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Creating the Opportunities

Times Staff Writer

Every color of the rainbow will stream past the green flag Sunday at the start of the NASCAR Sony HD 500, but only one color figures to be inside the 43 cockpits.

White.

It’s a situation NASCAR hopes to change through a Drive for Diversity program that integrates minorities into racing and may ultimately uncover a Tiger Woods-like phenom.

The sanctioning body has thrown its endorsement and licensing muscle behind Access Marketing & Communications, a company in Montgomery, Ala., that runs Drive for Diversity, which places corporate sponsors with minority drivers in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly series. To date it has helped 16 drivers and placed 30 minorities in crew positions on NASCAR teams.

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“Everyone’s trying to find a diamond in the rough,” said Bill McAnally, who runs a development program with Nextel Cup team owner Richard Childress that last year included two-time winner Allison Duncan. “If they find it, it’s going to be huge.”

Three years since its inception, Drive for Diversity has begun bearing fruit without funding from NASCAR. A Drive for Diversity minority driver in the Cup series, though, is years away.

Marc Davis, 16, of Mitchellville, Md., races Saturday nights in Newton, N.C., and seems the likeliest prodigy.

Davis won three consecutive limited late model races this season at Hickory Motor Speedway and has won six times in 12 starts. Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs extended Davis’ contract through 2011, but age restrictions prevent him from driving a Busch Series car until he is 18.

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“Even 2009 is pushing it,” Gibbs said. “I don’t see anyone else out there who’s going to jump in before him and make a big splash. If someone does, great. That first breakthrough driver is going to be a big deal.”

There is much at stake for the winner of NASCAR’S minority sweepstakes, regardless of where the talent is developed.

“The economic value for those involved in the sport is immense, and if any particular driver has the ability to create more interest, more excitement and bring the more nontraditional fan to the party, it’s better for everybody,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “At the end of the day, Tiger Woods has raised the earning potential for a lot of people, and he’s got most of the attention, but that’s capitalism at work.”

NASCAR is all about capitalism. Money will flow if it finds a driver who transcends racial barriers, expands the fan base and integrates Nielsen ratings.

“It’s a whole new market that corporate America is craving,” McAnally said. “Can you imagine the first female driver that’s banging fenders with Tony Stewart? Do you know how many die-cast cars you’re going to sell?

“Corporate America has been sponsoring white Caucasian males forever.”

The most heralded full-time minorities in NASCAR are Erin Crocker, a woman, and Bill Lester, an African American, who compete in the Craftsman Truck series. They are running 22nd and 23rd, with no top-10 finishes between them in 17 races.

Cuban driver Aric Almirola, a find by Gibbs, is 18th, with two top 10s. None are part of Drive for Diversity.

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The more likely NASCAR candidate to create a stir in the minority fan base is Juan Pablo Montoya, who has a Champ Car World Series title, Indianapolis 500 victory and seven wins in Formula One. He will drive next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“He is actually even more well-known in other parts of the world than he is in the U.S., but I think that will change soon enough,” Ganassi said. “We hired Juan Pablo because he knows how to drive a race car and can help us win. If by doing that he is able to bring more fans to the sport and open the door for other drivers, that’s great too.”

A Colombian, Montoya speaks Spanish and is more Tony Stewart than Jeff Gordon. But to have a Woods-like impact in the coveted Latino community, he can’t be racing for 30th place.

“It would be healthy for the sport if a minority swept it off its feet,” said Jay Frye, chief executive officer of MB2 Motorsports.

“But it’s not enough,” said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR managing director of public affairs. “One driver competing does not mean our sport is diverse and we celebrate ultimate victory.”

Montoya will have a steep learning curve, but unlike most minorities he won’t have to pay dues in the minor leagues, as do the eight 2006 Drive for Diversity participants. Some of their highlights:

* Duncan became the first Drive for Diversity driver, and the first woman, to win at Stockton 99 Speedway last year for McAnally Racing. In fact, she won twice.

* Chris Bristol became the first African American to win at Hickory Motor Speedway in 2005, for Joe Gibbs Racing.

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* Jesus Hernandez became the first Latino driver to win at Hickory this season for MB2 Motorsports.

* Peter Hernandez won twice this season at Stockton 99 Speedway for McAnally.

Drive for Diversity participants have combined for 10 victories, eight this season, and the program is seeking applicants for 2007. Its goal is to develop a steady pipeline of available minorities to NASCAR.

“When we put someone in Cup, that would be our ultimate goal, that would be a Super Bowl win,” said Malcolm Calhoun, whose Calhoun Enterprises co-owns Access. “For us, it’s just widening the scope and breadth of NASCAR. We’re living in a diverse world, and we’re just trying to bring awareness and opportunity for the black and brown and female community.”

There is a down side to the diversity program. On both coasts, minority drivers have faced some resentment from local racers.

“They look at you like you got it for nothing,” said Peter Hernandez, 37, a Chicago native who not only works on his car but also drives the truck and trailer to Stockton 99 Speedway. “At first, they were resentful, they ran against me really rough.”

Track operator Sherry Clifton of Hickory Motor Speedway, which bills itself as the “Birthplace of the NASCAR Stars,” says she has noticed some jealousy.

“It’s such a tough business financially, physically and mentally for these drivers,” Clifton said. “To see someone have it handed to them, or apparently handed to them, rubs them the wrong way.... Other drivers have to secure their own financing, find their own car, and learn what makes it work.”

Calhoun counters, “The opportunity and the good of the program outweighs any negativity that might exist.”

Drive for Diversity’s key component is opportunity.

“I come from a stick-and-ball background,” said Gibbs, son of the Washington Redskins’ coach. “If a guy’s good, he’s going to move on. Here, because of the financial barriers, it doesn’t just happen.... I can go out to any short track and find five drivers, but they’re never going to get the shot, whereas in football, baseball, basketball, you don’t need the help.”

Frye agreed and said the minority program had already proved itself with his driver, Jesus Hernandez.

“We’re going to take the next step with him, probably the ARCA series,” Frye said. “The program opened the door, but once you’re in, you have to have the ability to go to the next level.”

Gibbs agreed.

“To me, the great thing about the sport is, it comes down to performance,” he said. “If you can’t get it done, you can’t fake it.”


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