‘Yes we exist’ - Black fans eye NASCAR’s work to diversify

Bubba Wallace (43) arrives for a NASCAR All-Star Open auto race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Bubba Wallace (43) arrives for a NASCAR All-Star Open auto race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Kevin Johnson became enamored with NASCAR as a kid, decades before billion-dollar broadcast deals, when auto racing shared precious air time with barrel jumping and demolition derby.

Raised in the South Bronx, Johnson considered himself “a closet NASCAR fan,” without a friend or family member who truly shared his interest in catching the latest race.

“As you can imagine,” Johnson said, “there just simply weren’t a lot of people receptive to the sport given its history.”

Johnson recalled staying in his Temple University dorm during the massive blizzard that wreaked havoc on the East Coast in 1979 to watch the Daytona 500, broadcast live in its entirety for the first time. His roommate was stuck elsewhere because of the weather, leaving Johnson alone with the TV.

“Nobody knew,” Johnson said, laughing. “As a Black person in an urban area, it wasn’t acceptable. I wasn’t really out there. But that love continued to this day.”

The 61-year-old Johnson, who has retired to Miami, shares his passion for the sport with a Black NASCAR Fans group on Facebook. The group’s bio says: “Yes we exist.”

The fans share favorite race memories, photos of their collectibles and, yes, stories of the historically uneasy relationship NASCAR has had with the Black community. Johnson has been called racist slurs at the track, felt queasy at the sight of the Confederate flag and often wondered if the good-ol'-boy Southern attitudes seeped in the sport would ever fade.

The catalyst for change has come for the U.S. with the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. Not long after that, driver Bubba Wallace shoved NASCAR toward the overdue step of banning the Confederate flag, for decades a waving, nylon symbol to Blacks that they were not welcome in NASCAR Nation.