Amid the cacophony of the corporate recruiters, home-mortgage lenders and health-care providers jammed into the Washington Convention Center's exhibition hall Thursday, the bright yellow No. 77 Kodak racecar barely drew anyone's notice.
But when its driver -- a 20-year-old African American dressed in a bright yellow racing suit -- showed up, men gawked, women spun on their heels and children of all ages clamored for an autograph or a picture.
Joe Henderson III is not exactly a household name in NASCAR circles. But he's drawing notice in stock-car racing because of his promise behind the wheel, just as he drew notice of hundreds of conventioneers and school children attending the National Urban League's annual conference. And that was the point of Henderson's appearance: to raise awareness of stock-car racing in the African American community and, ideally, broaden the appeal of a sport that for decades has drawn predominantly white fans.
"The kids think it's exciting to actually get to see a real racecar driver right in front of their face," Henderson said. "They want to know how fast the car goes. 'How many times have you wrecked?' 'Has the car ever caught on fire?' "
Henderson's ambition is to race in NASCAR's elite ranks, the Nextel Cup series, alongside Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt.
At the moment, there's not a single African American competing on that circuit, nor on stock-car racing's second-tier Grand National series.
A native of Franklin, Tenn., Henderson is currently racing about four rungs down -- competing on short tracks that dot the fringes of small towns in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. But he's making time fast. After turning in nine top-10 finishes in 20 Late-Model races last season, he was signed to a two-year deal to compete in NASCAR's Dodge Weekly Racing series for MB2/MBV Motorsports, which fields racecars for Joe Nemechek and Scott Riggs in the Nextel Cup series.
The opportunity was created by stock-car racing's "Drive for Diversity" program, one of several initiatives aimed at bringing more blacks, Hispanics and women into NASCAR.
NASCAR claims a fan base of 75 million (roughly one in three adults) and boasts television ratings second only to the NFL. But under third-generation CEO Brian France, NASCAR officials have awakened to the fact that their fan base doesn't mirror America. And unless it starts appealing to a broader audience, it won't be able to sustain its explosive growth.
Spurred jointly by NASCAR executives and the Fortune 500 companies that bankroll the sport, stock-car racing's interest in diversifying its audiences represents a stunning turnaround from the hostile attitude Henderson's father encountered when he dabbled in stock-car racing in the 1960s.
"You weren't welcome, and that was putting it simple," said Joe Henderson Jr., 57, who bought his son his first go-kart at age 7 and accompanies him to the track each week. "My era, when I grew up, I still remember the 'whites-only' signs over the water fountains. Same feeling carried over to the racetrack."
Today, Henderson said, NASCAR drivers and pits crews are more cordial. "When we walk in, it's, 'Hey, I'm glad to see you,' " he said.
But that friendliness disappears when his son takes the track -- particularly since he's started running up front.
"Whenever they look up [in their rear-view mirror] and see that it's Joe about to pass 'em, they try extra hard to block him because they don't want him to pass," the elder Henderson said. Father and son suspects that's not motivated by the fact that Joe is black, but rather that he has a big-time sponsor in Kodak through Drive for Diversity.
"Some of the drivers think you're getting this opportunity just because you're black," Henderson said. "You just got to keep on with pride and keep doing what you love doing."
Meanwhile, NASCAR is hoping that one of the sport's diversity initiatives will produce stock-car racing's equivalent of Tiger Woods or Venus Williams -- a superstar whose expertise behind the wheel will bring legions of new fans, participants and souvenir-buyers to the track.
Says the younger Henderson: "It's a matter of finding that right person -- someone who's not always trying to please everybody else; someone who's racing because he loves it; and someone who fans can look at and see a real racer. I hope they see it in me."