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Some NASCAR fans still defend, display Confederate flag

Ticket-takers stand by a box containing American flags that NASCAR was offering in exchange for Confederate ones.
Ticket-takers stand by a box containing American flags that NASCAR was offering in exchange for Confederate ones.
Published Jul. 6, 2015

DAYTONA BEACH — As racing fans were celebrating the Fourth of July in Daytona International Speedway's infield Saturday night, 51-year-old Kevin Boot chose to honor Independence Day in his own way.

He strolled between two rows of campers, waving a tattered Confederate flag.

"Because I can," said Boot, a former Tampa resident who lives in Delaware.

But how much longer Boot or anyone else will be to do so at Daytona or any other tracks on NASCAR's schedule remains uncertain.

The flag has come under new scrutiny because of its link to the suspect in last month's mass shooting in Charleston, S.C. NASCAR issued a statement supporting the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina's Capitol building, and star drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have spoken out against the symbol.

Daytona offered fans the chance to trade their rebel flags for American ones during the weekend, although none had been exchanged as of Friday. Daytona joined Homestead-Miami Speedway and 28 other tracks in a statement last week asking fans to keep Confederate flags home.

"As members of the NASCAR industry, we join NASCAR in the desire to make our events among the most fan-friendly, welcoming environments in all of sports and entertainment," the statement said.

But that didn't stop everyone. The symbol dotted the 2½-mile tri-oval before Sunday's Coke Zero 400 — on T-shirts, trucks or waving in the air. Or, in the case of Boot, all three.

Boot, who is black, doesn't see the symbol as racist. He sees it as part of Southern history.

"It's the heritage down here," Boot said. "Heritage don't mean hate. … It's been here since NASCAR started."

And the sport used to embrace it.

Titusville resident Dawn Lemerise said she bought her flag — a Confederate one with Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s No. 3 in the center — years ago at one of Earnhardt's merchandise haulers. Not long after she parked between Turns 1 and 2 over the weekend, she raised it above her camper, on top of the American flag.

"That's part of being a rebel," Lemerise said. "That's why it's flying like it is."

Lemerise wants the sport to keep embracing its Southern roots, which date back to bootlegging and racing on the beach. But NASCAR's demographics have changed.

Twenty years ago, Daytona's July race featured 28 drivers from the South. This year's field had only nine. Its defending race winner, Tampa's Aric Almirola, is Cuban-American. One of the Sprint Cup series' rising stars, Kyle Larson, is Japanese-American.

Lemerise said she doesn't understand the latest flag controversy, why NBC's Today show wanted to interview her, or why an infield neighbor was upset. She doesn't see the flag as having anything to do with race; it's about the history of the South and the sport.

"It all stands for something," Lemerise said. "Whether it was good or bad, who are we to judge what people did?"