MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Martinsville Speedway became the backdrop for a political statement Sunday morning when a man burnt a Confederate flag in protest before the race.
He said he's criticizing the sport and President Trump for not standing with minorities. Meanwhile several race fans were proudly flying their Confederate flags. They say it stands for heritage.
Gene Stilp is a self-titled citizen activist. He's held burning demonstrations at races in Dover, Delaware, Taledega, Alabama, and now in Martinsville. He says he was inspired by the NFL players who took a knee to protest racial injustice and he says, when he saw NASCAR take a different position, he felt compelled to make a statement himself.
Race day in Martinsville brings out thousands every year, and those crowds are often filled with Confederate symbols on clothing, in stores and on cars, so Stilp brought his own symbol to display.
"The flag is a combined Confederate and Nazi flag, one image on each side. We're doing that because they both show a similar, misguided value system. The misguided value systems include racism, hatred, bigotry, white supremacy, fascism, slavery," Stilp said.
Stilp said the idea to protest NASCAR came after team owners Richard Petty and Richard Childress said they would fire any of their employees who followed suit.
"It was at the same time that football players were taking a knee and Trump made those comments," Stilp said.
President Trump's comments were in support of the owners in a tweet, stating "So proud of Nascar and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our country or our flag - they said it loud and clear."
But at Sunday's race, many of those fans were proudly flying the Confederate battle flag.
"We're not here to offend anybody. Just what we believe in, states rights, stuff like that," NASCAR fan Corey Cauble said.
"Nowhere on that flag says hate, racial or anything. It's all heritage, man... My great, great grandfather died during the Civil War and both my daughters are Daughters of the Confederacy," NASCAR fan Mark Bailey said.
Stilp said those fans might mean well, but he believes they're misguided.
"They say heritage, not hate. Well, the heritage of the Confederate flag is hate," Stilp said.
To make his point, Stilp burned his flag in front of the raceway entrance. Then, he made another statement by kneeling to stand in solidarity with NFL players.
Stilp hopes his statement might convince some of the people at the race to put the flag away.
"People have to realize that minorities, et cetera, see that flag as a source of intimidation. It has been used, face it, by the KKK, by white supremacist groups for a long time," Stilp said.
Stilp said his next stop on the NASCAR circuit will be Fort Worth, Texas. He also hopes to continue his protests in the future in his home state of Pennsylvania.