It’s been two years since NASCAR made waves by banning the Confederate flag at their events. Many corporations and businesses took public stances against racism in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McLain – but were their efforts a movement or a moment? The racing league was born in the south and with that, developed a strong fan base largely inhabited by descendants of the Confederacy. In other words, the “good ole boys” and their constant display of the south’s failure – i.e., the Confederate flag – had the racing game on lock. The looming barriers of entry for Black people into the sport have resulted in there only being a handful of Black drivers up until this very day.
Back in 2004, the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program was created. The developmental program’s mission is to groom minority and female drivers and pit crew members. One major hurdle to becoming a NASCAR driver is financial constraints, so the program has looked to increase diversity in sponsorships and ownership. It can cost anywhere between $5 and $35 million dollars to sponsor a car or team, with different tiers determining their company’s placement on race day vehicles. When it comes to ownership, those figures are even higher when you factor in repairs and staff salaries, for example. This results in a very niche target demographic – one that has come to include very wealthy Black businessmen equipped to change the trajectory and diversity of the fan base.
Included in the Drive for Diversity program is the Pit Crew Combine. A nationwide talent search conducted at several universities yields a small group invited to the research and development center in Concord, NC each May to compete for the opportunity to join a pit crew. During the combine, the prospects’ strength, agility, and flexibility are assessed as well as their ability to perform “over the wall” roles such as tire changers, carriers, and jackmen. From the combine, the world was introduced to Brehanna Daniels, who went on to become the first African American woman tire changer in NASCAR history. According to Max Siegel, owner of Rev Racing, the program has a 100 percent placement rate throughout NASCAR. Rev Raving is a minority-owned race team operated under Siegel’s sports, marketing, entertainment, and media holding company. In addition to his $3 million investment into the Drive for Diversity program, Siegel also finds sponsorship deals for the drivers, which include Toyota, Nike, and Sunoco.
Rajah Caruth is an alum of the Driver Development Program that has been making waves, especially over the past year and a half. The Winston-Salem State University student currently races part-time in the ARCA Menards Series for Rev Racing and part-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The 2021 Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award winner is one of five Black drivers currently racing in NASCAR. The others are Bubba Wallace, Jesse Iwuji, Blake Lothian, and Armani Williams. Another place where diversity has been sorely absent is amongst ownership. That is changing. When the flag dropped on this year’s Daytona 500, there were four Black owners – the most ever represented in the annual race. That’s significant given that the race is the series’ biggest event. Former NBA stars Michael Jordan and Brad Daughtery, as well as boxer Floyd Mayweather and entrepreneur John Cohen, all fielded cars on the sport’s biggest stage. Rapper Pitbull also has an ownership stake in NASCAR; he became a co-owner of the Trackhouse Racing Team in January of 2021. He was prompted to take on the venture following the events of 2020. “Everyone here is a human being,” Pitbull told ABC News. “And if I can use a car, NASCAR, the races and music to do that, to unite people, that is an honor, a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous platform to be able to do that.”
As with any industry, diversity has to have a top-down approach. Wallace, who formerly raced with Richard Petty Motorsports, announced in September of 2021 that he would be leaving RPM to become the first driver of the No. 23 car for 23XI Racing – the team started by Jordan and driver Denny Hamlin. Less than a month later, he recorded his first career Cup win at Talladega (ironically the site of his controversial noose incident of 2020). He had continued success in 2021 when he notched a second-place finish in the Daytona 500. With increased representation at the ownership level, don’t be surprised to see the number of Black drivers increasing as well. Former Dallas Cowboys great Emmitt Smith is set to join the ownership ranks later in the year with driver Iwuji. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity here,” Smith said. “NASCAR has actually opened the door for minorities to come in and actually own their teams. Ownership is really the key to any type of change you really want to create. If you don’t own it, you can’t really change it. It’s not a bottom-up approach, it’s really a top-down approach.” Jesse Iwuji Motorsports will be competing in Xfinity Series with Iwuji behind the wheel of the No. 34 Chevrolet car – a nod to pioneer Wendell Scott.
The aforementioned financial hurdles almost derailed Iwuji’s dreams before Smith’s involvement. He was self-funded and struggled to find sponsorships before the Pro Football Hall of Famer stepped in. “I’ve never been a quitter,” said the former Navy defensive back. “God put a vision in my head of me being a race car driver. So if he puts it in my head, that means it’s meant to be, and if it’s meant to be, why would I go against it?” With increased diversity at the ownership, driver, and pit crew levels, the fan base is sure to follow, right? While a number of die-hard fans threatened to pull their fandom following the Confederate flag banishment, the league has clearly called their bluff, moving forward with broadening their demographic – namely, the African American portion. That quest has only further gained steam as some of today’s top Black athletes and musicians have shown their support by attending races and taking a genuine interest in the sport. One said star is New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara.
Ever since the five-time Pro Bowler tweeted his interest in the sport back in 2020, he has been a mainstay at races and events throughout the year. Roughly a year after attending his first race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, he announced he had been named the first-ever Growth and Engagement Advisor. In the role, he works with NASCAR leadership to strategize ways to develop and engage the fan base. Pete Jung, chief marketing officer at NASCAR, called Kamara’s journey “organic” — from his initial curiosity to the development of passion for the sport: “That’s what we’re looking to tap into … his insights, perspective and ideas … and learning more about his experience so that we can enhance what we’re doing to engage and develop new fans.” Increased visibility amongst a new demographic ushers in a new generation of race fans.
It’s been a long time coming, but it appears that NASCAR’s diversification efforts are authentic and here to stay. As more and more stars find their ways to the speedway – whether in the driver’s seat, pit road or in the grandstand, fans will follow. Absent is the ugly glare of the Confederate flags – one of the most daunting symbols of racism in this country. In their place stand potential heroes and inspiration for little Black boys and girls who can now dream realistic dreams at the race track.