Originally created 03/19/00

No flag controversy here



DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Welcome to Darlington Raceway, maybe the one place in South Carolina without a Confederate flag controversy.

In every corner of the infield, on T-shirts and hats and at concessions stands, flags and symbols of the Rebel South were everywhere.

"It's a Southern thing, just like NASCAR," said Terry McCutcheon, a contractor from Columbia whose van sported two Confederate flags -- one with the pledge, "I ain't coming down."

The flag has been a touchy subject in South Carolina this year. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has enacted an economic boycott of the state until the South Carolina Legislature removes the flag from the Statehouse dome.

But asking some race fans to take down the flag is like requesting they stop cheering for Dale Earnhardt or against Jeff Gordon.

"It simply shows their leaning," said Bob Latford, the sports historian who has come to Darlington races for 51 years. "They are Southern by birth, and it's not intended to be anything other than `I'm proud to be from the South."'

Today's Mall.com 400, sponsored for the first time by an Internet shopping site, has come far since it was the Rebel 300 in 1957. The race was run for years on Confederate Memorial Day, Latford said, complete with a Johnny Reb mascot and flag symbols on track signs and business cards.

The early racers and the sport had that rebellious nature, with a little bit of sassy, stick-it-to-the-Yankees attitude, Latford said.

Can the NAACP expect to make headway at the racetrack? "I think it would really be remiss to say, `They wouldn't be interested so lets not bother with them,"' said James Gallman, president of the South Carolina NAACP chapter. "If we expand to that area, we'll contact them as well."

The current controversy, which has touched sports in South Carolina from last month's Olympic women's marathon trials in Columbia to the recently concluded Southern Conference basketball tournament in Greenville, has whipped up emotions in a younger, yet as proud, generation.

"I've been coming to races for a while and will sometimes show a Confederate flag," said 26-year-old Todd Daniel of Goose Creek, S.C., who carried a mini flag in his camouflage jacket breast pocket. "But I wanted to especially show one this time."

The NAACP said last summer it wanted to turn South Carolina into the "Arizona of the late 1990s," referring to the state that lost the 1993 Super Bowl for not having a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

But most of South Carolina's marquee events don't have the pizzazz or economic impact of a Super Bowl.

Still, the NAACP's message is getting through. USA Track and Field condemned the flag, and several trials runners wore red, white and blue ribbons of protest on Feb. 26. The Southern Conference held its men's and women's basketball tournaments, but promised to revisit the matter if the flag is not brought down before events scheduled for Greenville's Bi-Lo Center in 2001.

The Harlem Globetrotters, who last week said they would play scheduled games in South Carolina, donated $50,000 to the NAACP in support of the boycott.

Darlington Raceway president Jim Hunter said he has not been contacted by the NAACP about joining the boycott or making a statement. No sponsors, race teams, drivers or fans have called with concerns, he said. "We don't plan to get in the middle of it," Hunter said.

Jeff Gordon said the flag is not something for drivers to debate. "It doesn't have a whole lot to do with racing," he said.

Hunter said it's nearly impossible to ask fans to stop flying the flag. "It's an individual's right of freedom of expression," he said.

And there were many ways fans had to express themselves. Besides the traditional battle flag, there were "Stars and Bars" flags, Confederate flags with the South Carolina palmetto tree and Georgia state flags, which incorporate the Confederate battle flag. One fan even had a flag showing country music star Hank Williams Jr.

Kevin Cawley of Columbia stuck a white pole into his pickup to fly his Confederate flag.

Tim Sprenger of Florence, S.C., has been coming to Darlington for 14 years. He was busily setting up a platform Saturday morning in the infield between turns 1 and 2 that would hold up to 16 screaming fans for Sunday's show.

His banners of choice were an American flag, a South Carolina state flag and a NASCAR flag. "I don't feel I need to make a statement by showing the Confederate flag," said Sprenger, who thinks legislators should take the flag down from the Statehouse. "But there sure are a lot of people talking about it here."