NASCAR: Drive for diversity
Louis Hillary Park
Scripps Howard News Service
As the Winston Cup roars into the new millennium with a six-year, $2.8 billion FOX/NBC television contract, NASCAR officials say they are eager to make Winston Cup racing "look more like America."
Sunday, however, when the green flag dropped on the Virginia 500 at Martinsville Speedway, no blacks or women were in the field.
"We welcome everybody," says Bill France Jr., the billionaire patriarch of the NASCAR empire. "But motorsports is different. Acquiring a sponsor is so important."
It's also so difficult because putting together a top-tier Winston Cup team can cost $10 million to $15 million a year. To bring an unproven driver onto the Winston Cup circuit and allow him - or her - the four to five years it might take to mature could mean an investment of $40 million to $75 million.
"The barrier really is more in obtaining sponsorship than finding drivers whom we think can drive," says Charles S. Farrell, director of Rainbow Sports, a division of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Yet emotional and historic barriers also remain.
In the infield by the hundreds on any given Winston Cup Sunday, the most visible remaining symbol of the Old South - the Confederate battle flag - snaps in the breeze, crackling with defiance.
"I've seen the Confederate flags flying, and it scares me," says Farrell. "It summons up a whole level of racism that is not comfortable for African-Americans."
NASCAR has prohibited the use of the flag on any of its licensed products, the trailers that sell those products, and on cars and on drivers' firesuits. But so far the International Speedway Corp., which also is owned by the France family, has declined to ban them from the 12 tracks in which it has an ownership stake.
NASCAR Diversity Manager Dora Taylor calls it a "freedom of speech issue."
Others say it is symbolic of the tightrope NASCAR is walking - racing to expand its fan base among minorities but not wanting to drive away the conservative, white, male, Southerner who always has been the backbone of the sport.
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Even though NASCAR has added 2 million black fans since 1999 (a 29 percent increase), according to a recent ESPN poll, the fan base remains about 76 percent white and 60 percent male.
Blacks comprise 8.9 percent of NASCAR's audience while Hispanics account for 8.6 percent, according to the poll.
Those demographics do not have would-be sponsors scurrying through garages in search of minority drivers or teams to back, especially in today's business climate, says Farrell.
"But black folks also use Tide and drink beer," he says, referencing two of the sport's major sponsors. "It's just a matter of marketing the sport to the minority community."
Farrell says NASCAR chic - in the form of jackets, T-shirt and caps - is making its way into inner-city neighborhoods, even though many of the kids "may not know Valvoline from Vaseline, but they like the look."
It is from those ranks that a pool of Winston Cup-capable drivers will have to emerge.
"This is a unique sport. You're not talking about just passing out some soccer balls," says four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "The only way to get more minorities involved in the sport, is to get them started younger."
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Bill Lester's father took him to his first auto race in 1969, at age 8.
Since then, "I've always been in love with cars," says Lester, 42, an Oakland, Calif., resident and the only African-American driving in any of NASCAR's major series - though it is at what is considered the sport's AA level, Craftsman Trucks.
"I'm here as a racecar driver. I'm here to win. But if I can open up some doors, good," says Lester, who did a lot winning in Sports Car Club of America races throughout the West before hooking up with Bobby Hamilton's Dodge Motorsports truck team in 2001.
Lester's best Craftsman finish to date was 11th last year in the O'Reilly 400K at Fort Worth. But his overall $264,766 in purses was good enough for a 17th-place ranking among Craftsman drivers. He finished 19th in Saturday's Advance Auto Parts 250 in Martinsville, Lester has finished in the top 20 in all four of this year's truck races. standings. In terms of diversity, things are improving in the sport, says Lester, who sits on the 28-member NASCAR Diversity Council.
The council - comprised of drivers, car owners, sponsors and NASCAR officials -meets several times a year "to discuss issues and create strategies that promote diversity throughout the motorsports industry," according to its NASCAR brochure.
"When I went to Talladega (Ala.) in the mid-'90s, I was very much an anomaly. Conversations stopped. Fingers pointed," remembers Lester, who holds an engineering degree from Cal-Berkeley. "NASCAR has come a long way. But there's a ways to go still."
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Goody's Dash Series driver Kelly "Girl" Sutton of Crownsville, Md., began racing at 19. Today, at 31, she is still working her way up the racing ladder the old fashioned way - one series at time - unlike drivers such as 19-year-old Brian Vickers, who was tapped for a ride in the AAA Busch series before he got out of high school.
"My main goal is to be successful in every series I go to," says Sutton. "I think that creates a certain level of comfort, then you take it to the next level."
Driving for the well-financed Team Copaxone in what might be considered NASCAR's instructional league, she finished 17th in the rain-shortened Goody's 150 earlier this year in Daytona and was 17th overall in 2002 Dash Series points.
A third-generation driver, Sutton says, "I would love to run Winston Cup ... (but) I know I'm not ready, as much as my heart would want to take the chance."
Whether she ever makes it onto auto racing's biggest stage, Sutton, a married mother of two, says her gender should have nothing to do with it.
"When we strap the helmet on, we're just like everyone else," says Sutton. "We're just racecar drivers."
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Former Miller Brewing Co. executive Sam Belnavis thinks the best is still ahead for him in NASCAR.
At 62, Belnavis, who is African-American, has teamed with long-time Winston Cup owner Travis Carter to form BelCar Racing. It is the first time a Winston Cup team has had a black majority partner.
BelCar is fielding the No. 54 Army National Guard Ford, driven by NASCAR veteran Todd Bodine.
The team's best finish so far this season has been 11th at the Samsung/Radio Shack 500 held March 30 at Texas Motor Speedway. Bodine finished 37th at last week's Virginia 500, adding $43,850 to the team's winnings, which total $756,655 for the year.
"I think minorities are a sleeping giant from the standpoint of a television audience for the sport," says Belnavis, who is no stranger to NASCAR. As head of sports marketing for Miller Brewing in the early 1980s, he brought the beer seller into NASCAR as a major sponsor.
Belnavis hopes BelCar can serve as a beacon for minorities interested in the sport, but he says the most important thing in Winston Cup is putting the sponsor's logo across the finish line first.
Having brought his daughters Cherise Belnavis-Johnson, 30, and Stacey Bobbins, 31, onto the team for public relations and administrative support, Belnavis says he is looking for long-term success in the sport, not just short-term headlines based on his skin color.
"If you look at the racing community at large, you'll see that it is very family driven," he says. "I want to leave something that will be beneficial for my family.
"I hope to leave this as a legacy for them."
- E-mail Louis Hillary Park at email@example.com.