Drive for Diversity stuck in neutral
NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program is barely more than cosmetic -- overhyped and underfunded. It is limited to developmental levels, leaving drivers stalled far short of the big time.
Those are conclusions I must draw after observing the "D4D," as NASCAR has labeled the program, for five years.
Crucially, NASCAR stops funding drivers once they seek to move up from the developmental levels into Trucks, Nationwide or Cup.
"It would be a conflict of interest," says Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's vice president for public affairs, whose department supervises D4D, "for the entity that's responsible for making and enforcing rules to also support a particular driver at the national touring level."
So there is no bridge over the enormous gap between the small time and the big time.
"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 Morty 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."
On his own is where Buckles has been since the D4D took him nowhere. He is 37 now, and his once-progressive racing career, conducted on his own since age 8, has been on hold since his D4D effort fell apart for lack of funding in 2004-05. He holds a mechanical engineering degree -- part of his preparation for a racing career -- but now runs a learning center in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Buckles believes the results of D4D speak for themselves. "You can judge the success of the program by its outcomes," he says.
The outcomes have been negligible at best, negative at worst, when it comes to meaningful advancement of driving careers.
Chris Bristol is 30. He started racing motocross at 10, and by '04-05 he was winning late-model races -- and a significant fan following -- at two old-line North Carolina short tracks, Caraway and Hickory, driving for a private diversity cooperative founded by Joe Gibbs Racing and the late Reggie White. When sponsorship ran out at Gibbs, Bristol went into D4D in 2006 to drive for a team initiated by Ken Schrader.
But "the sponsorship just never materialized," says Bristol, also a mechanical engineer who at least gets to work a racing-oriented job, with Roehrig Engineering, a manufacturer of racing shock testing equipment in Lexington, N.C.
In D4D, Bristol stopped winning.
"Same driver," he says. "I didn't forget how to drive over the winter."
Buckles and Bristol are both too diplomatic to say outright what their career chronologies show: They were sidetracked by their participation in D4D and have not recovered.
Two younger African-American drivers currently are struggling to break into the big leagues of NASCAR -- one with a little help from D4D, the other with none whatsoever.
NASCAR loves to take credit for Marc Davis, 18, who is now embarking on partial schedules in Nationwide and Cup -- but with his own family team, on a shoestring budget.
"We at NASCAR are proud of the leadership we've taken," Jadotte says, "to further diversify the sport at all levels, including Marc Davis' participation in NASCAR developmental series through the Drive for Diversity program."
But Davis likely would be where he is without D4D. He participated at the late-model level in 2006 but was quickly signed as a developmental driver by Joe Gibbs Racing. When JGR couldn't find sponsorship to fund advancement of Davis' career past regional series, Davis and his father moved out on their own, with small sponsorships they got themselves.
"We appreciate what the Drive for Diversity did for Marc at the late-model level," says Harry Davis, the driver's father and business manager, "but Marc has since moved forward to regional touring series, ARCA, Trucks and Nationwide without the financial help of the Drive for Diversity."
Chase Austin, 19, is struggling in the Truck series on an upstart deal with African-American ownership, no thanks to NASCAR; he has steadfastly refused to participate in D4D because he doesn't want to be perceived as an affirmative action case.
NASCAR points to Aric Almirola, who is tenuously in the Cup series. But Almirola, a Floridian of Cuban descent, came up through Gibbs' private diversity program, not D4D per se.
There still are no African-Americans or females where it matters most in NASCAR: in the drivers' seats, full-time, in the top three series.
To be sure, there are significantly more African-Americans and women around the NASCAR garages than there were 10 years ago. NASCAR's diversity mantra is that "We want to look more like America," and it does, from up close.
There are African-American executives such as Jadotte, and Max Siegel, former president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., who has recently been appointed to administer D4D under Jadotte's department. There are minority and female officials, and D4D also trains crew members.
But drivers are the focal points of the public, and therefore critical to NASCAR's stated goals of diversity.
NASCAR boasts that 22 drivers have participated in D4D, winning 28 races, since 2004. But those wins were all at the developmental level.
NASCAR won't say how much it spends on D4D. The last time NASCAR published a number, about three years ago, it was $4 million annually. Now, Jadotte will say only that the number is "significantly more."
