Most forms of professional auto racing and their sanctioning bodies have made strides in the past several years on the diversity and inclusion front, making racing more accessible and more inviting to those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, despite the progress that has been made at the national level, there are still some places that have quite a ways to go -- As evidenced by a recent incident at the Kossuth County Speedway in Algona, Iowa.
Prior to a race at the Speedway on July 15, a fill-in announcer, identified as Lon Oelke in multiple reports, went on a rant he called as a "social service" message, first taking issue with athletes and other individuals who take a knee in protest and do not stand for the United States national anthem before accelerating down a racist path.
"If you won't stand for our flag, if you're gonna take a knee, if you're gonna feel you have rights -- you have the right to remain silent for most of the time -- But I got four words for you: Find a different country, if you won't do it," the announcer told the crowd. "Get the hell out of Dodge. A lot of people have sacrificed many things in their lives for us to be able to do these liberties.
"And if you feel that's all right, well, I don't know. You just don't have a right."
The announcer then expressed his disdain for the National Football League, which plans to play "Lift Every Voice And Sing" -- dubbed the "Black National Anthem" -- prior to some of its games this upcoming season. In doing so, the announcer's diatribe took on bitter racial tones.
"I've heard about all the stuff going on in the NFL, and now they're going to have another national anthem for those folks. For the -- I guess -- darker-toned skin color ... I'll just say blacks," he continued. "They want a different national anthem and the NFL is thinking about doing it. So I say shut the TVs off and let them play in front of nobody. Yes! That's my announcement."
After the rant began to circulate through social media channels, Kossuth County Speedway released a statement through its Facebook account that they had severed ties with Oelke, who had been working in place of usual track announcer Chad Meyer. Oelke normally works as the track announcer at Fairmont Raceway in Minnesota.
Speedway officials claimed that they had not heard Oelke's comments on race day itself, as the track's public address system is difficult to hear for those not situated in the grandstands -- which management at the speedway is not.
"Kossuth County Speedway and the Kossuth County Fair Board do not condone the comments made by the fill-in announcer. We do not tolerate discrimination at our racing events and welcome race fans of all color, gender, religion, and creed to join our racing family," read the statement. "... We acknowledge that though this is an isolated incident, that does not make it okay.
"Going forward, we will no longer be employing the individual who made those comments as a fill-in announcer at any of our track events."
While Kossuth County Speedway severed ties with Oelke, Fairmont Raceway promoter Jon McCorkell made a statement in support of Oelke, stating in a Facebook post that he agreed "with all of Lon's comments and opinions." The post has since been deleted.
"Can't fix stupid. New candidate for the What an Idiot Hall of Fame," NASCAR spotter Freddie Kraft, who spots for Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace among others, wrote on Twitter about McCorkell's post. "I guess this is one way to 'promote' your race track. Good luck with that."
While NASCAR, Formula 1, and other forms of auto racing have made concentrated efforts to grow in the diversity and inclusion space, it remains to be seen whether such efforts will trickle down to the local levels of racing, which take place predominantly in rural areas that are often less diverse.
In a story earlier this year by Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic, up-and-coming racer Rajah Caruth -- who competes under NASCAR's Drive for Diversity banner at both the grassroots level and in the ARCA Menards Series East -- acknowledged that hearing boos after winning races at Hickory Motor Speedway and Tri-County Speedway in North Carolina was something of a nuisance.
"I don't pay it no mind but it's kind of annoying because I love this sport since I was a kid so sometimes not to get that respect from people who've spent their lives around it is kind of heartbreaking a little bit," Caruth told The Athletic. "But at the same time, what use is it to worry about other people's opinions when I can't control it? I laughed when I heard (the boos) and was like, 'I see how it is.'"
While some promoters have done their due diligence in ensuring a welcoming envrionment, others have not done so: Last June, the promoter of 311 Speedway in Stokes County, North Carolina promoted the sale of "Bubba Rope" at his track shortly after an incident at Talladega Superspeedway where a garage pull rope fastened in the shape of a noose was mistakenly interpreted as a racist threat directed at Bubba Wallace. According to ESPN, the stunt led to a condemnation from a North Carolina Government spokesperson and a loss of business for the speedway.