NASCAR playing catch-up in its Drive for Diversity
Formula One has Lewis Hamilton. The IndyCar Series has Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher and now Milka Duno. What about NASCAR's Drive for Diversity? Well, it's just a matter of time, writes Terry Blount.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Where is NASCAR's Lewis Hamilton?
If Formula One can find a talented black driver and make him a winner, why can't NASCAR?
Those questions came up in light of Hamilton's victory last weekend in the Canadian Grand Prix, when he became the first black driver to win an F1 event.
Hamilton will compete in his first U.S. Grand Prix Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. F1 officials were concerned how this season would go without seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, who retired after the 2006 season.
No need to worry. Outside of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s contract saga, Hamilton is the talk of the racing world.
NASCAR officials say they desperately want a driver like Hamilton who can win at the Nextel Cup level, but it's still a long way from becoming a reality.
Forty-three drivers will start the Cup race Sunday at Michigan -- 42 Caucasian American men and one South American male (Juan Pablo Montoya).
No African-Americans, no Hispanic Americans, no Asians and no women. Not exactly the picture of diversity.
NASCAR officials all say they hate it and they're doing everything they can to change it. But four years into NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, the sport remains a long way from reaching its diversity goals.
"People ask us when we're going to get our Tigers Woods,'' said Andrew Giangola, NASCAR's director of business communications. "We don't know. This isn't going to happen overnight, but we're doing all we can to make it happen."
Giangola works in New York at NASCAR's Manhattan offices.
"I'm in my fifth year here now," Giangola said. "I can tell you that literally every sponsor meeting we have includes the topic of diversity. And in almost every marketing meeting, diversity is discussed. Diversity now is ingrained as part of our business."
IRL president Brian Barnhart was asked why they've had more success with diversity than NASCAR.
"That's tough to respond to because I don't know enough about how they do it," Barnhart said. "What we try to do is create opportunities for drivers by encouraging more participation.
"But Indy-car racing is a bit of a different animal. Just by running more road races and street races we appeal to different people. And the Indy 500 always has been somewhat of an international sweepstakes. The dynamic itself is more diverse."
That's certainly true for F1, which now has Hamilton, the first black racer in the history of the sport.
Hamilton is leading the F1 standings entering Sunday's race. He could become the first rookie to win the championship.
We realized a long time ago it was the right thing to do. It just makes sense. For NASCAR to continue to grow, you need kids from all backgrounds to feel passionate about it.
But Hamilton didn't reach F1 through any diversity program. His father started him in go-kart racing at age 6. Hamilton met McLaren team owner Ron Dennis when he was 10, and Dennis signed him to a developmental deal when he was 13.
Nine years later, after much success at lower levels, Hamilton is being touted as the best rookie in F1 history.
NASCAR hopes to find its Hamilton through a similar route. The goal isn't to put a diversity driver in a car and have that person run 30th every week.
That's been done. The goal is to develop young drivers who can win at the Cup level.
"Nobody is going to start racing at age 21 and be successful in the Cup series," said Ramsey Poston, NASCAR director of corporate communications. "Whether they are black, white or brown, all successful drivers started by the age of 10, and most were racing cars by the time they were 6 or 7."
The NASCAR diversity program is designed to find those kids and help them move up.
Former NBA player Brad Daugherty was one of the founders of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. He helped develop the program with NASCAR chairman Brian France.
Daugherty was one of the first African-Americans to own a team in NASCAR, fielding entries in the Craftsman Truck Series.
"I can tell you with all sincerity this is something NASCAR officials desperately want to make work," Daugherty said. "But it's a very difficult thing to do."
Daugherty believes NASCAR is headed in the right direction, but he also realizes the D for D program has its critics.
"The typical investment in each of these kids is about $150,000," said Daugherty, a NASCAR analyst for ESPN. "I realize that's a significant amount of money, but it's not enough. It takes a lot more to get a kid from the grassroots level to become contender for a Nextel Cup ride."
Daugherty said he told Brian France that it would take a bigger investment if NASCAR hoped to get a diversity driver to the Cup level quickly. But is it NASCAR's responsibility to finance diversity drivers?
"It's a difficult question," Daugherty said. "The cost to run a full season competitively at the Grand National level is about $750,000 a year. But is it fair for NASCAR to spend the money to help along the diversity kids and not other deserving young racers?"
