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USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James previews the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway.
USA TODAY Sports

DOVER, Del. – Just beyond the main entrance of Dover International Speedway, activist/attorney/Grand Canyon guide Gene Stilp pulled his bespoke Nazi-Confederate flag from a metal garbage can and set it ablaze.

He knelt in his gray business suit and expressed his support for athletes who peacefully demonstrated in recent weeks during the national anthem. Stilp was at a racetrack instead of the office of a particularly conservative Pennsylvania Congressman he objects to, he said, because he felt there was a chance to convince NASCAR fans that the stars and bars and swastika were equivalent symbols of the same ills.

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“What we’re trying to do is educate people about the values the Confederate flag and the Nazi flag stand for,” Stilp said. “They stand for racism, intolerance, bigotry, hatred. They stand for intimidation. They stand for death. They stand for slavery. So joining these two together, if you will, making people aware that if they are flying the Confederate flag they are basically acknowledging the same values that were flown by the Nazi flag.”

Roughly 100 yards away, in a small parking lot behind a stage where the James Handy Band would soon begin entertaining the early arrivals, Jason King’s red Chevrolet pickup brandished a sizeable Confederate flag on one side of the bed, an American counterpart on the other. The Fredericksburg, Va., resident politely but “absolutely” disagreed with Stilp’s assertions.

“Aryan Brotherhood, White Power Movement, they adopted the flag, but the Confederate flag has nothing to do with Hitler’s Nazi regime, and I actually take offense to people that associate the two,” he said. “It’s about heritage.”

And so here was NASCAR again, the begrudging backdrop of another national debate in which it as an industry and community outwardly has no interest, and it seems, has no chance of helping shape. Opinions on the type of protests that have swept sports in recent weeks seemingly have no chance of changing within NASCAR as broader sports culture continues to hash out its feelings and protocols for when professional athletes demonstrate their First Amendment right during The Star-Spangled Banner.

Many factors elevate NASCAR as touchstone on social issues, including its generally conservative leanings, Southern birth and the whiteness of its competitors and fan base. That the series as an industry is often slow to conform to other sport’s changing values is its right, and in the case of anthem protests and the Confederate flag, its burden as it continues to find a foothold for the future amid difficult circumstances.

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For now, that means NASCAR is perceived as the sport where team owners openly side with President Donald Trump in believing employees who demonstrate during the national anthem should be fired. And even after NASCAR removed Confederate flags from official function and discouraged their display in 2015, the banners remain ubiquitous all around the circuit.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the anthem more than a year ago as a call for greater awareness of racial injustice and police brutality.

In NASCAR, where pre-race ceremonies are encrusted with military displays, protesting during the song is generally taken as an affront to the sacrifices soldiers have or will make for their country. That would be particularly true at Dover, a virtual Sparta of a NASCAR track whose connection to the sport’s patriotic zeal is reinforced by the memory of Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrating his win on Sept. 23, 2001 holding an American flag out of his window in the first race after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Stilp, who said he plans to replicate his protest on the Oct. 15 weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, credited NASCAR with its Confederate flag policy. A NASCAR official met him Saturday but the series had no comment on Stilp’s efforts. The protest on Saturday was small, attended only by journalists and overseen by two police officers, who informed Stilp they were there to assure his safety and provided him the proper permit to demonstrate and the pen to complete it.

“NASCAR as an organization appears to be [trying],” Stilp said. “It’s the whole Bell Curve. There’s some people over here who will say ‘I’m not flying the Confederate flag. I don’t believe in that.’ OK. And then we have people on the Bell Curve who say, ‘I never thought about that.’ OK. And then you have people who say ‘I’m going to fly the Confederate flag no matter what.’ We’re trying to educate those people who haven’t thought about what the Confederate flag stands for by equating it to a flag most people realize is a flag of real hate.”

Stilp acknowledges King’s right to fly whatever flag he wants. King acknowledges NASCAR’s right to ban it from “their show.” They can agree on free speech. But as is always seemingly the case, the details and how they weave through patriotism and politics soon become complicated in regards to the series.

King displayed his first flag as a sticker on his Big Wheel as a child because he loves The Dukes of Hazzard television show. Though he displays one while camping, he “kind of got away from it” before the tragedy surrounding the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Va., in August because “I’ve got to stand behind what I believe in.”

King believes there would not have been violence – Heather Heyer was run down and killed by a car – if opposition groups had not confronted those protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in a city park.

King, though, wasn’t going to display his flag as he drove a hauler full of musical equipment to the Saturday show. Friends convinced him otherwise.

“They’re like, ‘It’s NASCAR. They live for the Confederate flag’ and ‘Absolutely, fly that flag on your truck,’ ” King said, noting that campers at Dover have taken numerous pictures with his truck so far.

Stilp had reservations about his excursion to Dover, also, but chose not to listen to the advice of friends.

“Out in society I think there’s a lot of people who believe that NASCAR fans fly the Confederate flag so many people said ‘Don’t go do that. You’ll get hurt’,” Stilp said. “I don’t believe that. I think NASCAR fans are great and for those fans who do fly the flag, this could be an educational experience.”

An old debate came back to NASCAR, even as a new one smolders, whether the series wants it or not.