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NASCAR ban on Confederate flag: Will fans get on board? (+video)

Top NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. says the Confederate flag is 'offensive to an entire race,' in support of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s call to remove the flag from the Statehouse. 

Another big name shuns the Confederate flag.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, told the Associated Press that the Confederate flag is "offensive to an entire race" Friday. Mr. Earnhardt spoke in support of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision on Monday to remove the flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.

Earlier this week, NASCAR released a statement reiterating its stance on the Confederate flag debate.

“As we continue to mourn the tragic loss of life last week in Charleston, we join our nation's embrace of those impacted. NASCAR supports the position that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley took on the Confederate Flag on Monday. As our industry works collectively to ensure that all fans are welcome at our races, NASCAR will continue our long-standing policy to disallow the use of the Confederate Flag symbol in any official NASCAR capacity. While NASCAR recognizes that freedom of expression is an inherent right of all citizens, we will continue to strive for an inclusive environment at our events." 

In fact, for more than a decade, NASCAR has banned the use of the Confederate flag from appearing on race cars or any NASCAR-licensed merchandise.  The Wall Street Journal notes that the motor-racing organization famously blocked pro-golfer "Bubba Watson in 2012 from driving the orange, Confederate-flag bearing car from “Dukes of Hazzard” before an event at Phoenix International Raceway."

“I've made my comments about the Confederate flag several times, and I stand behind NASCAR's stance to remove it," Earnhardt said. "I think if it's offensive to an entire race, it really does nothing for anybody to be there flying. It belongs in the history books, that's about it."

The flag has been a source of contention in recent weeks after a shooter killed nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C. church in mid-June. Dylan Roof, the suspect in case, had posed with the Confederate flag in several photos that were discovered only after the attack, prompting a national conversation on the role Confederate symbols play in today’s South.

This week, major corporations such as Apple, eBay, and Walmart have announced that the Confederate flag and its related symbols will be removed from their stores and websites. Yet the issue is particularly sensitive to NASCAR, a brand that, along with Walmart, has a wide target audience in the South.

"It's a delicate balance,” said Earnhardt’s teammate Jeff Gordon. “We race all over but the South is an area where we have a lot of fans and everyone has a different opinion and expression of that."

“Racing used to be in the Southeast -- that’s where NASCAR lived and played and that’s where you had to go to see it,” pit reporter Krista Voda told the International Business Times in 2014. “Now NASCAR goes to every corner of the country and you find fans everywhere.”

More than most sports, NASCAR heavily relies on older, white male fans, the New York Times reported. And many of them bring Confederate flags to NASCAR races. But a shrinking audience, exacerbated by the recession, has meant that audience base alone hasn’t been enough to keep the brand afloat. With hopes of reversing its declining popularity, NASCAR devised a five-year “industry action plan” in 2010 to attract a younger, more diverse audience.

But those efforts have paid only modest dividends. The Wall Street Journal points to a Luker on Trends-ESPN Sports Poll, which shows that the percentage of African-Americans identifying as NASCAR fans has stayed flat over the decade at 34 percent, while the percent of Hispanics has declined to 32 percent from 43 percent. Nielsen Scarborough data cited by NASCAR shows the number of multicultural fans has risen three percentage points since 2011.

But the Wall Street Journals also points to a possible path forward for NASCAR:

At the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., football fans brought Confederate flags to games for decades. The flags led to a negative public perception of the school, so in 1998 then-ChancellorRobert Khayat pushed a controversial ban on sharp objects—essentially flag poles—in the stadium. Within a year, the flags were gone. Student enrollment has more than doubled and the school’s image improved. Dr. Khayat received death threats but said it was worthwhile.

“If we can do it, it can be done,” Dr. Khayat said.

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