On the track, diversity has been slow to gain traction

Posted: June 10, 2012

NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program is in its ninth year, yet, in stock-car racing's top three series, you basically can count minority drivers on one hand.

The question many have is, what's taking so long to get these drivers into the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series? A Tiger Woods on wheels could have a huge impact on auto racing.

While nine years is a long time, people in NASCAR advise patience. The diversity program faces some major issues.

Racers must start racing early, not early teens, but as young as ages 6 and 7.

Racing is very expensive. Young drivers need cars, equipment, a crew, and money for traveling.

The stalled U.S. economy is not helping, affecting sponsorships in particular.

Before heading to Pocono Raceway for Sunday's Pocono 400, veteran driver Jeff Burton offered his views on diversity in racing.

"We need more diversity," he said. "We need to make sure our sport is open to everyone. We have to have a sport that's attractive to the youth of America. If it is, you're going to have minorities wanting to do it the same way we do with baseball, football, and basketball.

"Race-car drivers are built over years. Diversity starts at youth racing, not at the NASCAR level. Tony Stewart started racing when he was 6, I started when I was 7. My son's been racing since he was 5. You can't take somebody at 13 and say, 'I have an interest in racing.' My 6-year-old has a huge advantage over him."

Former NFL coach Joe Gibbs established his organization to promote diversity about 10 years ago. Gibbs planned to partner with former Eagles defensive great Reggie White. Gibbs would supply equipment and White would own a team. But White died in 2004 at age 43.

Several minorities have driven for Gibbs, but he said some couldn't take "the next step" to a higher racing level. Darrell Wallace Jr., a product of the Drive for Diversity program, now drives for Gibbs Racing and is perhaps the most promising minority driver.

Wallace, 18, finished an impressive ninth in his Nationwide Series debut last month at Iowa Speedway. The Alabama native won a K&N Pro Series East race last fall at Dover, Del.

Gibbs stressed that Wallace has followed the demanding path of racing late models on the Carolina circuit.

"These rural areas have experts that have raced there for years," Gibbs said. "When you go in there from the outside, it's tough to win. Darrell and his dad charted a course where they said, 'We're going to go where it's toughest.' "

Philadelphia's Urban Youth Racing School also had an early start on diversifying the sport. Starting in 1998, UYRS youngsters were a presence at racetracks, learning different areas of the racing business, but never transferred that presence to prominence in racing. Since NASCAR withdrew its support of the school a few years ago, UYRS students have not been at Pocono or Dover on race weekends.

Meanwhile, a discrimination lawsuit filed by Michael Rodriguez, a former candidate for the diversity program, was settled this week. Despite his Hispanic surname, Rodriguez, 22, a former two-time Pennsylvania karting champion and the youngest Super Late Model winner at Mountain Speedway near Hazleton, Pa., claimed in his suit that he was not given the chance to participate because he appeared "too Caucasian." He said the settlement will allow him to compete in some ARCA races.

Gibbs is optimistic that some minority racers eventually will work their way to NASCAR's top levels.

"We know we're going to find the talent. It's a matter of when," he said.

On the sponsorship front, Denis McGlynn, Dover International Speedway's president and CEO, notes that even Cup series teams are scrambling for sponsorship.

"It's probably the toughest [economic] environment in the last four years," McGlynn said. "If the major teams are finding it difficult getting sponsorship, how do you find sponsorship for a no-name driver, regardless of his ethnicity?

"It seems the total focus is on drivers who can get you to the Chase and drivers like Danica Patrick who can get you tons of media exposure. I would expect a breakthrough diversity driver would be similar to Danica."

Wallace's father, owner of an industrial cleaning business, has spent close to $1 million supporting his son's racing career.

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France has been behind the diversity program from its inception. NASCAR financially supports Rev Racing, based in Mooresville, N.C., whose teams compete in several lower racing levels. Rev drivers have included Sergio Pena and Paulie Harraka, from Wayne, N.J., now in the Camping World Truck Series.

Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's vice president of public affairs and multicultural development, explained that Rev Racing uses an "academy approach." Jadotte said drivers are required to live in the Charlotte area, spend time at the race shops, and classrooms, and undergo physical training.

The plan for Wallace includes three more Nationwide races this year. If sponsorship can be found, Wallace hopes to race a full Nationwide schedule in 2013.

No one who follows NASCAR is naïve enough to think minority drivers will be welcomed by all fans. Wallace tells the story about winning a race in Virginia: As he started celebrating, he looked up and saw a white fan making an obscene gesture. Wallace just smiled, waved, and did a burnout in front of the fan.

Contact Bill Fleischman at fleiscb@phillynews.com.

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