Winchester's Sergio Pena, 17, has the drive to improve NASCAR's diversity

Sergio Pena, a 17-year-old senior at James Wood High School in Winchester, is a top prospect in the Drive for Diversity program, a NASCAR initiative designed to create opportunities for minorities and women.
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 11:57 PM

"If you were going to create NASCAR's ideal driver, how would you begin?" the commercial starts. "Would English be their first language? O su segundo?" driver Sergio Pena asks.

Pena, a 17-year-old senior at James Wood High School in Winchester, is a top prospect in Drive for Diversity, a NASCAR initiative designed to create opportunities for minorities and women in a sport that's been almost exclusively white and male since its humble beginnings in the deep South in the 1950s.

The program has not produced a full-time driver on the Sprint Cup or Nationwide circuits - stock-car racing's two most visible series - in its seven-year existence. But there's hope that Pena, whose father, Jai, is from Colombia, will change that.

"It's what I've wanted to do since I was 8, since the first time I drove a go-kart," said Pena, a driver in NASCAR's top developmental series, the K&N Pro East. "I just fell in love."

NASCAR executives are equally as intrigued. With attendance flagging and television ratings on the decline, increasing diversity in the sport ranks among NASCAR's top priorities as the sanctioning body seeks to broaden its fan base and attract a wider variety of corporate sponsors. According to NASCAR, 19.2 percent of its fans were from a minority group in 2005. That number grew only .8 percent the following four years.

The obstacles confronting NASCAR's diversity efforts are considerable, foremost among them the fact it has produced so few role models for aspiring black, Hispanic or female drivers.

A North Carolina-based company run by former Dale Earnhardt, Inc., executive Max Siegel took over management of Drive for Diversity from NASCAR last year in an effort to inject additional cash into the program and improve its success rate. Costs for drivers are now covered by Siegel and his partners, in addition to sponsors that include Sunoco and Goodyear, and NASCAR.

A NASCAR spokesman declined to disclose the amount it contributes to the program.

Pena's considerable, if still raw, talent helped him produce one of the more memorable stock-car debuts in recent memory in January. He battled door-to-door with Joe Gibbs Racing driver Joey Logano for most of the prestigious Toyota All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, Calif., leading 54 of the 225 laps. But his inexperience behind the wheel of a 650-horsepower race car caused him to spin his tires, and Logano pulled away for the win.

"What that ended up doing was it opened up a lot of eyes in the direction of Sergio," Pro East director Kip Childress said.

Pena was also in the spotlight on "Changing Lanes," an eight-episode series that aired earlier this fall on Black Entertainment Television. It told the back-stories of roughly a dozen African American, Hispanic and female stock-car racers competing against each other for spots in the Drive for Diversity program. The TV series has given NASCAR a platform to attract minorities and women to a sport that has yet to diversify at the elite level.

Pena has "a great head on his shoulders, is smart, works hard and is committed to becoming the best driver he can possibly be," said Marcus Jadotte, who oversees the diversity program for NASCAR. "The fact that he's young, attractive and bilingual is a huge added bonus."

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