Brad Daugherty, the former NBA and UNC star, is now making his career in NASCAR, not only as a TV analyst but now as a NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner (Photo: ESPN)
NASCAR AND DIVERSITY: LAST IN A FIVE-PART SERIES ON NASCAR’S PUSH TO CHANGE THE FACE OF STOCK CAR RACING
By Mike Mulhern
Brad Daugherty is NASCAR’s most visible African-American face, on TV every Sunday as ESPN analyst, right next to Andy Petree, Dale Jarrett and Jerry Punch.
Now he will have an even bigger role to play in this sport, as a key spokesman for its diversity programs – because Daugherty’s day job is about to get bigger, much bigger, and more economically and politically dangerous, with his step up to running a Sprint Cup team next season.
Running a Cup team isn’t easy, to say the least. Even in the best of times.
Ask Richard Childress, who spent some five years fighting, and spending, to get his once-championship program back on track.
And ask Chip Ganassi, who just had to close the doors on a 71-man team and sent Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti to the sidelines, because of sponsorship woes.
Ask the Wood brothers…ask the Pettys…ask Ray Evernham…ask Bill Davis….ask Robby Gordon…ask Beth Ann Morgenthau…
Paul Harraka: a NASCAR drive-for-diversity racer….with Syrian heritage (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images for NASCAR)
And those are all people who know the business very, very well, who know the people, who know the ins and outs.
Unless the economics of NASCAR racing changes radically, there is little hope for another Alan Kulwicki.
But Daugherty is game for the game, and he knows the business well too. It’s impossible to grow up in Asheville and not know about Banjo Matthews and Dave Marcis and Bob and Robert Pressley, all NASCAR legends.
In fact Daugherty, now 42, has been banging around the NASCAR garage for some 20 years now. His old jersey number, 43, was picked to honor Richard Petty. He went to victory lane at Homestead-Miami and Texas to celebrate wins as Truck team owner for the late Kenny Irwin, and he just got sprayed with champagne at Watkins Glen after Marcos Ambrose’s Nationwide win.
“I love racing, I grew up racing, been around it all my life,” the NBA’s number one draft pick in 1986 says. “I’m not a spokesman for NASCAR. But I get a kick out of this. I was the first rookie owner to win in the Busch series, back in 1989. And I’ve been working this past year on getting more sponsorships for our new programs.
“I’ve been messing with this stuff a long, long time. And I’m going to try to help some people get some opportunities.”
People of color, he says, even if he has to pay for some of that out of his own pocket.
Bill Lester: Polished, urban, smart – Cal-Berkeley (class of ‘84). Here with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Daugherty knows NASCAR. He knows its strengths as well as its foibles.
He also knows that in NASCAR’s 50-year history only three African-Americans drivers have made it to the major leagues: Wendell Scott, Willy T. Ribbs, and Bill Lester. And only Scott, ran 495 races in the 1960s and 1970s, winning at Jacksonville, Fla., (Dec. 1963, but a 1964-season event), managed to make a career out of it. Ribbs ran three Cup events in 1986; Lester ran two Cup events in 2006.
And Daugherty knows NASCAR’s biggest weakness is it costs so darned much to play this game. At any level.
He knows too that corporate sponsors, particularly in the current economic climate, don’t have much patience. Lay out a five-year development program for a black, a woman, an Hispanic, any minority, and spend a heck of a lot of money on testing and racing in the minor leagues….just to see if the driver can make it at the major league level? Nope, just doesn’t happen.
Any new driver lucky enough to get a shot has to produce quickly, or he’s on the sidelines. Consider Jacques Villeneuve here. World champion, no less. But no sponsor, no ride.
Aric Almirola: A NASCAR diversity driver who has made the big leagues, with Chevy at Dale Earnhardt Inc. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)
To make NASCAR work better in this process, there needs to be more corporate money invested, there needs to be more marketing and publicity, and there needs to be a major cost-reduction in the price point for running a NASCAR team.
NASCAR’s Truck series would seem an obvious development playground. The late Bill France Jr. designed the Trucks as an inexpensive alternative to his sport’s two top tiers. However it has morphed into something much different, for marketing reasons as much as anything – Detroit wants to sell ‘tough’ Trucks, not fund some inexpensive NASCAR development series. So Truck racers are now NASCAR’s meanest, toughest racers, and billed as such….but so are the economics, from $3 million to $5 million a season to run one team. And the Truck series is one of NASCAR’s least visible tours.
NASCAR has been working both sides of the diversity equation, from the top down, and from the grassroots up.
From the top-down, there have been some high-profile moves: consider Magic Johnson, Joe Washington, Julius Erving, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, all hotly promoted for adding to NASCAR’s diversity…who all in the end were not pleased with the stunning economics of this game.
NASCAR has tried to use that star-power to attract new corporate sponsors. But NASCAR’s own economics have been a big stumbling block.
