BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The Confederate flag once was as much a part of the NASCAR landscape as the green, yellow and checkered.
Confederate emblems decorated race souvenir programs, and a man dressed as a rebel soldier was a regular in victory lane celebrations at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Confederate flags of various designs and in multiple numbers still fly over race infields and campgrounds, particularly at Southern tracks.
Confederate imagery is a part of the national dialogue again in the wake of violence at a Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally on Aug. 12 in which Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 were hurt when a car rammed into counter-protesters. Numerous rallies and protests have followed across the nation, and the public discourse now includes questioning whether Confederate symbols, such as statues, should remain a part of the landscape.
NASCAR landed in the middle of all this — at Bristol Motor Speedway in eastern Tennessee — this weekend. Born in the South, the world’s biggest form of stock car racing retains an attachment to its Confederate roots, albeit one that now is without official sanction and is under renewed attention because of the national focus on the topic.
In the campgrounds ringing Bristol speedway, Confederate flags continue to fly from recreational vehicles and above tents, although the number — as at most NASCAR tracks — is significantly lower than a decade ago.
Along one row of 55 RVs and campers in a campground adjacent to the track, a flag count included three Ohio State Buckeyes flags and two Confederate flags.
“I’m still flying mine,” Chattanooga fan Brian Ellis told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday of his Confederate flag. “It means something important to me — a part of my heritage because my relatives fought under it. Nothing the president or anybody else does or doesn’t do is going to change that.”
Some members of white supremacist groups carried Confederate flags at the Charlottesville rally, and various forms of the flag have been used at other protests, but those actions were labeled as irrelevant by some fans at Bristol.
“I understand that the flag means different things to different people,” Nancy Cullers, a Clint Bowyer fan from Franklin, Tenn., told USA TODAY Sports. She wore a Confederate bandana while cleaning her RV near the track Friday.
“It’s crazy that some of those groups use the flag, and I don’t like any of them,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they can take it away from those of us from the South who love it. To me, it’s just a Southern thing that we can rally around.”
Ellis and Cullers said they voted for Donald Trump for president. Both said he shouldn’t be blamed for what happened in Charlottesville.
Several fans flying Confederate flags in the campground declined to discuss their reasons with USA TODAY Sports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver, said Thursday: “It’s sad and frustrating to see what happened, and you feel sort of somewhat responsible to speak on it.” Earnhardt has criticized public displays of the Confederate flag.
The Charlottesville violence has been condemned by several other major sports figures, including the NBA’s LeBron James.
“NASCAR brings fans of all different backgrounds and points of view together to celebrate one thing they all have in common – a love for NASCAR. We are saddened by recent tragic events around the world and feel strongly there is no place for bigotry, racism, hatred or violence in our society,” Brent Dewar, NASCAR's president, said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports.
NASCAR’s push toward diversity in recent years led chairman Brian France to call the flag an “offensive symbol” in 2015 and ask for — but not require — its removal from speedways. Some tracks offered a flag “exchange,” giving United States flags to fans who turned in Confederate flags.
France endorsed Trump in February 2016, leading Trump to proclaim that “if the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now. Nobody else can win. Nobody.”
More: Red Wings denounce use of logo at white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville
More: President Trump defends Confederate monuments: 'You can't change history'
During the campaign, Trump also received the support of NASCAR drivers Chase Elliott and Ryan Newman and former drivers Mark Martin, Richard Petty and Bill Elliott. Surveys have shown that a majority of NASCAR fans supported Trump in the election.
France, who said his endorsement was personal and not an official endorsement from NASCAR, hasn’t talked publicly about Trump since the Republican took office.
Meanwhile, the debate about what to do with symbols of the Confederacy rages on, especially in Southern states where NASCAR holds events.
In Memphis, officials want to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park. In Nashville, 210 miles east, the governor wants a bust of Forrest removed from the state capitol.
In bordering states, Lexington, Ky., officials plan to banish two Confederate statues from its courthouse, and Virginia is hot with related controversy in Charlottesville and Richmond, which is considering making dramatic changes to its Monument Avenue display of Confederate statues.
NASCAR’s next two stops will be in cities that are hotbeds of controversy — Darlington Raceway on Sept. 3, and Richmond Raceway for its regular-season finale Sept. 9.
© 2017 USATODAY.COM