USA TODAY International Edition

‘ Got some ground to make up’

NASCAR slowly building base of diverse drivers, owners, fans

- Michelle R. Martinelli

Mike Metcalf, one of the few Black men working on a NASCAR pit crew, knew what would come next. He saw how this would unfurl after Kyle Larson, then a driver on his Chip Ganassi Racing team, uttered the Nword during a live- streamed iRacing event in April 2020.

First, though, he felt the pain.

“It was a punch to the stomach, man,” Metcalf said. “Just lost your breath for a second.”

Larson lost his ride with Ganassi, NASCAR suspended him and the team’s championsh­ip hopes evaporated – as Metcalf expected. And NASCAR, a historical­ly white, Southern sport, has attempted to reckon with a culture that has historical­ly excluded drivers and fans of color.

“People on ESPN and Twitter and all that were like, ‘ Oh, yeah, well, of course, I’m sure that’s how all those people talk,’ kind of referring to NASCAR,” Metcalf said.

“So when this Kyle thing happened, it kind of woke NASCAR up a little bit to say, ‘ OK, we need to do more.’ … And so ( it’s) trying to make the garage a better place that’s not just white, Southern male.”

Now, Larson is driving for Cup Series powerhouse Hendrick Motorsport­s and will be one of four drivers competing for the 2021 championsh­ip at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday. And that raises an obvious question: Has NASCAR become more inclusive in the last 18 months?

NASCAR and its leaders have said many of the right things and tout progress, but some of the people in the garage, fans and experts agree it still has a long way to go to back that up and generate real change.

The most noticeable action NASCAR took – both after Larson’s transgress­ion and amid a broader discussion of racism in the U. S. – was banning the Confederat­e flag from events.

Bubba Wallace, the driver who spearheade­d the effort, still thinks the flags are too prevalent among fans of the sport, particular­ly outside of racetracks. “I don’t know if there’s a way to police that since it’s not on their property,” Wallace said. “People could be coming to the race for the first time, and they see that and they’re like, ‘ Eh, we’re gonna keep driving.’ ”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps recently acknowledg­ed that, prior to the national outcry over a Minneapoli­s police officer murdering George Floyd in May 2020, racism was not something that resonated with some in racing.

“I would suggest before June of 2020, our industry wasn’t ready, and that sounds awful,” Phelps said on the Champions of Change podcast, produced by RISE, which advocates for social justice in sports and partnered with NASCAR.

“Eighteen months later now, it is the single most important decision we’ve made. And it’s working.”

In 2021, one out of four fans identifies as a person of color, compared with one out of five in 2011, according to research by Nielson Scarboroug­h.

Other efforts at increasing inclusion and broadening the appeal of the sport – both for fans and young drivers and pit crew members – have been less visible and the results more nebulous.

As Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, explained, efforts range from inclusion councils to anti- racism training to initiative­s and partnershi­ps focused on women, BIPOC and the LGBT+ community ( such as the Women’s Sports Foundation, The Trevor Project, UnidosUS and the Urban Youth Racing School).

“Society is evolving and becoming more inclusive, so definitely NASCAR is under pressure to do that, as well,” said Toni Breidinger, a 22- year- old ARCA driver of Lebanese descent who, this year, became the first Arab American woman to compete in a NASCAR- sanctioned event.

On the competitio­n side, Thompson pointed to the Drive for Diversity program, started in 2004, with Larson, Wallace and Daniel Suarez being the most prominent alums.

NASCAR knows it can boost engagement with new fans if they see people like them represente­d in the sport. New, high- profile celebritie­s getting involved can help, such as Michael Jordan and Pitbull becoming team owners.

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara also became a fan and was named NASCAR’s first Growth and Engagement Advisor in June.

“You just get a lot of positive traction from the celebrity side of things, ( and) they’re talking about our sport,” Wallace said.

For all that NASCAR has done, the fact remains that Wallace is the lone Black driver racing at the highest level. Thompson acknowledg­ed the sport still has “got some ground to make up.” Others are more blunt.

“NASCAR hasn’t had to really reckon with the fact that it shouldn’t be a Southern, white sport,” said Dr. Louis Moore, a sports historian and professor at Grand Valley State in Michigan.

Because of that, NASCAR is still building up a base of diverse fans and institutin­g policies and programs that can help it expand. But the pace can be frustratin­g for those in the sport.

“I do see some change,” Breidinger said. “Is it fast enough? No, I don’t think so. But I do see them doing things and trying to be more inclusive.”

Specifically, NASCAR needs to do a better job of uplifting minorities in the sport with more exposure and financial backing to help overcome institutio­nal racism, Breidinger said.

Moore cited additional funding as one way to remove some economic barriers for women and people of color attempting to break into NASCAR’s upper echelon. It should also allow for more representa­tion of minority communitie­s, through educationa­l opportunit­ies on Black history or by finding sponsors, like FedEx, willing to allow drivers to share equity messages on their car as Denny Hamlin did with a National Civil Rights Museum paint scheme.

Ultimately, NASCAR will see change, Moore said, when it finds more forwardthi­nking team owners and leaders who are beyond a “shut up and race or shut up and dribble” mentality.

Phil Spain – a 31- year- old lifelong fan from Maryland who is Black – said NASCAR is trending in the right direction. But whether the efforts are successful “still remains to be seen.”

“I want to see more young African American men and women; I want to see more Latinx people involved,” Spain said.

Beyond lip service and hashtags, he said NASCAR needs to “practice what they’re preaching.” He thinks holding more clinics or demonstrat­ions in predominan­tly Black communitie­s would help attract fans and competitor­s.

“I honestly think that NASCAR knows what they have,” Moore said. “They know that Black people like NASCAR, and they need to figure out and be honest with themselves if they really want those fans. … And if so, then go full out.”

Of course, there is a vocal opposition to every stride NASCAR has made, performati­ve or otherwise. The latest reminder NASCAR still has a way to go to be fully inclusive was Kyle Busch using an ableist slur Sunday after the Martinsvil­le Speedway race.

Metcalf is hopeful the sport can change but said he hasn’t forgotten the times fans made him feel unwelcome. Wallace is still often booed and said his haters have actually gotten louder since 2020.

“It’s definitely taken a turn for the worse as far as fan interactio­n,” Wallace said. “But it’s just ironic that the boos have gotten louder and more consistent ever since last year.”

However, the majority of NASCAR fans have been supportive of the sport’s anti- racism and inclusion efforts, Thompson said.

“No one’s in the business, particular­ly nowadays, of firing their customers,” he said. “But ... if lifelong fans decide that this is not for them anymore because they’re opposed to the sport being more inclusive, then unfortunat­ely, we’re OK with continuing to move on.”

 ?? ADAM HAGY/ USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top- level Cup Series, got his first victory this year in the YellaWood 500 at Talladega.
ADAM HAGY/ USA TODAY SPORTS Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top- level Cup Series, got his first victory this year in the YellaWood 500 at Talladega.
 ?? ANDREW NELLES/ TENNESSEAN. COM ?? Saints running back Alvin Kamara greets Cup driver Aric Almirola before a Nashville race.
ANDREW NELLES/ TENNESSEAN. COM Saints running back Alvin Kamara greets Cup driver Aric Almirola before a Nashville race.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States