NASCAR’s Managing Director of Public Affairs Marcus Jadotte (Photo Credit: Ron Hoskins / Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR AND DIVERSITY: FIRST IN A FIVE-PART SERIES ON NASCAR’S PUSH TO CHANGE THE FACE OF STOCK CAR RACING
(Parts two, three, four and five are below)
By Mike Mulhern
Somewhere along the line a few years ago, one NASCAR skeptic mused that the U.S. might have a black president before it had a black driver in the Daytona 500.
Must not have heard of Wendell Scott.
Of course Wendell Scott’s day was long, long ago, and a lot of things have changed since the early 1960s, in NASCAR and in the U.S.
But then for those not paying much attention to what NASCAR has been doing to broaden its reach and change its face, literally, a little bit of ignorance sometimes seems to go a long ways.
With Danica Patrick finally getting that Indy-car breakthrough victory…with NHRA stars Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel making history too…with NASCAR’s unexpected decision to drop its Mexico City race….and of course with that $225 million discrimination lawsuit Mauricia Grant filed in June suddenly hanging over stock car racing…along with the surprising prospect of an African-American as the next president, it’s a good point in time to try to assess NASCAR’s long-running drive for diversity and what has changed in the eight years since Brian France triggered the program in 2000.
What has changed? Quite a lot really. Especially for those who recall that wild first turn ‘bog’ at Darlington Raceway and some of the not-so-politically-correct shenanigans back in the day.
Of course the sport itself has changed quite a lot, on just about every front. For those who remember when Richard Childress, now going for his seventh NASCAR Cup series championship, could campaign one race car – ONE – over the entire year-long tour (then January-October), and who once had a McDonald’s sponsorship that was worth all the hamburgers and French fries he could haul off from the take-out window, it has indeed. Many tour team owners now boast annual budgets of $30 million or so.
Now NASCAR’s garage area, and its shops and offices might not quite mirror American society as a whole, but it’s coming a darned sight closer, regardless of what lawyers might like to claim.
In fact, for those who were so skeptical about how long France’s ‘initiative’ might take just to get off the ground, the gains have been surprising and swift.
Wendell Scott, Jr., left, high-fives driver Lindsey King after her qualifying lap during the NASCAR Drive for Diversity tryouts at South Boston Speedway (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Not that there aren’t questions. And the most obvious is ‘Where is NASCAR’s Tiger Wood?’
Danville’s Wendell Scott (1921-1990) was a NASCAR tour veteran, in the 1950 and 1960s and early 1970s, running everywhere from Daytona to Jacksonville, with typical journeyman’s modest success.
Willy T. Ribbs (now 53), the flamboyant road racer that caught Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler’s eye in the late 1970s, had his shots at stock car racing, though never quite displayed the temperament to deal with the job.
And Bill Lester (now 47) showed considerable promise – a Cal-Berkeley grad, 1984, with a sports car racing background, and a sparkling personality – and got some good shots in NASCAR, beginning when he became the first African-American to run a NASCAR Busch race in 1999. Lester, part of a Dodge diversity project, ran NASCAR Trucks for a while, including a stint with the late Bobby Hamilton in 2001 and 2002, then with Bill Davis in 2004 and 2005. And Lester got his most celebrated break in the spring of 2006 with his first Cup race, at Atlanta, qualifying 19th in a Davis car – the first African-American in a Cup race since Ribbs in 1986 – and finishing 38th. But Lester never quite made it in NASCAR, and he’s moved back to sports cars. (He finished 14th last week in the Grand Am race at Montreal, on the card with NASCAR’s Nationwide tour, and he qualified 18th Thursday at Watkins Glen for Friday’s 200.)
The ‘Tiger Wood’ question was a major issue early in NASCAR’s diversity campaign, but it was really a diversion, when the naïve were pushing for a minority driver to make a big breakthrough.
Bill Lester (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
This is not so much a matter of changing a sports-business culture as much as it is simply getting seat time and having patience. Just ask Indy-car stars Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. how hard this NASCAR thing really is, even for someone who really knows the racing business. And ask car owner Chip Ganassi and others how much patience sponsors really have.
The better question for NASCAR, of course, is how to change the face of the sport.
NASCAR and its teams have been doing that rather well, all things considered.
Some teams are moving faster than others (and some teams might not be moving that fast at all); but then this is a business, remember, and it’s a performance business, and those who don’t succeed get kicked to the ditches. And the economic climate isn’t helping things. Ask Franchitti and those 70 other crewmen that Ganassi was forced to fire last month.
Now there is the legitimate question ‘Where is NASCAR’s Danica Patrick?’
