Diversity push going to take time
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When NASCAR looks around and plots how it can market its growing sport next, it doesn't focus on the stereotypical white male with his Chevy in the driveway and can of Skoal in his jean pocket.
Instead it looks to market research that says women and ethnic minorities are increasingly curious about stock car racing, yet under-represented at the racetrack. It takes note that they are, more glaringly, virtually absent in the pits and behind the wheel.
At Daytona International Speedway, at the birthplace of stock car racing and NASCAR's crown jewel event, one driver out of 142 entered in the Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series races is black. Two are women. None are Hispanic.
NASCAR claims that more than 40 percent of its fans are women and nearly 10 percent are black. But walk through the infield and mingle with fans during what is known as "Speedweeks," and it's easy to count the number of fans who are minorities.
"NASCAR does not endorse politics. NASCAR endorses diversity," NASCAR chairman Brian France said in pledging to change those numbers.
France has made diversity a top priority for a series well-known for its roots in the South.
Sam Belnavis knows all about this. A year ago, Belnavis became a pioneer in the sport as the first black co-owner of a Cup car. Today, he's Roush Racing's diversity director, a post that doesn't exist within any other Cup team.
Jack Roush is one of the most powerful men in the sport, and Matt Kenseth gave the Roush team its first Cup championship with his dominant '03 season in the No. 17 Ford.
Belnavis said Roush, whose driver Greg Biffle will start from the pole in Sunday's Daytona 500, is interested in becoming the first owner to run a black driver in the Nextel Cup series.
"He talks to me about that, and that's why I'm here," Belnavis said. "Ultimately, we will have a driver in the Cup series."
Belnavis said he has more than 100 resumes on his desk from minority drivers looking to get into the sport. Some he's heard of before, some are complete unknowns.
While chatting in the infield Thursday morning at Daytona, Belnavis was approached by Mike Vazquez of Miami-based marketing group VMG Inc.
Vazquez had a packet of material illustrating the racing successes and sponsor value generated by driver Carlos Contreras, one of the first Hispanic drivers in NASCAR, but one who currently is searching for a ride.
Belnavis listened to the pitch, took the packet of material and business card. He'd be in touch, he told Vazquez, but indicated nothing is likely for this year.
"A lot of people come to me hoping for something," Belnavis said.
Contreras used to run in a Craftsman Truck Series entry owned by the Pettys, who have since gotten out of the Truck series.
But Kyle Petty, son of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, dreams of a day when drivers like Contreras won't be scouring the garages at Daytona hoping for a ride.
"I don't think drivers ever talk about this, but it's hard to integrate, I'll give you that," said Kyle Petty, driver of the No. 45 Dodge that runs in Nextel Cup. "Those roadblocks aren't put there on purpose -- they're inherent to the sport. Nobody's putting up obstacles to keep women, blacks or Hispanics out.
"It's just not a sport that presents itself to minorities on a daily basis like basketball, football and baseball. We're just now becoming a mainstream sport. We have to be aware of that and try to tear down those barriers as quickly as possible. But it's tough to tear down stuff that's been around 40 or 50 years."
Sitting outside their Winnebago in Daytona's increasingly crowded infield, Mark C. Williamson and Anthony Williams stretched and looked around. The two men, who are black and in their mid-30s, had driven 19 hours from Washington, D.C., to see their first Daytona 500 in person.
Williamson is a long-time racing fan and knows his NASCAR history; Williams admitted he knows nothing about the sport but tagged along, with two other coworkers, "to have some fun."
Adorning Williamson's head was a stylish No. 8 cap, identifying the burly carpet-layer as a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Asked if he was bothered by the fact that no Cup drivers are black, Williamson shook his head from side to side. "A car is a car, a driver is a driver," he said. "The sport is what it is. If a black driver comes along and makes it and deserves to make it, that would be interesting to me. But I'm a fan either way."
Williamson's father grew up in the South and watched stock-car racing and drag racing, which rubbed off on his son. "He was always watching races on TV," Williamson said. "That's how I got into it."
When told of this, Belnavis nodded his head and smiled.
|"||It's hard to integrate, I'll give you that. Those roadblocks aren't put there on purpose -- they're inherent to the sport. Nobody's putting up obstacles to keep women, blacks or Hispanics out. "|
|— Kyle Petty|
"If you look at the birthplace of NASCAR, the Southeast, which I consider the core of NASCAR, and you look at the African-American population, two-thirds of the African-American population resides in the Southeast," Belnavis said. "So you cannot live in Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Birmingham, without knowing about NASCAR. There are thousands of what I call closet African-American fans.
"There are thousands of folks who believe that flying the Confederate flag and things like that makes it not open to them," he said. "In reality, it's more open as a sport now than it's ever been. But the confederate flag defines a culture. It's a culture that exists now and will probably exist forever in my lifetime. It's becoming somewhat minimal, that culture, but it's still there.
"I'm not going to let that bother me, but it will keep some people from coming to the race."
For its part, NASCAR is doing everything it can to separate itself from any controversy. The bright yellow Nextel Cup banners are a far cry from the red Winston imagery seen at tracks in the past.
Brian France is responsible for opening NASCAR offices in Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte, extending the sport's reach into key inner-city markets. A diversity department was formed in 2000.
France said Canada, Mexico and other parts of the world are on the organization's radar. "We're going to pay attention to places where fans are for NASCAR like never before," France said. "We're going to be out there."
Ultimately, change has to start from the ground up, Belnavis said, from fans to drivers to teams to sponsors to NASCAR itself. Sponsors are aware of the untapped minority market, he said, but looking around Daytona reveals one of the whitest worlds in any major professional sport.
"That's absolutely true," Belnavis acknowledged. "There's some progress being made, we have some programs and initiatives in place, but we need to push harder. A lot more can be done. But understand, it's not going to happen overnight."
Justin Hagey is a motorsports editor for ESPN.com.