So let's estimate a current outlay of $6 million annually. That's barely enough to fund one decent effort for one Nationwide driver for a season. Now subtract administrative and public relations costs, and divide by 12.
Twelve drivers comprise NASCAR's current, and sixth, D4D class.
D4D funding, such as it is, simply isn't enough to fund competitive rides, even in the developmental series. Teams have to seek additional sponsorship on their own.
"The reality is, it [the funding per driver from D4D] is just enough to run a partial late-model program," says J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "It's just not enough funding to do it."
Bristol says he doesn't regret participating in D4D, and that "at least at the late-model level I will commend NASCAR for doing something. They don't have to do a thing if they don't want to. It's their company. So the fact that they're trying to do something, I think, is a good thing."
But, he says, "Now you've got to look into why the results haven't been there. Is it mismanaged?"
NASCAR has made changes over the past offseason. Siegel's new marketing firm, the 909 Group, has replaced Access Marketing, which ran the program for the past five years.
Recently I asked Siegel what he plans to do differently.
One thing he said struck me as crucial: "We need to align the program as closely as we can with the top-tier teams throughout the series."
Thus far, only one, JGR, has been consistently in the fore of the diversity effort. But not even JGR was able to fund Davis' advancement to the Nationwide Series.
"Once the economy went away, that killed everything," says Gibbs.
Preston Miller, who for 13 years was Ford Motor Co.'s project director for NASCAR, has watched Davis' progress in recent years. Now, Miller is concerned that in sparsely funded equipment, Davis might not be able to showcase his talent to the big teams.
And that, Miller believes, is NASCAR's responsibility.
"If NASCAR believes all they say about diversity," Miller says, "it's time for them to help get that program funded at Gibbs. Period.
"NASCAR isn't stepping up for what they say they want to do," Miller says. "They're doing 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. And Gibbs stepped up big-time. I mean, they've spent more money on that than anybody, by far.
"And if Gibbs can't still support it, it's time for NASCAR to step in and put their money where their mouth is.
"NASCAR's going to have to invest in their own future, and it's their money they're going to have to spend," Miller continues. "In this economy we're in, the beneficiary of the whole thing [wider, more diverse audiences] is going to be NASCAR."
"We would obviously like to see more money come our way from NASCAR," J.D. Gibbs says, then chuckles. "I'm not sure that will ever happen."
Gibbs says NASCAR could take the funding it designates and focus it on the best of the best young drivers, giving at least somebody a realistic chance to move up.
"You're almost better off saying, 'Let's go help three or four individuals,'" Gibbs says. "Let's focus it
"So I'd like to see us do three or four really strong programs. If it's with us, great. If it's with someone else, great. But get those individuals in the sport."
"We feel like our role is to create as many opportunities as we possibly can," Jadotte says. "Not contract those opportunities."
The current 12-driver D4D class includes seven women and five men. Only two of the men, Michael Cherry, 19, and Jonathan Smith, 22, are African-American.
But NASCAR maintains these were the best 12 drivers picked from a scouting combine held last fall.
"As a result of the talent pool that was available, we expanded the number of teams," Jadotte says. "We think that's important. We're not going to be the ones picking winners and losers. We're going to have them go out on the race track."
But they're all in developmental series, from which no D4D driver -- save Davis on his own -- has ever graduated.
Davis is the African-American driver nearest to making a breakthrough into the big series.
"Marc is more ready than any of the development drivers I've met," says Jeff Spraker, owner of developmental teams in ARCA and regional touring series. Davis has never driven for Spraker, but Spraker has observed him as a competitor for years.
"Marc is qualified -- there's no question about it," says Miller. "He's got the talent, he's got the desire.
"But he's now at a crossroads. If he doesn't get good equipment, then he isn't going to make it
"And NASCAR needs to look after that," Miller says. "That's real simple. They've got cash running out their ears. They've got sponsors coming to them every day that would make all the difference in the world. And at that point it's a no-brainer."
Jadotte expresses astonishment that anyone would think sponsorships roll in under these economic conditions, and reiterates, "Our position on supporting individual drivers or individual teams, I think, is clear."
So if NASCAR can't or won't help at the major levels, why can't minority drivers just drum up their own sponsorships from corporations?
Kurt Roehrig, Bristol's employer at Roehrig Engineering, tried to form a Cup team in the late 1990s with Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner Kersee and her husband, Bob Kersee.