But then Patrick could have had a NASCAR ride this year, or last, if she’d really wanted it. But apparently she wasn’t interested in the extra-hard work this series demands, with twice as many events as the Indy-car tour.
Women have been racing in NASCAR since the earliest days, when Big Bill France Sr. had Sara Christian and the never-say-die Louise Smith in cars. And Janet Guthrie made a big fling in the 1970s (the same time Ribbs was getting opportunities, which he squandered).
And women, from Patti Moise to Shawna Robinson to Erin Crocker have had modest success, in the sport the past few years. Ford Motor Company has pushed women in racing for a long time, much more aggressively than its Detroit counterparts.
NASCAR, as well as its teams and Detroit manufacturers, hold annual tryouts for promising young drivers, like this test last fall at South Boston Speedway. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
But perhaps NASCAR’s quickest answer to the diversity issue is simple: Juan Pablo Montoya.
The Colombian, now living in Miami, made the stunning leap from Formula One stardom to NASCAR Cup rookie, and he pulled off a victory his first season, at Sonoma. And there is widespread talk Montoya could easily be a NASCAR championship contender if he can get in the right equipment…which has led to speculation that he might be the right man to take over Tony Stewart’s ride with Joe Gibbs.
The key thing to note about Montoya’s success is not his success but the fact that he was willing to flat-out humble himself and move from Formula One down to ARCA to learn this branch of the sport from the ground up. And he was willing to put in laps at tiny short tracks around the country to learn the finer points.
It is that dedication and hard work that has made Montoya a success, more so than just his amazing talent.
Montoya, now, is a key to NASCAR’s diversity marketing campaigns.
Certainly NASCAR’s diversity programs—and it is a wide-ranging outreach operation—run the gamut…because part of this whole thing is marketing. And NASCAR does marketing. (It now seems a bit humorous perhaps that when NASCAR executives were negotiating with Japanese businessmen in the mid-1990s for that three-year Cup exhibition run in Suzuka and Motegi, they brought their visitors to North Wilkesboro Speedway to get the true flavor of the sport they were buying into.)
While there are the obvious questions:
Whatever happened to Magic Johnson?
What about Jackie Joyner-Kersee? Grand Marshall at Daytona in 2000, with all that hoopla….
Julius Erving, 1997….
Reggie Jackson, 2002….
While some of those things may have fizzled, or just withered on the vine, it can’t be argued that NASCAR isn’t trying.
Mauricia Grant’s $225 million lawsuit against NASCAR has raised the sport’s diversity programs—and the issues—to a fevered pitch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Perhaps the real hard questions should be aimed at corporate sponsors who always want success now.
For NASCAR it is all about ‘opportunity.’ That, bottom line, is what NASCAR is pushing, selling, marketing. If you’ve got it, NASCAR’s got a spot for you.
But those who are looking for some free ride in this deal, well, in NASCAR – like in New York City—there is no free ride.
And it’s hard work. Adrian Fernandez, one of racing’s biggest Hispanic stars, gave up on his NASCAR opportunity, rather than take the role offered. (How many people in this world would give up a job with Rick Hendrick?)
And while there is a flock of promising female drivers perched and waiting for a NASCAR opening, getting a woman into a stock car and racing successfully is a much more difficult job, it would appear.
It’s not just that lawsuit against NASCAR that has suddenly prompted all this.
And CEO Brian France’s ‘drive for diversity’ has by many marks been much more successful than might have been expected.
One goal is for NASCAR to more closely mirror American society as a whole.
But how is NASCAR doing, and how are its teams doing, and who needs to push harder?
Driver Marisa Niederauer adjusts her seat before running her laps at the NASCAR Drive for Diversity tryouts. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
While the easy questions are ‘Tiger Wood’ and ‘Danica Patrick,’ there is much more to the issue than just having a successful minority or female driver. After all there is much more to the sport – to any business – than just the high-profile positions. And NASCAR has been pushing to create an atmosphere of openness – which by any legitimate benchmark is clearly succeeding – both in the racing garages and in the racing shops.
While NASCAR executives decline to say just how many minorities are working in the sport today, NASCAR has clearly stepped up its diversity operations to a fevered pitch this summer. Minorities are more prominent in NASCAR circles and on NASCAR TV than ever. For example, former Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett is grand marshal for NASCAR’s Nationwide 200 Saturday at Watkins Glen International.
So when asking NASCAR’s Marcus Jadotte, the man in charge of the sport’s wide-ranging diversity operations, with the title managing director for public affairs for NASCAR, what’s going on, better grab another cup of coffee. Jadotte is not only the point man for this, he’s also something like an ambassador-at-large on the issues, doing the heavy-duty road work to get NASCAR’s open-doors message out, in schools, colleges, and businesses across the country.
