Darlington Raceway infield is deep in the heart of Dixie

Diversity is certainly the key inside the infield at Darlington Raceway.

During this Southern 500 weekend, a midday stroll along 2nd Ave, which runs dead center the length of the track, you’re sure to find a mixture of expensive toys and those doing the best they can. You’ll see the high-end motor home, the school bus converted to a pseudo RV, corn-hole games in progress, beers in hand, and lots of rebel flags. What you won’t see is racial diversity.

Waking up Friday morning and looking out across the infield, the rebel flag flies prominent. Of course, so does the American Flag and plenty of driver flags as well. But, it’s the rebel flag, and it’s frequency that really catches your eye.

My initial thought upon seeing so many of these flags flying was that racism was alive and well inside the Darlington Raceway. But let’s just be honest, assuming that would just be prejudice on my part. That’s me forming an opinion of someone else before I have even gotten to know them, based on the flag they are flying.

So I decided to take a ride through the infield and speak to some of the flag flyers to get their take on why they seem to be so proud to display a symbol that is often considered to be so hateful to others.

Frank Lauro and his wife had three rebel flags atop their RV, along with an Italian flag, American Flag, and plenty of others. As he says, “The more flags the better”. But when asked about the Rebel Flag specifically, he began to carefully choose his words and those words revolved around pride.

“Being born and raised in the South, for us it’s a symbol. You know where I came from” says Lauro born in New Orleans and currently living in Charleston. “We grew up with it.”

He doesn’t think it’s offensive, but understands how others would find it to be.

Robert Reach from Denver, NC, explains that he flies the flag because of “Heritage, not hatred. That’s the way we were raised. Is it offensive to some? I’m sure it is. There are things that people do to me that are offensive.”

I asked Reach if he would feel comfortable flying the flag in downtown Atlanta and he indicated that he wouldn’t be, but when asked why it might be OK inside the infield at Darlington, he said “Look around, it’s our way of life. We’re very proud. This track, it’s the grand old lady of the South.”

Ironically, if you were to prejudge a man based on looks then Jeff Smith “Smitty” from Four Holes, SC, has the look of the classic racist redneck. But, when his first question to you is “Let me ask you first, do you know Jesus as your personal savior?” you quickly realize that this man might be a little different.

Smitty describes himself as a hybrid country boy/redneck. He’s quick to give you a tour of his converted school bus with hardwood floors and pictures lining the walls of key moments in his life, including the time he met Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

“We’ve been coming here since 1986. Southerners like to tailgate. It’s like a community. It’s all about your neighbors.” says Smitty.

In fact, despite the appearance of a man that might be racist, Smitty goes on to say “It don’t matter if you’re black or white, as long as you’re here to have a good time.” Coincidently, he then takes a phone call from what he describes as two black friends that he’s invited to come hang out at the track. He’s giving them directions to his lot number.

While he’s taking the call, and I stand in the middle of two cornhole boards, one of his bus mates walks up with a mason jar filled with a brownish liquid and asks me if I’d like some. He calls it Apple Pie, I call it incredibly good and then listen as they tell me how they make moonshine.

“You might not know this,” he says “but, the Confederate flag used to be on the Southern 500 tickets. We’ve got the flag inside the bus, we just haven’t put it out yet, but we will tonight. Some people fly it to piss people off, some people fly it out of respect. For us, it’s about heritage.”

NASCAR officials like to bill the sport as racially diverse. In fact, they say that indications that NASCAR has a racist feel are strongly discouraged.

It may be racially diverse within the organization. It may be that other tracks have a higher percentage of African Americans in attendance, but within the infield at Darlington, you’ll struggle to find a single person of color that is not there to work.

I did, in fact, speak to an older gentleman that described himself as an African American but refused to allow his name to be used because he was working. When I asked him about the rebel flag flying directly in front of his face, he answered that it didn’t bother him. “It depends on the person flying it. If they’ll talk to me, I’ll talk to them. It’s how you come to a person.”

The folks I interacted with seemed to indicate that flying that Rebel flag high atop was a symbol of pride, but almost every one of them indicated that if I came back later tonight after they’ve had a few more of whatever it was they were drinking, that their answers might be a little different.

The Darlington infield on Southern 500 weekend can certainly be described as a gathering of proud Southern men and women. They’re proud of their heritage and they’re celebrating that in an environment which they feel most comfortable.

Pride and heritage, that is until the drinks start flowing a little heavier.

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