NASCAR could tell its Cup owners that part of their contract to run in that series they have the obligation to fund at least one developmental driver program.
NASCAR could tell its corporate sponsors that part of their deals to ride the sport’s coattails include the obligation to fund developmental drivers.
NASCAR could tell its track owners that part of their contracts for those lucrative Cup weekends includes the obligation to fund developmental drivers.
Maybe NASCAR’s development driver program needs a push….maybe that will the real effect of Mauricia Grant’s lawsuit.
Randy Moss: The NFL star is now proud owner of a NASCAR Truck tour team and will be a high-profile player in stock car racing (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Still, to the ‘outside’ world, the big picture question is where is NASCAR’s Tiger Wood?
Lewis Hamilton, just 23, is dominating Formula One.
Why hasn’t NASCAR found its own Lewis Hamilton?
“The ‘Tiger Wood’ is obviously the ultimate goal for NASCAR….but setting a goal like that is very dangerous,” Daugherty says. “Because when you create programs like that, they have a tendency sometimes to fail, because you’re looking for a specific ending.
“And ‘diversity’ programs usually tend to go down that road.
“I think you need to have a ‘diversity initiative.’ And I think that’s what NASCAR has been trying to do. And I think that’s been good – they’re trying to develop grassroots opportunities.
“Trying to put a Tiger Wood in one of these race cars is putting a lot of pressure on people. The difficulty of this job is sometimes hard to grasp.
“The grassroots is where it has to start. That’s where the growth will come over the next decade.
“This is not a stick-and-ball sport; it’s more a cultural sport. And a lot of these guys have a lineage that leads them into stock cars from family history…and there’s not a lot of that available to urban kids, the minorities that NASCAR is going after. It’s a difficult process.
“I applaud NASCAR for working to become more inclusive. That’s the major goal.
Wendell Scott Jr., helping NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity testing sessions (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“Getting a driver of color in a race car, that’s something I’d love to see happen. But it has to be done right. It’s not a process where it can be done just ‘right now.’ It takes cultivation, it takes resources. And there are reason why guys who have had opportunities haven’t made it.
“I talk to Marcus Jadotte, the NASCAR diversity director, frequently, and they’re doing everything in their parameters to make these efforts work.
“But remember this is a very big corporation, and there are lot of facets and agendas….and at the end of the day they’re trying create revenue. There may be A, B, C, and D…and the company has to pay attention to all.
“So it’s a difficult deal for NASCAR to gets its arms around the whole thing.”
Part of the solution has to lie with Detroit and sponsor corporations, where charity isn’t part of the big game, results are, Daugherty agrees.
“I’ve been dealing with sponsors for a long time,” Daugherty says. “I’ve got some great corporate partners who like what I’m trying to do and agree with what I’m trying to do.
“I know Bill Lester and Willy T. Ribbs, and I would go talk to sponsors (for them)…and there was just no way….”
It’s not about talent; it’s the price of this sport, and it’s a company’s marketing plans. And it’s frequently difficult to get all the stars lined up.
Daugherty understands both sides. “People need to understand that if you’re a big corporation you’re sort of held hostage: you can’t just write checks if things simply don’t add up,” Daugherty says.
“So the pressure in my opinion is not on NASCAR but on some of its corporate sponsors to step up. And in the current economic climate it’s tough.”
Then there is the theory of rising expectations. Just because a driver— black, white or blue – can drive, has talent, doesn’t mean he’s going to get a good shot.
NASCAR and Detroit run a series of driver tryouts each year, looking for promising young drivers. But even if one of those does get a shot with a team, there is no guarantee they can interest a sponsor.
And then sometimes people seem to expect the sport to offer and deliver more than it actually can. NASCAR, after all, is a business, not a charity.
Still, Daugherty concedes there can be bitterness when the playing field doesn’t seem fair: “Some people aren’t able to compete with the same resources as others, and that’s where the bitterness comes from. So I have empathy. They get the short end of the stick and don’t get the same opportunities to advance.
“But you have to pay your dues, you have to be in the hunt, to be able to get the opportunity.
“But when you go into meeting with a potential sponsor corporation as an owner – and I’ve seen this – they’re looking for someone (as driver) who meets their marketing plans. And the majority of those marketing plans don’t involve African-Americans….that’s just the way it is.
“Too many of these companies are looking for the good looking, blue-eyed, blond-haired guy with a great smile….who can drive the hell out of a race car.
“Is it their fault? No.
“And yet when you go to those companies and talk about their ‘diversity’ programs, there are usually not enough dollars there for a program to be sustainable, with good equipment.”
So Daugherty says NASCAR is doing its part, doing its fair share, and now it’s up to its sponsoring companies to rethink how they market diversity.
“You’re right, and that’s where things have to change,” Daugherty says.