“We’ve certainly made progress across the board, in every area the company is focused on, particularly employment,” Jadotte says.
“The NASCAR garage today is a much more diverse and inclusive work environment than it was at the start of the effort.
“Racing is our product, obviously, and we always want to stay focused on our core business. So what we are trying to do in ‘driver development’ is to create as many opportunities as we can for women and minorities to have a chance to compete in NASCAR’s developmental series. And we’ve certainly done that.
“Dozens of drivers have been involved in our diversity program, which is now in its fifth year. And this class is certainly the most successful on track that we’ve ever had.”
This year’s NASCAR class (http://www.drivefordiversity.com) : Lindsey King, Paul Harraka, Kristin Bumbera, Michael Cherry, Mike Gallegos, Katie Haga, Jesus Hernandez, Lloyd Mack, and Jonathan Smith. Bumbera, 20, won her second Late Model race of the season July 26 in Roseville, Calif. King, 19, won her first NASCAR Whelen All-American series feature August 2 at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, Calif.
Kristin Bumbera: Biding her time (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
This program is just one of several NASCAR-sponsored ‘internships.’ NASCAR and its business partners also offer various internships in other areas throughout the sport, as well as supporting a number of significant college programs, at schools like Clemson and N. C. A&T and Winston-Salem State.
Promising drivers tryout each fall for the racing internships, and that is perhaps the most visible, and photogenic, program.
“But we continue to stay focused on creating opportunities and being patient with the results,” Jadotte says. “We at NASCAR can create the opportunities, but we can’t force a driver to move up, or move a driver up the ranks, before he or she is ready to participate at that level.
“We are very encouraged by the progress of Jesus Hernandez and Paul Harraka and Kristin Bumbera. We think we have a group of drivers ready to make the next step up the ladder. And for each that step is different.
“For some of those, there will be the Camping World series. And a couple appear to be under serious consideration for a national touring series ride.”
One key word in all this is ‘opportunity.’
Another key word is ‘awareness.’ For example, at Gillian Zucker’s California Speedway (Auto Club Speedway), while the media’s focus has been so much on seats filled and tickets sold, the bigger picture for NASCAR is to use that track as a focal point for increased awareness of the sport as a whole, for increased TV ratings over the season, for example, and for increased awareness among corporate sponsors and potential sponsors, particularly in the vast Hispanic community.
Montoya, one key in Zucker’s marketing, has shown he can do the job in NASCAR’s highest levels; the ex-Formula One star made the transition successfully…though since his Sonoma win last year he has seemed to be withering on the vine, in less than stellar equipment.
Juan Pablo Montoya: NASCAR’s Tiger Wood (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And Fernandez, well, who would give up a shot with Rick Hendrick like he did? That was a major mistake somewhere along the line.
The Montoya issue may be critical – not throwing his current team under the bus, but there is the strong sense among his rivals that if Montoya were running with Hendrick or Joe Gibbs he would be a contender to win nearly every week. While it is a sensitive issue, of course, for NASCAR as a sport it is important for Montoya to be more up-front and successful. And for Montoya himself, who is 34.
Jadotte dances around the Montoya issue, though he is aware of the questions: “We are certainly happy and excited to have Juan Pablo here. He is one of the most talented drivers in the world. And we’re glad that Chip Ganassi took the initiative to bring him into NASCAR.
“But beyond that, NASCAR can’t get involved in telling a team how to manage a driver.”
Is NASCAR pushing hard enough, has it slacked off, are its team owners doing their fair share, is Detroit generally ignoring the issues?
“The entire industry has to push harder,” Jadotte says. “But we are doing well, and we are seeing progress in creating opportunities—on and off the track—for all Americans, regardless of gender or racial background.
“We are stronger as an industry when we’re more inclusive…and we are more inclusive today, with the welcome mat fully out, than we were in the past.
“That’s certainly an indication of progress: We are creating opportunities.
“We cannot guarantee outcomes, but we can create opportunities. And we are creating opportunities in employment. You can see that at the race track each week.
“The good news is this industry has taken up this challenge. And everyone is getting an opportunity to demonstrate his talent and hone his skill.
“But we can only open the door…and let their talent dictate how well they do.”
Driver Marisa Niederauer replaces the visor on her racing helmet at the annual NASCAR diversity tryouts (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
So how many blacks are working in NASCAR today, compared to before the diversity program began?
“We don’t track industry employment by race or gender…and certainly don’t share employment data in NASCAR,” Jadotte says. “But you can see the results at the track every week, across the industry. We look much more like America today than we did five or six years ago.”
Why not give out facts and figures? Why not show which teams are getting the job done?
