NASCAR trying to get minorities in cars, stands

Posted: Thursday, May 06, 2004

ATLANTA The checkered flag, an equal mixture of black and white, is racing's symbol of success. It doesn't, however, reflect the sport's ability to attract minorities.

NASCAR is looking for diversity in the sport. Teams have hired diversity directors and Joe Gibbs Racing has joined with football's Reggie White to develop minority teams to compete on local short tracks.

At the same time, the sport has been trying to cultivate a new fan base. The Daytona International Speedway had Whoopi Goldberg wave the green flag for the Daytona 500, rappers Bow Wow, Jermaine DuPree and Da Brat were guests of the Atlanta Motor Speedway last March, wrestling's Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson gave the command to start engines at Texas in April and jazz musician Herbie Hancock watched the inspection process last week at California.

And yet, of the estimated 75 million NASCAR fans across the country, about 20 percent are minorities, according to Tarrance Group and Lake Snell Perry and Associates.

For Chris Garner, who's been working at Petty Enterprises for 24 years, racing has come a long way during his time in the sport. He joined the Pettys long before there was talk of diversity, affirmative action and political correctness. He started at the bottom cutting grass and running errands and now he's a front tire changer and the assistant trainer for pit stops.

"If you're in this sport long enough, you realize the only color that matters is green the color of money," Garner said.

Right now, plenty of money is being spent on putting minorities into positions that, until recently, have gone to whites. The push not only includes drivers, but car owners, mechanics and, of course, fans.

One project commissioned by NASCAR is its "Driver for Diversity." The program will put four minority drivers with Late Model teams at short tracks on the Dodge Weekly Racing Series as well as placing minority crewmen in its premier levels.

Bruce Driver, 39, a modified driver from New Jersey, will join Score Motorsports in the Late Model division at the South Boston (Va.) Speedway this season.

"This is a fresh breath, like a new life again," Driver said. "I'm getting a second chance."

Bill Lester is the only black driver on any of NASCAR's three premier levels. He drives a Toyota on the truck series after being let go when Dodge dropped its diversity program in trucks a year ago.

"I'm a race car driver who just happens to be black, not a black race car driver," Lester said. "I'm not here trying to wave the flag for diversity. The fact of the matter is I realize that I have a responsibility being that I'm African-American out in this sport and I'm so welcomed, but that's not all I am."

There have been other black drivers. Wendell Scott is the only black driver to ever win a NASCAR race, but his 1964 victory at Jacksonville, Fla., was marred by a promoter who was afraid to declare him the winner until the crowd went home. Fearing an uprising, a white driver celebrated in Victory Lane and received the trophy, only to give it to Scott after the fans left.

Willy T. Ribbs, who dabbled in Indy Car racing, also made a few appearances in NASCAR. He was critical of the way blacks were excluded from good jobs in NASCAR.

Lester said true diversity won't happen until fans and corporate America embrace the idea. Confederate flags still decorate the infield of most raceways and Fortune 500 companies remain reluctant to sponsor a black team or car owner. Sam Belnavis owned a Ford for Todd Bodine last year, but the National Guard moved its sponsorship over to Greg Biffle this year, putting the team out of business.

"NASCAR is the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country," Lester said. "There's no reason people can't take advantage of that."

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