylvania, when a white man called out to her group of friends as they walked by: “I thought we had a whitewash rule around here,” his tone unfriendly, motivating them to hurry away.
At another race, she said, Brown and her friends camped next to a group with a Confederate flag. Brown tried to wave hello, but the people never acknowledged her presence and avoided eye contact all weekend.
It reiterated what she always felt the Confederate flag communicated to black fans at races: You are not welcome here.
“I can honestly say the majority of my experiences with race fans have been positive,” Brown said. “But you always have that guard up.”
That explains why Susan Reynolds, a die-hard fan from Baltimore, was moved to tears when she heard the organization was banning the Confederate battle flag.
Reynolds, 40, has worn a Tony Stewart bracelet almost continually since 2002. The only time she took it off for any significant amount of time was at her wedding in 2007 — and even then she had it pinned to the inside of her dress.
Reynolds has gotten used to feeling somewhat alone in the sport. “I’m a black chick,” she said. “Everybody’s like, ‘You like NASCAR? That’s weird.’”
The first race Reynolds attended, she played a little game with herself, trying to spot any fellow black fans. She could tally the number on one hand. “There were black people there,” she said. “They were working.”
So this month she felt relieved to think that perhaps one day she might not feel any cognitive dissonance while enjoying a race weekend.
“I’ve put my head down and ignored or turned a blind eye to a lot of things, but this is one of those things that simply represents the oppression of black people,” Reynolds said about the Confederate flag. “We have a flag. It’s the United States flag. I’m cool with that one.”
NASCAR’s change of tune on the flag has not been well received by a segment of its fans.
Darian Gilliam, 22, a fan with an up-and-coming YouTube channel called “Black Flags Matter,” learned this firsthand. After speaking in support of Wallace, he woke up on Monday to a threatening email — “I think it’s time you’ve got a taste of your own medicine,” it read — that included his home address. Unnerved, he alerted local authorities.
“I was like, ‘Since when is canceling racism a bad thing?’” Gilliam said. “This guy was upset because I was speaking up.” He added: “I’m not going anywhere.”
NASCAR’s longtime black fans have not been surprised by the backlash to its new initiatives. Or by the unfounded skepticism of Wallace after his team reported seeing a rope in their garage at Talladega that was tied into the shape of a noose.
Federal authorities determined it had been there since at least October, months before Wallace was assigned the stall for the race this week. NASCAR on Thursday released a photo of the noose following criticism that racing officials had overreacted. The organization’s president, Steve Phelps, said sensitivity training would be required for NASCAR employees to prevent any similar episodes in the future.
“It just shows you how many people out there are so closed-minded and don’t want to see change because it doesn’t benefit them or makes them uncomfortable or reveals their flaws,” said Jae Bradley, 22, a college student and racing fan from West Monroe, La., who follows Chase Elliott. “NASCAR’s trying to go in one direction and a large portion of the fan base doesn’t want to do in that direction. But most of us know it’s for the betterment of the sport.”
It remains to be seen how far NASCAR travels along this path.
Derrick Crutcher, 45, of Athens, Ala., has enjoyed racing for decades (“I’d watch guys race lawn mowers, man”). But even though he lives just two hours by car from Talladega Superspeedway, he has never attended a race there.
“I’d love to go,” Crutcher said, “but I’m not going down there until I feel safe.”
Brown and Reynolds both said they would not feel comfortable going to Talladega, either.
This was NASCAR’s predicament personified: longtime, loyal fans who refused to visit one of the sport’s premier venues because they could not imagine feeling welcomed there.
But could NASCAR’s steps this month signal a cultural transformation that might alter Crutcher’s stance? He paused to consider the thought.
“It could happen,” he said, finally. “It could. Someday, if we get the feeling the wind is blowing in the right direction, we’ll try. Who knows?”
Azi Paybarah contributed reporting.