“There are a couple of reasons: First, as NASCAR, we are not in position to mandate that teams share their private information, it’s not our role,” Jadotte says.
“This sport is made up of different constituency groups, and the sport works because we all work together to make events appealing to fans.
“But each team is an independent enterprise, and so are our track partners. We are not in position to mandate they turn over employment data. So that information is something we don’t have; it’s not that we are refusing to share it, we just don’t collect it and we don’t own it.”
But if this whole program is about changing the appearance of NASCAR, visually and …., it would appear to be simply good business to get those numbers and get them out to the general public to show what a good job NASCAR is doing?
“This program isn’t about marketing,” Jadotte says. “It’s about being more inclusive and looking more like America. And we’re not going to define success by numbers in the media to make everyone feel good.
“We’re going to continue to reach out to communities that traditionally haven’t been involved in NASCAR and let them know who we are and what we do and invite them in, both as fans and as potential employees in the sport.
“That’s where we succeed, rather than in collecting data and reporting incremental growth.”
Well, then, how is the NASCAR demographic changing?
Dramatically, of course. Bruton Smith’s crowds at his Sonoma, Calif., track are quite different from the crowds at Darlington Raceway or Talladega Superspeedway or Watkins Glen International. The crowds at Bryan Sperber’s Phoenix track are much different from the crowds at Zucker’s California Speedway or the France family’s Michigan track. And the crowds at the Mattiolli’s Pocono Raceway are decided different from the crowds at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. And the crowds at Indianapolis Motor Speedway different too.
The image of a ‘NASCAR dad’ is a bit overblown. There is no longer a ‘typical’ NASCAR fan.
Adding more Hispanics, more women, more African-Americans to mix is certainly part of this whole program – NASCAR racing is, after all, a business, interested in selling more tickets, gaining more fans, and increasing TV ratings, as well as open up jobs.
“Since the start of our diversity program, all those numbers are up,” Jadotte says. “Our fan-base is more than 40 percent female. We’ve seen growth in African-American and Hispanic interest in the sport. More than 20 percent of our self-described fans are African-American and/or Hispanic. Those numbers are certainly encouraging.
“Broadening the fan-base and reaching out to African-Americans, females, and Hispanics, is obviously not only enlarging the pool of talent we are able to draw from but also in attracting additional fans.”
And NASCAR, Jadotte points out, is interested in more than just finding new drivers: “Through the NASCAR intern program we have been able to introduce job opportunities to young people across the country, and historically black and Hispanic colleges and universities have been a big part of our diversity internship program for a number of years,” he says. “We have 20 to 25 people each year participating, and a number of them come back into the sport as employees when they graduate.”
The NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, Jadotte says, “is a great opportunity, across the board, for anyone, young or not, to learn about automotive technology. Week after week we see graduates from the Technical Institute not only working for teams but also for NASCAR.
“It’s certainly good to have an avenue like that to get into the sport. The Technical Institute broadens our ability to reach new audiences. And the more opportunities we create, the more impact we’re going to have on the industry.”
NASCAR’s Managing Director of Public Affairs Marcus Jadotte (R) and (R-L) Manager of Diversity Affairs Anna Maria Brennan talk with participants in the Women in the Winner’s Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo Credit: Ron Hoskins / Getty Images for NASCAR)
But with NASCAR’s diversity program in place and running for so many years now, it’s almost taken for granted. Does NASCAR do enough to market it, or promote just how much work it is doing?
“We could do a much better job of telling our story, there is no doubt in my mind about that,” Jadotte concedes. “We do need to be telling our story of everything NASCAR is doing, the progress NASCAR is making in creating opportunities for women and Americans of diverse backgrounds.
“But we have to be careful not to let that get ahead of the actual work. And we have done a very good job of staying focused on creating those opportunities and building programs and creating scholarships and internships for college students and reaching out to elementary school students, to reach kids at a very young age. That is where our focus has been, and it’s appropriate the focus stays there.
“It would be tempting to do a marketing job on how well we’re doing. But we have made a commitment to stay focused on the job of making real progress and impacting young people in a meaningful way. We want to attract the best and brightest into NASCAR.
“It’s not going to happen overnight; I wish we could make it happen faster. But it’s a long-term project. We’re not going to create new professional athletes overnight or change our workforce overnight. It’s going to take commitment not just from NASCAR but from the media and our partners.
“Our partners have done a good job of making a commitment to helping diversify the sport and have committed real resources toward that. You always want more resources involved in a commitment like this because of its importance. But our tracks and teams and sponsors have made a real commitment to diversity.”
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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Michael Cherry watches his fellow drivers during the NASCAR Drive for Diversity tryouts at South Boston Speedway (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)