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When NASCAR announced in June that it was banning the Confederate flag from racing events, some saw the move as a PR stunt as the nation reeled from the killing of George Floyd. Further, some looked at the move as a step in the right direction coming from an organization known as much for the racist Confederate flag as they are the checkered flag. While the timing of the announcement produced skepticism, and rightfully so; the truth is that NASCAR had been working on ways to shred their long-standing reputation as being one of the most bigoted professional sports associations in the United States. Their quest began long before Bubba Wallace was announced as the first Black full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series since Wendell Scott back in 1971. As with many things, the unraveling of several decades of systemic racism requires deliberate and sustained actions and policies.
As with many things in a capitalistic society, some pondered what financial ramifications would arise as a result in the wake of NASCAR’s stance. Sure, there were tons of longtime fans who made sure to make their disapproval known through racist tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media platforms. For every fan deeply attached to the Confederate flag and what it stands for, there is an equal amount of prospective new fans who no longer feel unwelcome. Additionally, there’s this little thing called the power of the black dollar – I think NASCAR will be just fine.
Don’t Call It a Comeback, We’ve Been Here For Years
While the popularity of Wallace and the Black Lives Matter movement have exposed a new demographic of young Black fans to the world of NASCAR, the truth is that the relationship between the sport and hip hop has been around for years. Those of us old enough to remember, recall the late 90s and early 2000s when rocking a race car jacket was a status symbol. Some of hip hop’s biggest names popularized the logo-covered jackets — some of which boasted price tags over $1,000. NASCAR designer Jeff Hamilton has been credited with modifying race car clothing to appeal more to the hip hop community. “The details are more made out to fashions. We kind of switched colors and made it more — tried to make them more attractive to a fashion customer,” Hamilton told CNN.
When it comes to public perspective, NASCAR and hip hop are at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum. So, many would be surprised to learn that the correlation does not stop at fashion. Many drivers; namely Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon; have spoken about their love for the music of artists such as NWA, Tupac, Nelly, Fabolous, and others. Denny Hamlin, who won this year’s Daytona 500, is a big fan of JAY-Z, Travis Scott; and Nelly, who is also good friends with. Quite interesting when you consider NASCAR’s reputation as a “redneck” sport. Although several meetings came by way of endorsements and advertisements, several drivers and artists have maintained years-long friendships.
When Dale Jr. revealed back in 2013 that his pre-race song was “Power Trip” by J. Cole, the driver and the NC-bred MC met up, and enjoy a close friendship to this day. The sport has also shared in the sorrow of the hip hop community. Paying homage to Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes after her untimely death, Dale Earnhardt, Inc, or DEI, placed black tape under the left headlight of all three cars. Additionally, Dale Jr., Michael Waltrip, Steve Park, and all crew members wore black tape under their left eyes.
I’m a Business, Man
There have also been ties that bind on the business side of things that many may not be privy to. In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s electronics company SMS Audio became associate sponsors for Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman. Prior to spending the past 16 years as NASCAR’s managing director of entertainment marketing and Music, Phillip Metz started out in hip hop. After promoting Run-DMC concerts in college and launching a record label, Metz used his tenure at NASCAR to integrate music into the sport.
We’re all familiar with Migos’ 2017 hit “Motorsport” and the marketing campaign it was responsible for launching. Many of the sport’s top drivers — including Wallace, Austin Dillon, and Dalton Sargeant — participated in the #MotorSportChallenge where the drivers posted videos to social media showing off the cars they would be driving for the season.
Later, the trio showed up to a NASCAR race where they attempted to teach the broadcaster to dab. With the blockbuster success of Migos, of course NASCAR attempted to bolster the relationship in efforts to get more Black fans to the tracks. Despite the convergence of the two communities, the relationship between the parties has not translated to increased presence at races.
But, There’s Still A Roadblock
Unfortunately, as in many other sectors, a love of Black culture does not directly correlate to a love of Black people. As previously mentioned, the sight of scores of Confederate flags wasn’t exactly inspiration for Black fans to race to the tracks. Add to that the fact that there’s only one full-time Black driver. From 1971 until 2018, Wendell Scott had been the only Black driver to race full-time in the NASCAR Cup series. In efforts to increase diversity and attempt to put a dent into longtime systemic barriers to entry, NASCAR developed the Drive For Diversity Program. Specifically, it is more difficult to enter the sport from a driver perspective due to the large amounts of sponsorship money needed.
Drive For Diversity operates two developmental programs: A driver development program and a pit crew development program. The driver development program is an academy style program that trains minority drivers on and off the track. The pit crew development program recruits student-athletes from around the country. Those selected attend a Pit Crew Combine at NASCAR’s Research and Development facility in Concord, NC every May. From there, the class selected goes through a rigorous comprehensive training program. The pit crew development program produced NASCAR’s first Black female tire changer, Brehanna Daniels.
Wallace is a product of the Drive For Diversity driver program, referred to as D4D. Rajah Caruth, a freshman at Winston Salem State, is another up-and-coming Black driver. He most recently appeared on BET’s “Carl Weber’s The Family Business” and won his first Late Model stock car race in early October at South Carolina’s Greenville-Pickens Speedway.
The Drive for Diversity program also visits elementary schools where they educate students and pique their interests in racing through an assortment of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — or STEAM — activities.
In June, NASCAR created the vice president of diversity and inclusion position, and appointed Brandon Thompson, a 17-year veteran in the sport. Thompson began his career through the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program. The team will work with the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, and the Diversity and Inclusion Sports Consortium to increase diversity at all levels of the industry.
The GOAT has entered the chat
NBA legend Michael Jordan recently dove into the NASCAR world himself. When Wallace announced that he would not return to the Richard Petty Motorsport team, fans were scratching their heads wondering what was next for the young talent. Enter Jordan. In September, it was announced that he would be starting his own NASCAR Cup Series race team and that his driver would be none other than Wallace. Additionally, Denny Hamlin, 3-time Daytona 500 winner, will serve as a minority owner. Wallace is signed to a multi-year deal and Hamlin will continue to drive for Joe Gibbs racing. Jordan became the first Black majority owner of a full-time NASCAR team since Wendell Scott in the 1970s.
It will be interesting to see if fans will have the same fervor for a Jordan race team that they do for his timeless sneaker releases. Getting fans to buy tickets is half the battle, but it’s one that Dawn Harris, NASCAR’s managing director of diversity and inclusion, is confident she can win. “So a big platform of what our group does is called the NASCAR Opinion Leader Initiative, where we actually work with groups and organizations across the country and bring them to a race,” explains Harris. She goes on to say that if she can get you to the track, you’ll become a fan. With the pace of the new developments, it may not be long before we see the race car jacket trend circle back around.
More and more Black athletes from other sports are taking an interest in the sport and actually attending races. Take Saints running back Alvin Kamara for instance. Kamara attended his first race over the summer and live-tweeted another race to his 355,000 Twitter followers. While the number of his fans who were already following the sport of NASCAR is unknown, there is no doubt still a large number that became acquainted with the sport through Kamara’s account. As the Black community becomes more comfortable with the sport and NASCAR begins to shed its “redneck” image, it will be interesting to see if diversification efforts will pay off.