During that effort, Roehrig learned something about the concerns of corporations in sponsoring minority-owned teams or minority drivers. But Joyner Kersee Roehrig Motorsports died of the same epidemic as most minority teams have, lack of sponsorship.
"We found numerous doors open to us to go discuss the concept of sponsorships," Roehrig recalls. "We spoke to a lot of people who are involved in the sport right now [with traditional, majority-owned teams] But we always kind of wondered why we ended up not being able to close the deal with anybody."
Finally, Roehrig said he realized the corporate people holding up the deals were the risk-management specialists.
"There were two areas to look at: marketing risk management, and public-opinion risk management. Companies sometimes have marketing programs for public opinion, and sometimes it's for a particular product."
On the public opinion side, Roehrig says, "If you come out and do one of these programs, very high profile, lots of press, let's say you do it for a two-year contract. At the end of the second year, some results were positive, you generated a lot of press, but you've decided that with your marketing dollars you want to move on to something else. Contract's up. If anybody in that racing organization that was sponsored by you determines that, 'Oh, your leaving is unfair because somehow we're entitled to your sponsorship,' and they go forward in the press and play what we call the race card, then all the good that you did for two years, all the money you spent, will be erased.
"What people remember is that you bailed on this minority driver or minority team, right when they were getting some momentum to go forward. What an SOB you are."
In marketing products, Roehrig adds, "if you're selling the product to primarily a black demographic group, well, blacks aren't really in the stands right now in NASCAR. There are possibly other sporting events or sports marketing that you could do that could target a black demographic better than stock car racing."
So, he continues, "What kind of company, marketing-wise, has the goal of having more black fans at NASCAR versus selling more of their product to blacks? They don't necessarily go hand in hand. NASCAR probably wants to have more black fans at the races. But is that necessarily what a sponsor needs?
"When you start doing the analysis from a risk-management standpoint, you almost see in a lot of areas that there's a lot more to lose than there is to gain if anything goes wrong. And that's what people in the corporations are trained to [look for].
"They're not trained to do the best job. But they are trained not to screw up. So they're always going to be going for that middle ground. So if you can go with this new minority-owned team or minority driver, or you can be the fifth car at Roush Racing, you're going to be the fifth car at Roush Racing."
David Ragan drives the fifth car at Roush Racing, with lucrative sponsorship from UPS. Ragan, 23, is the third generation of a Georgia racing family.
So is Buckles. The Ragan and Buckles families go back three generations racing together. In the 1940s and '50s, Ragan's grandfather owned a team on which Buckles' grandfather was a top mechanic. They ran the old beach course at Daytona.
"We've got pictures of Morty's grandfather and his dad," says Ragan. "They were good friends with my dad. And I have memories of being a young kid, going to watch Morty race
"What he was doing 10-12 years ago, he was doing on his own. He didn't have the help of NASCAR, didn't have the help of sponsorships."
Buckles began racing go-karts at age 8, winning his first 22 starts straight, and amassing 161 victories in all. Graduating to full-bodied cars on short tracks, all on his own -- "we've always spent whatever we had," he says -- he was a top-10 finisher in 80 percent of his races on tracks in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.
Bristol has been going to races since before he was born -- literally.
"My mom said when she was pregnant with me, before Charlotte had all the big grandstands, my parents would park their car and sit and watch the cars go around the racetrack," Bristol says. "They took me to my first race when I was 8 years old." From there, "I was nuts about it -- pushing Hot Wheels across the floor, getting on everybody's nerves."
So the stories of Buckles and Bristol are departures from the long-running excuse that there just isn't much motor-racing interest in the African-American community, and that it will take a long time to generate such interest.
At 37 and 30, Buckles and Bristol have scaled back their hopes to perhaps Trucks or Nationwide, which are more reachable for mature drivers than youth-crazy Cup.
With NASCAR now saying it wants more diversity, Buckles "might have been 10 or 15 years too soon," says Ragan. "Certainly he had the talent."
And now, hungry as NASCAR says it is for diversity, you have to wonder whether we'll be saying of Davis and Austin, years from now, what we're saying of Buckles and Bristol now: They just didn't find the funding in time.
In the Drive for Diversity, for current and future drivers, "I would like," says Buckles, "to see the money match the fanfare."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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