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NASCAR allows limited audience for first time since coronavirus, Confederate flag ban

The racing league allowed 1,000 first responders and military families to be spectators at its race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

NASCAR opened up its races to spectators in Florida on Sunday, the first time fans were in the stands since restrictions were put in place for the coronavirus and just days after the sport banned Confederate flags.

The racing league, the first major professional U.S. sport to resume during the pandemic, allowed just 1,000 first responders and military families at its race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Dixie Vodka 400 NASCAR Cup Series event. The speedway's grandstands can normally handle over 50,000 fans.

The limit on the number of attendees was required to observe a number of safety measures, including social distancing, temperature checks and cashless transactions. Everyone was required to wear face coverings.

Photos showed spectators socially distancing in the bleachers, sitting far apart in the sparsely filled stadium.

Florida is reporting a record spike in confirmed coronavirus cases. The state reported more than 2,000 new cases both Saturday and Sunday. There have been more than 18,000 new cases in the state since June 3 as medical experts see a new wave of the coronavirus spread in a number of states that reopened last month.

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Lightning struck as the race was underway Sunday, bringing out the yellow caution flag. The race is the third event NASCAR has held in the last week, following races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. Although the company announced it would resume its schedule last month, the race Sunday was the first to allow an audience and the first since a major policy announcement from the league.

On Wednesday, NASCAR announced that it would officially ban Confederate flags at all its events and properties. The only Black driver in the league's top series, Bubba Wallace, praised NASCAR for the decision to take a stand after he had called on it to make a change.

"It's not a race thing. It's about walking into an event and feeling uncomfortable," Wallace said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show. "That's it. If you felt uncomfortable, you would want change. So I'm speaking out for the people that show up to the racetrack and feel that type of way."

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Wallace raced at Martinsville on Wednesday with a special paint job honoring Black Lives Matter on his car.

Although many people have applauded the decision to ban the flag, a polarizing symbol that for many represents the South's history of slavery and discrimination, some were unhappy with NASCAR.

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Ray Ciccarelli, a Truck Series driver, said in a Facebook post Thursday that he will no longer race for the league after the 2020 series. He said he does not believe in kneeling during the national anthem or taking away people's "right to fly what ever flag they love."

"I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl that do and it doesn't make them a racist," he said.

All NASCAR is doing, he wrote, is "f------ one group to cater to another." He added: "and I ain't spend the money we are to participate in any political BS!!"

Wallace said he was baffled by Ciccarelli's response.

"I think he just solidified his career ... no longer being a part of NASCAR," Wallace said. "I would encourage NASCAR to really step up and look at that if he tries to reinstate."

NASCAR, which once embraced Confederate symbols and has roots in the South, has a checkered racial history.

NASCAR began asking fans to stop taking Confederate flags to races in 2015 after Dylann Roof killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. After the massacre, photos circulated online of Roof posing with the flag. The request was ignored by many fans.

Janelle Griffith and Ben Kesslen contributed.