KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A cynical person might write off NASCAR’s diversity efforts as a response to declining attendance and sagging ratings, a desperate attempt to tap into new demographics that could shore up the sport’s financials.
Of course, that ignores the fact NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program is rooted in an initiative started by Joe Gibbs, a four-time Monster Energy Cup Series championship owner and three-time Super Bowl winning coach, more than 15 years ago.
With input from late NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White and former NBA star Brad Daugherty, a Cup Series team co-owner himself, Joe Gibbs Racing announced the driver development program in 2003 and NASCAR took the reins a year later.
Those early years produced a limited impact, but there’s been a renewed and expanded effort in recent years. Not only has NASCAR sought to develop minority drivers, which it’s finally managed to do at the Cup level, but there’s been a push to diversify support staff as well.
There are Drive for Diversity graduates competing at NASCAR’s highest level. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. is the first African-American Cup driver since Wendell Scott, whose last season was 1973. Daniel Suarez is the first full-time Mexican driver in Cup series history. Kyle Larson’s mother is Japanese-American. Aric Almirola is of Cuban descent, and was a member of the original Joe Gibbs Racing initiative.
“For me to dabble in a sport where it’s a predominantly white sport and be somewhat successful is huge. You’re getting a lot more eyes, and new fans that are coming out to support me, and they’ll say that. It’s powerful when they say that,” Wallace said. “At the same time it’s like, ‘You could’ve came a lot earlier. It’s a great sport to be a part of.’ “
These days, NASCAR not only has diversity initiatives for drivers, but it also sponsors programs and advocates for increased diversity among pit crew members and through support staff internships.
“It’s really all about sharing opportunities,” said Jusan Hamilton, NASCAR’s Senior Manager of Racing Operations and Event Management.
“With a lot of folks, when I go to schools and we’re working with the pit-crew program talking to graduating college athletes, especially those from a minority background, a lot of them don’t even know about the opportunity in NASCAR to work — whether it’s on pit road as an athlete or on the professional and business side, like what I do.”
“The program is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” Hamilton said. “Not everyone is going to follow that path, but it’s great to let people know it’s there and give people the opportunity.”
That’s not to say NASCAR’s pivot from the stereotype of a white, Southern, redneck sport isn’t good for business.
“If you’re able to make more fans or encourage more people to follow the sport or see the sport from a different perspective through that, that’s really what it’s all about,” Hamilton said. “As a result, you’ll see more people come into the sport or do behind-the-scenes jobs for the race tracks or the sanctioning body.”
“It’s important for any business to have people come from different backgrounds and share their perspectives, offer new ideas and move things forward,” Hamilton said. “That’s what it’s all about from a business perspective. And from a perspective, you want to have more people open to following the sport and have a deeper understanding of the sport.”
The benefits of increased diversity are inherent, especially considering NASCAR’s steadily declining attendance and television ratings.
“I think it takes (NASCAR) to the next level,” Wallace said. “It gets the image away from a redneck sport. That’s all it’s been for years, that’s what you hear about it. It takes them away from that realm. They don’t want to be described as that. They want to be described as a multicultural sport, like any other pro sport there is. It’s just hard for other demographics to be a part of this, because they don’t have anybody to look up to, and you need an idol.
“You look at LeBron James, or anybody in pro football. Little kids look up to them because they can relate to them. In NASCAR, we’re slowly making gains to that.”
Wallace said he noticed more people of color as he rode in the back of a pickup truck while being introduced for Friday night’s Truck Series race.
On Saturday afternoon, people of color were among the fans taking in the sights and sounds of the garage areas before the KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway.
“A lot of people don’t know how they’ll be received when they come into the stands, and that’s a sad feeling to have, not know if you’re accepted,” Wallace said. “I wish I could tell them I’ve been accepted. I’ve been racing for 15 years, and I’ve been accepted for 15 years. This sport, you’ve got to go out there, give respect and earn it.”
Wallace, Suarez, Almirola and other non-driver graduates of the diversity program have all succeeded because of their talent and drive.
But in order for those success stories to exist, there must first be opportunity.
“The reality is that everybody needs a shot, everybody needs an opportunity, especially if they’ve shown that they deserve it and that they’ve proven that they deserve that opportunity,” Almirola said. “But once you get that opportunity it’s up to you, it’s up to that individual to make the most of it and to kind of carry on and continue.
“I don’t think that anybody should be given anything and I don’t think that anybody expects to be given something that they don’t deserve, but I feel like as an athlete we all just want one shot, one opportunity, and if you get that shot and get that opportunity, then it’s up to you to go and make the most of it.”