NASCAR Still Looking for Second Black Champion
In 1964 Wendell Smith became the first African American to win a race in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which is stock car racing’s major leagues. The race took place at Jacksonville’s Speedway Park.
Smith ran 495 big league races over 13 years with 147 top 10 finishes and the one win. His last race was in 1973. If one considers winning the primary measure of success in big time professional sports, there have been no successful Black NASCAR drivers since Smith stopped racing.
NASCAR is trying to address this with its Drive for Diversity (D4D) program, which Regal Magazine covered twice in 2009. The Orlando Sentinel says the NASCAR diversity program is making progress.
According to a Feb. 18 story, NASCAR officials started Drive for Diversity programs eight years ago to develop promising Black NASCAR drivers.
Talent from other racing series, such as Danica Patrick, who juggles her time between Indy Car and stock-car races, and Colombian-born Juan Pablo Montoya, who drove in Formula1, have crossed over.
Bringing new Black NASCAR drivers up the ranks has been the bigger challenge.
Though no one in the diversity program has made that breakthrough into NASCAR’s lead racing series, this year’s team offers some of the best prospects, said Max Siegel, CEO of Revolution Racing. As former president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., he is one of the highest-ranking African American executives in the sport’s history.
“We’ve had tremendous success on the racetrack with our drivers,” he said. “We had a rookie of the year. We had a bunch of firsts. “We’re celebrating those successes and getting attention from pacesetters.”
Siegel revamped the NASCAR diversity program in the past year and set up an academy-style system in which recruits learn more than driving. They build up their physical fitness and work on their own cars, while competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, a triple-A level of racing.
Still, there has been no breakthrough into Sprint Cup Series success for Black NASCAR drivers. “You win races and then hopefully, you can catch that break with the right sponsor to help you get to the next level,” said African American driver Ryan Gifford, 21, of Winchester, Tenn. “It’s just a matter of time and timing.”
Gaining sponsorships is a significant issue. By itself, a car can cost $250,000. Supporting a team and travel can run into the tens of millions. A major sponsor can pay $20 million to put its name on a prime spot on the car. Owners and sponsors want a return on that investment, which means seasoned drivers with a track record or a pedigree have a significant advantage, as well known drivers can command higher sponsorship fees.
Still, there has been progress for Black NASCAR drivers in the D4D program.
Michael Cherry, 21, from the Tampa area, won a race at the Tri County Motor Speedway in Hudson, N.C., becoming the first African American winner at that small track, a venue similar to AA or AAA in minor league baseball.
“Keeping your name out there, winning is the number one priority, but they’re giving us a great opportunity to race,” Cherry said to the Sentinel. “Soon, maybe as soon as two years, you’ll see one of us at the top. It might even be me.”
Several factors are working in D4D’s favor: the desire to increase interest in NASCAR from non-traditional markets to increase attendance and ratings; the need to augment the pool of drivers in a sport with significant turnover; and the understanding that it does NASCAR no good to be seen as the province of southern good old boys taking care of their own. Big time teams which understand marketing and have the resources to think about the future, like Penske Racing, Kyle Busch Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, are participating in D4D.
Bottom line: it should not be more difficult to have successful Black NASCAR drivers than it is to have an African American in the White House.