NASCAR's position on subsidizing drivers is clear.
"Absolutely not," Poston said. "We don't sponsor drivers. As a sanctioning body, that's not fair and it's not the right thing to do. What we're doing is building a system where these kids can succeed. We are the bridge."
NASCAR is so sensitive about the appearance of any impropriety that it has an independent firm -- Access Marketing -- run the diversity program.
"Imagine if we funded a driver from start to finish and he became a Nextel Cup champion?" Giangola said. "How would all the other drivers feel about that?"
NASCAR officials say their mission is to get sponsors and team owners to foot the bill by buying into the concept that diversity is good for everyone.
NASCAR legend Rusty Wallace is doing it. He signed Chase Austin, a 17-year-old African-American and one of the top young racers in the country. Austin races in the Grand National East Series for Wallace, who also owns a Busch team. His son, Steve, is a rookie driver for that team.
Maybe the best example of a Cup team that embraces the diversity effort is Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR has two of the top diversity candidates -- Marc Davis and Aric Almirola -- in its development program.
"We started it five or six years ago with [former NFL star] Reggie White," said J.D. Gibbs, president of JGR. "We had a goal of using diversity drivers, Almirola at the time, and have them move up to Busch and eventually Cup with Reggie as the team owner."
White died before that dream became a reality. But Almirola, a Hispanic racer from Tampa, now races in the Busch Series for JGR.
"We realized a long time ago it was the right thing to do," Gibbs said of JGR's diversity effort. "It just makes sense. For NASCAR to continue to grow, you need kids from all backgrounds to feel passionate about it."
Davis, who is black, represents what NASCAR wants to see. He's 17 and has raced at various levels since he was 7. His father, Harry Davis, believes Marc can become a successful driver in Cup.
"I call Marc my million-dollar baby," Davis said. "But it's not what you think. What I mean is it's going to cost us $1 million over 10 years to get him where he wants to go."
Davis is a retired network news cameraman who has guided his son's career. He said NASCAR's diversity program isn't perfect, but people shouldn't view it as the ultimate solution.
I can tell you with all sincerity this is something NASCAR officials desperately want to make work. But it's a very difficult thing to do.
"No one entity will do it," Davis said. "Drive for Diversity is one part of it. But anyone who depends on that to get them there isn't going to make it. That's a short vision. You bet on the wrong thing.
"It's a tool among 100 other tools. It's a building block, but it's not a be-all end-all. You have to go into it knowing it has limitations. The program has some baggage. It has gone through some growing pains."
Davis gave an example of the system's flaws.
"If a team owner gets $150,000 for a diversity program kid, he might take $75,000 for overhead and leave only $75,000 to run the program," Davis said. "I know that has happened. I've seen it.
"And the equipment a kid has in the diversity program isn't good enough to compete at the level they are trying to compete."
Despite the problems, Davis has no beef with the D for D program. It got his son noticed and got him the deal with Gibbs.
Gibbs also has 17-year-old Joey Logano, who many in NASCAR believe is the best teenage racer in America. He defeated Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick in a late-model race at Iowa Speedway a few weeks ago.
Logano is white. Logano and Davis have raced each other since they were in grade school. JGR is investing more than $750,000 each in Logano and Davis.
Logano has three victories this season in the Grand National East Series and Davis has three top-5s. Both drivers could move up to the Busch Series next year when they turn 18, depending on sponsorship.
Harry Davis believes both drivers will make it to the Cup level in the next five years, but their impact won't be the same.
Davis said Joe Gibbs gave him an example of how big Marc can become.
J.D. Gibbs took over JGR when his father went back to coaching the Washington Redskins, but Joe still oversees the operation.
"Coach Gibbs wants to do with Marc what he did with Doug Williams,'' Davis said.
Williams was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, guiding the Redskins to a 42-10 victory over Denver in 1988.
"Coach Gibbs says Marc can change NASCAR," Davis said. "Marc making it to Cup can increase NASCAR's gross revenues by 20 percent if he becomes the first winning minority driver. He will broaden the fan base."
Marc Davis already has sponsorship from Howard University, a predominantly black college in Washington, D.C.
"JGR's job is to train Marc to become the best racer he can be," Davis said. "My job is to make sure he has the financial backing he needs."
