Some Say NASCAR Lacks Drive to Achieve Diversity
It was always Joe Henderson III’s dream to become a successful NASCAR driver. He entered NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity (D4D) program with hopes of cracking a barrier that remains in place for most African American drivers. According to New York Times article published in 2006, Henderson was under contract from 2005 to 2006 and was used for publicity for NASCAR diversity efforts but was given poor equipment in 2005 and not even provided a racecar in 2006.
As a result of mixed results from the D4D program, many in the minority community doubt if NASCAR diversity is really a priority for those in charge of the lucrative sport.
“It’s a sham,” said Henderson’s father Joe Henderson, Jr. “The program is not designed to be successful because, No. 1, it’s not properly funded … They claim that it’s a pipeline. Well, nobody came out of the pipe.”
Despite Michael Cherry, coming from the D4D pipeline, and recently obtaining sponsorship with Nationwide Insurance, many critics including ESPN.com columnist Ed Hinton and former participants in the D4D program believe that the lack of funding is an indicator that NASCAR is continuing to drive, but not towards true diversity.
Hinton, in a recent column on ESPN.com, stated that the problem with the diversity program is the money and the fact that is limited to the developmental stage, not providing a bridge for minority drivers to transition from the small time to the big time. Approximately three years ago, $4 million annually was the budget for D4D, which is “significantly more” now, said Marcus Jardotte, NASCAR’s vice president for public affairs, whose department oversees D4D. However, Hinton believes that even $6 million annually is not enough to fund one decent effort for one Nationwide driver for one season, let alone the 12 that were selected for D4D this year.
However, NASCAR states they cannot fund particular drivers because it would represent a conflict of interest, choosing instead to stop funding drivers once they move up from the developmental level into Trucks, Nationwide or Cup (the top three racing series).
“It would be a conflict of interest for the entity that’s responsible for making and enforcing the rules to also support a particular driver at the national touring level,’ Jardotte said.
However, many believe NASCAR diversity could improve if they encourage its many sponsor to seriously get behind a minority driver because that would increase the viewership from various demographic groups, specifically African Americans, who stereotypically do not support NASCAR in large numbers.
“It can’t all be done at the late-model level and then assume that everybody, somehow, can find a couple of million [dollars a year] to run Trucks,” says Marty Buckles, a member of the first D4D class in 2004. “Once you get ready to run Trucks [first level of the major series] you’re on your own.”
However, many potential sponsors say that the reason they have not sponsored many African American drivers is because of the small African American market that watches NASCAR. Sponsors are more interested in promoting their products than promoting NASCAR diversity and if that demographic is watching other sports, companies usually will endorse athletes from the other sports.
That lack of funding has caused many African Americans, including Buckles to place their career on hold. Buckles and Chris Bristol, another D4D participant, have had to take jobs in mechanical engineering. Fortunately for Bristol, his engineering job is in a race-related profession, working for Roehrig Engineering, a manufacturer of racing shock testing equipment.
Bristol was able to continue his career briefly with Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), who many credit as being one of few owners seriously promoting NASCAR diversity. Nevertheless, JGR has had a difficult time obtaining sponsorship as well because of the current state of the economy, which many sponsors state is another factor affecting their decision to fund more drivers.
Many drivers such as Marc Davis, 18, and Chase Austin, 19, have decided to pursue their dreams without major sponsorships. Austin is in the Truck series with African American ownership, refusing to enter the NASCAR diversity program because he does not want to be known as an affirmative action driver.
Since there is still no African American or females in the drivers’ seats, full-time, in the top three series is an indicator of racial problems in the sport and no sincerity when it comes to NASCAR diversity, according to critics.
“It should not be easier for an African American to become President of the United States than a full-time driver in one of NASCAR’s top series,” wrote Doug Demmons of the Birmingham News.
Preston Miller, project manager for NASCAR at Ford Motor Company for 13 year stated: “NASCAR isn’t stepping up for what they say they want to do. They’re doing it like they’ve always done, putting the onus on the owners of the Cup cars. They beat them up to make them fund everything … They’ve put the load on everybody else to go out and get diversity.”
Unfortunately for Henderson, the lack of NASCAR diversity was a load that he could not carry alone, who experienced angry crowds at races hurling racial epithets in his direction. Hopefully for Cherry, the struggles that his predecessors had to endure may have made the journey a little more bearable for him and those that follow.
Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men’s Magazine.