NASCAR's Diversity Dearth May Be Sponsor-Driven
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page G02
It is America's fastest-growing sport, second only to the National Football League in the number of television viewers. It is also America's most exclusionary athletic enterprise in terms of race and sex.
It is the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), the sanctioning body for 2,200 auto races held annually in the United States.
Since its birth in 1947, NASCAR has had two African American drivers, of whom one, Bill Lester, is the only black racing in a NASCAR series today. The sport has had no female drivers. Nor does a search of its records of major contests turn up any names that sound Latino or Asian.
NASCAR's first African American driver was Wendell Scott, who raced from 1961 to 1972 in the sanctioning body's Grand National Division, precursor to NASCAR's Winston Cup Series, according to an April 2004 report on blacks in auto racing, published by Black Enterprise magazine.
A search through NASCAR's records confirms that report. Scott won the only race of his career in 1964 in NASCAR's third event of that year on a dirt track in Jacksonville, Fla. He finished ahead of Buck Baker, thus becoming the first and only African American ever to win a major NASCAR race.
Scott's victory was bittersweet. In the overt racist atmosphere of the 1960s South, he was not declared a winner, nor was he allowed to come into the winner's circle to collect his award until several hours after the race had ended and the fans had gone home.
NASCAR officials say they would never countenance such behavior today. But they concede they have a serious image problem among a growing number of African American fans, who now represent 8.8 percent of the racing body's 75-million-member fan base, or 6.6 million members.
"Efforts are being undertaken to improve diversity in the sport," said Jim Aust, vice president of Toyota Motorsports, the racing division of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.
Lester, the current lone black NASCAR driver and a 1984 electrical engineering graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, races for Toyota. He drives the Bill Davis Racing team's No. 22 Toyota Tundra pickup in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series -- the sanctioning body's third-level race behind its Nextel Cup and Busch Grand National series.
Ironically, Toyota and Lester have come under attack from some NASCAR traditionalists for being un-American. Toyota is based in Japan. The Toyota Tundra is a Japanese-brand truck. NASCAR restricts racing participation to American cars and trucks made in the United States.
Aust, in an interview with reporters in Washington last week, said the un-American charge is invalid because the Tundra is made by American workers using American parts in the company's assembly plant in Princeton, Ind. Lester, a native Californian, is American, too.
Aust said Toyota supports programs to bring more African Americans and other minorities into NASCAR racing. But he said his company's efforts are limited by the very structure of NASCAR itself.
"We're just a sponsor," Aust said. "The drivers are chosen by privately owned teams," such as Bill Davis Racing, which has Lester on its roster.
Therein lies a major problem, according to Randi Payton, president and chief executive of On Wheels Inc., which publishes African Americans on Wheels (where I also serve as a senior editor). NASCAR racing teams historically have been family affairs -- fathers, sons, brothers and their relatives and friends born and reared in the business, Payton said.
There is the Allison clan -- Johnny, Bobby, Davey and Donnie. There have been the Andrettis, Bakers and Bodines. And, of course, there are the legendary Earnhardts -- the late Dale Earnhardt and his famous son Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is affectionately known as "Junior" on the NASCAR circuit.
All of those families are white; and they are loved and revered by their predominantly white fan base, according to a demographic and psychographic profile of NASCAR fans done in 2000 by Edgar, Dunn & Co., a San Francisco consulting firm.
NASCAR fans see their drivers as "people like me," according to the Edgar, Dunn profile. They see them as having "regular physiques," and being "regular guys" and "role models," according to the studies.
That " 'people like me' bias" generally leads to the exclusion of "people like us," said Payton, who is an African American. "Sponsors don't want to take a chance on black drivers because they believe they won't be accepted" by the larger fan base, he said. And in the capital-intensive auto racing business, teams won't look at drivers who don't attract sponsors.
NASCAR has set up several diversity councils, including one co-chaired by basketball-star-turned-businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr., to help address the problem. But Payton believes the answer will come down to the basic matter of money.
"The African Americans who watch NASCAR races buy NASCAR-advertised products, too," he said. "Pretty soon, they are going to start demanding to see more people like them behind the wheel."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company