At this weekend's Daytona 500, the beginning of the 2004 NASCAR season, don't expect to spot any black drivers. While NASCAR's logo contains a rainbow of colors, the diversity of hues doesn't translate to the track. Auto racing continues to be a sport of mostly white competitors and fans.
In 2003, Bill Shack of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition called auto racing "the last bastion of white supremacy" in professional sports.1 That's not the case. NASCAR officials want minority drivers, crew and fans, but there's not a whole lot they can do about it. The fundamental problem is that it's hard to break into the sport.
Unlike basketball or football, raw talent isn't enough to get an aspiring driver to the checkered flag first. There are no walk-ons in auto racing. To compete in the Nextel Cup Series, the major league of NASCAR, a driver literally needs to be the "Six Million-Dollar Man." That's the estimated minimum cost for maintaining a car and crew of a dozen for a season.2
For a new driver, it's a daunting obstacle. It's little wonder that the sport is dominated by family names like Earnhardt, Petty, Marlin and Waltrip.3
Contrary to Shack's assertion, however, racing is not devoid or adverse to minorities. In 1963, Wendell Scott, who was involved since the early days of NASCAR, became the first and so far only black driver to win a major league race.4 Bill Lester currently drives in the Craftsman Truck Series,5 and there are many more black drivers chomping at the bit to compete.
NASCAR has responded with the "Drive for Diversity" program to create four minority drivers and crews for regional Dodge Weekly Series races. Former NFL superstar Reggie White similarly plans to field a minority driver backed by a veteran crew in the Carolinas.6
But this still won't ensure Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace will face a black competitor in the future. The "Tiger Woods of NASCAR" won't be able to get anywhere near the track at Watkin's Glen or Daytona without the proper funding. Corporate America can effectively break auto racing's color barrier by sponsoring minority drivers and crews.
NASCAR sponsorships are a lucrative prospect for savvy businesses, and gives drivers the money to compete. The sport boasts 75 million fans, experiencing a 19 percent boost between 2000 and 2002 alone.7 Fifty-eight percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 44 years old, and 40 percent are women.8 Over 40 percent earn $50,000 a year or more.9 They also usually own their own homes and have children. And NASCAR season runs from February to November.
They are also intensely loyal to the sport and their favorite drivers. A 2002 Performance Research survey found product sponsorship of NASCAR "almost always" or "frequently" factored into the shopping habits of 71 percent of fans.10 This is compared to only 47 percent in professional golf.11 Forty percent say they would switch their brand allegiance due a company's racing sponsorship.12
There's no shortage of willing minority drivers in need of corporate sponsorship, and no lack of interest in them among them among NASCAR officials. Giving them the money they must have to field a competent team is the key to integrating the sport and for them to bring home the titles. NASCAR officials can't help in the same way the NFL commissioner cannot bend the rules to help the Detroit Lions field a better team.
Not only will money help integrate the field, but it will also create more fans. Minority interest in the sport is already growing, with the black fan base reportedly growing by 29 percent between 1999 and 2003.13 The presence of more drivers of color can only bring more minority fans to the sport and the products they endorse.
It's time to end the perception that
NASCAR is a white sport. It's not about white, but about green.
Money. That's the key to getting any driver on the track, and
businesses finding good black drivers is a win-win scenario for
David W. Almasi is executive director of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a non-partisan Capitol Hill think-tank. Readers may write her at NCPPR, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, DC 20002 or by e-mail at [email protected].
1 Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, "Critics Dog Jesse
Jackson's Corporate Donors," Fox News Channel, August 13,
2003, available at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,94523,00.html
as of February 10, 2004.