NASCAR’s diversity program shifts focus after modest success
NASCAR officially started its diversity program in 2004 with the hopes of growing its audience. It was imperative if the sport planned to grow beyond its mostly Southern white base and assume a spot as an elite sport in American culture.
Now, almost two decades later, success could most generously be described as modest.
There are only three minority drivers on the main NASCAR circuit that have come from the Drive for Diversity program: Kyle Larson, Daniel Suárez and Bubba Wallace. There are no women racing at NASCAR’s top level.
So, the sport is looking in another direction to solve its diversity problem, through ownership.
In September, Michael Jordan became the first Black principal owner of a racing team on the top level since Wendell Scott owned and drove his car almost 50 years ago. Wallace, who is Black, will be the driver.
Last month, Armando Christian Pérez, better known by his stage name of Pitbull, became co-owner of Trackhouse Racing, which will have Suárez, who is from Mexico, as its driver.
“It’s about … creating the culture through NASCAR to bring people together,” Pitbull said. “I know it because I live it. Music is a universal language. When I’m out there performing it doesn’t matter whether you speak English, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, if you are Black, white, pink, purple or orange. It doesn’t matter, we all speak music when we’re there.
“When it comes to NASCAR, we watch the cars race, it’s about letting everyone know no matter what in life, if you focus, you work hard for it, you can achieve it. That’s my story and Daniel’s story.”
Injecting a little celebrity in auto racing is rarely a bad thing, and sometimes the results can play out in surprising places.
“[Pitbull] mentioned to me that his biggest fanbase is actually in Asia,” Suárez said. “I was thinking probably Mexico, probably Brazil, probably Colombia, Cuba, somewhere in the Latino markets. But Asia? It’s pretty incredible the amount of eyes that are going to be looking to the sport because of these two individuals in 2021.”
Adding eyes might be the easy part of this equation, as it’s unlikely any two owners can easily change the perception of the sport. Historically the climb has appeared to be Sisyphean in nature.
“Look at what Wendell Scott did to kick off the trail that he blazed,” Wallace said. “We’ve been trying to carry that torch ever since I’ve been in the sport. We’re pushing for more, for great success from a minority standpoint, from a diversity standpoint … and the sport’s behind it, the fans are behind it.”
It’s been 20 years since the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, and this year’s race brings back vivid memories of Ryan Newman’s 2020 crash.
Wallace then corrected himself.
“Some of the fans are behind it.”
Wallace and the sport got some unwanted attention last summer, a few weeks after he publicly stated his support for the Black Lives Matter movement and called for the banning of the Confederate battle flag from NASCAR events, which the racing series subsequently did.
At Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, what was believed to be a noose was found in his garage. After an FBI investigation, it was discovered that while it looked like a noose, it was actually a garage pull rope. But that wasn’t known until after all the drivers showed their support for Wallace by lining up behind him on pit road in a touching display of solidarity.
“I’ve lost seven pounds from everything that happened last year, so much stress and pressure,” Wallace said. “I have a goal every year to not be part of the headlines. Every year I have that goal and I failed every year.
“It’s tiring, it seems like whatever I do … I’m the most hated person, so it’s just like, ‘Hey, let’s just stay low-key here this year.’ Nope, didn’t happen. … Go be part of something where you’re the minority for 18 years and you learn how to handle it. So, it’s just another day in the life of Bubba Wallace. It’s all right. I’m good with it.”
Larson, who has Japanese parentage and was a member of NASCAR’s diversity program, also found himself in the news when he was suspended for several months without pay after uttering a racial slur on a livestream when competing in iRacing.
He seems to have restarted his career with little animosity.
“Bubba and I are good,” Larson said. “I was texting with him asking him about what gaming console to get — an Xbox or a PlayStation — for my bus. He was texting us about golf last night. So, yeah, everything is fine with Bubba and I.”
Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon finished in the top spots in the Twin 150-mile qualifying races for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Things are not so easy for Wallace, who is often the subject of hateful messages, which haven’t subsided with time.
“I’ll let you know when it ramps down,” Wallace said. “It’s going to be there every day. And that’s part of it. It makes me stronger.”
Jordan, who has driver Denny Hamlin as a partner in 23XI Racing, named for each of their numbers, believes now is the time for someone with his profile to get involved with NASCAR.
“The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more,” Jordan said in a statement when the team was announced. “In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”
Based on qualifying at Daytona, this could be a breakout year for Wallace, who is winless in 85 starts over four years. Wallace finished second in one of Thursday night’s qualifying races despite making some mistakes, so the car is fast.
“[NASCAR is] really pushing boundaries that they’ve never really pushed before,” said Hamlin, who will be trying to win his third consecutive Daytona 500, but not for another race team. “And, certainly, if that opens up the fan base for NASCAR, that’s going to be better for everyone.”
It’s a project that’s been two decades in the making.
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