But it's very expensive, and it's not NASCAR's job to hand out money to drivers. NASCAR's job is to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity on a level playing field. It's a slippery slope if they start writing checks to one driver over another one.
NASCAR won't bankroll a driver, but J.D. Gibbs believes NASCAR gets criticized unfairly on the diversity issue.
"I know for a fact that NASCAR officials really want this to happen," Gibbs said. "And no one wants to see this succeed more than Brian [France].
"But it's very expensive, and it's not NASCAR's job to hand out money to drivers. NASCAR's job is to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity on a level playing field. It's a slippery slope if they start writing checks to one driver over another one."
Making it to the upper levels of NASCAR, or any major racing league, is all about money. Lots of money.
That's the problem for any young racer, but it also shrinks the pool of diversity candidates.
"We're at a disadvantage," Poston said. "Unlike stick-and-ball sports, NASCAR doesn't have the luxury of billions of dollars in publicly funded programs with the infrastructure in schools."
Parents have to get kids started in a racing program, and it isn't cheap. Even a used quarter-midget car costs over $1,500.
Harry Davis knows well the sacrifice a parent must make to become successful in racing.
"I'm the first to tell you it's a financial drain and a burden most families can't do," Davis said. "But it isn't NASCAR's responsibility to do it."
Not everyone would agree. Some people feel NASCAR isn't doing enough to bring more women and minorities into the sport.
Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway, says people frequently tell him NASCAR should spend more of its enormous profits to advance diversity.
"We all want to do this," Gossage said. "But the truth is we don't really know how. I know this: You can't just throw money at it. That won't solve the problem. We're talking about a cultural change here. You have to make racing at dirt tracks across America popular in minority families."
Giangola said that's one of the goals of NASCAR's diversity effort.
"It's a challenge, but we're working on it," he said. "We have to develop a rooting interest. The goal is to make stock car racing culturally acceptable to minority kids."
More girls and minority kids are racing at the grassroots level than ever before, but it's still a small number.
"I would say it's way less than 10 percent," Davis said. "There are pockets that have more in places like California, but in some places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, it's almost all white kids."
There's a limited pool of diversity drivers, and that number drops significantly when trying to find candidates with the talent to reach the upper levels of racing.
"Like any other sport, most people fail and don't get to the highest level." Poston said. "And remember, we only have 43 slots for drivers at the top level. That's less than one NFL team."
Gibbs said finding a driver who can make it in Cup is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
"For anyone looking for young drivers, no matter who they are, you always have a high rate of turnover," Gibbs said. "You have no way of knowing whether a kid is really good until you see them race for a while.
"Team owners want to win. They don't care whether you're white, brown, black or purple. If they believe you can win, you'll be in the car. But even if you're Hispanic and African-American, no one cares unless you're really good. And if you are that good, it's still a long process to get to the top level."
We're creating opportunities for talented young diversity drivers to reach the top of the sport and be successful. But I can't give you a definitive timeline. The part of the equation that's missing isn't money, it's time. It's just a matter of time.
Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's director of public affairs, said NASCAR works diligently to find those young diversity candidates.
"We cast as broad a net as possible," Jadotte said. "We reach out to the local tracks to help us identify talent. We have people calling dirt tracks across America to locate these kids. And kids or their parents can submit résumés to the D for D program."
NASCAR holds a combine each fall where 20 to 30 of the top diversity candidates test their racing skills in front of team owners.
Some of those kids move into the diversity program. Some do well, some don't.
For Joe Henderson, it didn't work out. He left the diversity program after two years after he and his father said it wasn't possible to succeed.
But Jesus Hernandez is running well (four top-5s) in the same equipment Henderson criticized at Ginn Racing. Hernandez, 26, has done so well that Allstate Insurance now is sponsoring his car.
NASCAR officials say that's how it has to work -- sponsors and team owners investing in a future where the starting grid will look much different than it looks today.
"We tell every potential sponsor to invest some of the money they would give us into the diversity program," Poston said. "It's the right thing to do and it will make the sport better."
But NASCAR isn't there yet. Its Lewis Hamilton hasn't arrived.
"We're creating opportunities for talented young diversity drivers to reach the top of the sport and be successful," Jadotte said. "But I can't give you a definitive timeline. The part of the equation that's missing isn't money, it's time. It's just a matter of time."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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