“We can talk all we want about this, but at the end of the day, this sport isn’t black or white, it’s green. If you’ve got the dollars, you can get out there and race your guts out.
“So you’ve got to get after corporate America.
“Without the resources, you’re always getting short-changed. That’s where the bitterness comes from.”
The faces of NASCAR have been changing dramatically over the past 14 years, during the it’s surge in popularity and national interest since Tony George brought NASCAR and its big, hulking stock cars to legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a seminal moment for the sport.
In fact, these demographic changes have become so pervasive they hardly register any more.
Max Siegel: One of the most powerful African-Americans in NASCAR, here with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L) (Photo: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Among the notable:
—Max Siegel, 43, is now president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., running that operation, with John Story, for owner Teresa Earnhardt. Siegel, Notre Dame, ### laude, School of Law. Sigel is an African-American.
—Randy Moss, 31, wide receiver for the New England Patriots, and now part-owner of a NASCAR Truck team (that Jimmie Johnson will drive for at Bristol in a high-profile move to pump up sponsorship opportunities). Moss is an African-American.
—The late Reggie White, an NFL Hall of Famer who was helping run Joe Gibbs’ diversity program when he died unexpected at 43. White was an African-American.
—Marcus Jadotte, the NASCAR diversity director. Jadotte is an African-American, from John Kerry’s 2004 president campaign.
—Aric Almirola, of Cuban descent, is running the Cup tour with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
But NASCAR executives are looking at troops in the trenches too, and as part of its drive-for-diversity program – describes as “an ethnic and gender minority driver and crew member development program… an initial step in a long-term solution to diversify NASCAR’s participant and audience base” – NASCAR not only provides modest sponsorship support for half a dozen or so up-and-coming drivers in lower level racing series around the country, but also support to add minority crewmen to the mix.
The big issue is green: the costs of racing are almost prohibitive, and NASCAR needs to get its costs under control. It shouldn’t cost $30 million a year to run a Cup team, for one.
The barriers to entry, the road blocks to success, are – as Daugherty says – rooted directly in money, not color or gender or ethnicity.
So, yes, the NASCAR road has been rough for young black racers trying to make it, with various controversies swirling quietly around men like Chase Austin and Marc Davis, two promising 18-year-old drivers, for example.
Austin has been driving the minor leagues for Rusty Wallace; Davis may drive Trucks and ARCA next season.
But is the NASCAR system working too slowly for these drivers?
Jonathan Smith: A NASCAR diversity driver on the fast track (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Do they deserve more than they’ve gotten so far? Does NASCAR need to push harder for these drivers?
And if so, where is the money coming from? What sponsors are willing make the hefty commitment, in time and money and promotion?
Guys who clearly do know how to get it done at world-class level, like Indy stars Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., have struggled so much in trying to make it in NASCAR that clearly success here is not easy.
And NASCAR offers no free rides: no free rides for Indianapolis 500 winners, no free rides even for Formula One world champions.
What NASCAR does offer are opportunities, scholarships, internships, even some hand-holding. But no free rides. Sooner or later, you have to make it work on your own.
Over the past 10 years or so, even longer perhaps, NASCAR team owners have been more than willing, eager even, to search out promising new talent and give it a shot, more so than ever in this sport’s history. Some guys like Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett, who had to pay their dues for years before making the big-time, might be aghast at how quickly top-notch rides are opening up.
Consider Kyle Busch – he’s only 23 but leading the NASCAR Cup tour standings, with 16 major league NASCAR wins already this season, and he got his start even before he turned 18.
Consider David Ragan.
Consider Joey Logano.
The NASCAR garage is filled with such promising, young talent.
There’s more to being a racer than just driving, as diversity driver Jessica Helberg shows, during NASCAR’s annual driver test session at South Boston Speedway. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images for NASCAR)
A generation ago economic gambles like that would have been unthinkable.
But the economics of the sport were so good when Busch was coming up that car owner Rick Hendrick was willing to give him a shot.
Today, however, with the general economy in such a slump, it’s been impossible even for proven talent like Franchitti to land a sponsorship.
And the cost of NASCAR racing is, well, simply outrageous. It works that way in part because of technology, in part because the car owners currently at the top of the pack have a vested interest in keeping rivals down and/or out.
If you can do the job, there are opportunities, great opportunities. And NASCAR is pushing to open all the doors it can, though perhaps it could stiff-arm some corporate partners a little harder.
Still, there are no guarantees.
And the ditches along the road to NASCAR success are filled with busted careers.
Agree? Disagree? Don’t just brood. Express yourself here, and make your voice heard clearly in NASCAR headquarters in Daytona and Charlotte and in NASCAR race shops throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country.
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Brad Daugherty, one of the most prominent African-Americans in NASCAR, puts his money where his mouth is—as a team owner (Photo: ESPN)