The Frontstretch: Bowles-Eye : Montoya A Winner? Almirola's A Loser...And That Means NASCAR's Still Not Doing Enough For Diversity by Thomas Bowles -- Monday June 25, 2007

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Two weeks after African-American phenom Lewis Hamilton won his first event, NASCAR finally fought back after Formula One landed the first blow in racing's diversity sweepstakes. It was quite a 1-2 combination; putting together some prepackaged talent with sponsorship shenanigans, the sport inadvertently punched the one person they couldn't afford to hit - themselves. Staggering from the blow of the mistakes made by their own participants, they ensured the strength of their own bad karma went straight to the heart of the eggs lying squarely pressed against their face.

Only time will tell if the sport can figure this out in enough time to recover.

It's a staggering take on the sport's current state of diversity, for in the glow of Sunday afternoon's scintillating victory by Juan Pablo Montoya at Infineon Raceway, it's easy to get caught up in the hype of the Colombian winning his first race on Nextel Cup's top level. No doubt, the win's impressive; it comes in just Montoya's 17th start in the series and puts him in a select group of drivers who've won a race with a yellow stripe still plastered to their back bumper. More importantly, the win cements the former open-wheeler as Nextel Cup's first major international star; Montoya's just the second foreign-born individual to win a Nextel Cup race in NASCAR's modern era, joining Canadian Earl Ross in that all-too-short a list. Unfortunately, Ross didn't last more than two years in the series - Montoya should be around for far longer than that.

"I think in a way it's going to be good for the whole NASCAR sport," Montoya said in his post-race press conference. "I think me winning today is going to bring a lot of attention the next few races. It's good for me, it's good for the whole team, I think it's good for the sport. I'm very proud to be part of it."

On the surface, that seems all fine and dandy. Of course, in many ways Montoya's presence can be nothing but a base to build from as far as diversity's concerned; but beyond that, the future impact of his career on the sport's diversity initiatives might not be that simple. Comparing the future success of Montoya and Hamilton is like comparing apples and oranges; and in terms of far-reaching impact, both are likely to produce different outcomes.

Hamilton is a 22-year-old proud product of homegrown talent, rising through the open wheel ranks and Formula One's own test driver development program to earn his stripes as his sport's brightest young star. Montoya, while working just as hard, is NASCAR's international version of the New York Yankees. Already developed with talents far beyond his years in open wheel, this sport, in the form of Chip Ganassi, lured the veteran over to the other side with the money and prestige. Putting together the bouquet of roses no one could refuse, they landed the 31-year-old in a new set of wheels while forcing him to all but skip the minor league system through which most stock car drivers cut their teeth. It was the perfect scenario that fell right into NASCAR's lap; here's a prepackaged driver capable of performing on the sport's top level, and they didn't have to spend a dime on development. In a flash, you had a man ready to rumble, and the sport’s diversity quota automatically took a major step up as a result.

Of course, when you do something like that, you're mortgaging your future for the gains of the present, and that's exactly what Montoya’s presence has done. He's not the product of a successful stock car program, just his own talent level at driving anything with four wheels; his transition to NASCAR allows his ultra-competitive nature to beat up a whole group of new drivers at their own game after years of being dominant in open wheel. NASCAR fans understand this, and it’s part of why Montoya hasn't been universally accepted among some of the longtime faithful. It has nothing to do with the color of his skin or his country of origin; it has to do with his attitude, for one, and with a talent level of unprecedented success that was accomplished…well, somewhere else.

Just listen to Montoya's comments from Victory Lane.

"It’s huge," he said of his win, grasping the moment and squeezing all he could out of it. "It’s hard to say this is bigger than this or that. I would say right now it’s the biggest thing I’ve done. It’s unbelievable, actually. In open wheel, that was what I was meant to be winning in, and in stock cars, I wasn’t. To get our first win in our first year is huge."

Those comments, albeit a small glimpse of Montoya's soul, tell you everything about success and failure. Clearly, Montoya has done what most athletes don't dare to do; switch to another "position" within their sport and still succeed at a high level. In the end, though, Montoya's blood, sweat, and tears weren't cut in NASCAR…they were cut somewhere else. To put down far-reaching impact, you must first place roots, and one win does not permanently settle those roots somewhere else.

Of course, at the same time Montoya's plant was busy growing, one of NASCAR's top teams had cracked the plant in half of one of their other major diversity stars.

Sitting in the Busch Series record book Aric Almirola will now be listed, the first Cuban-American to win a race at that level. Only problem is, he wasn't in the car when it happened; Denny Hamlin was. After helicopter problems prevented Hamlin from landing and starting the race in the No. 20 car, Almirola had been given the green light to drive instead, running a car he qualified on pole and taking it to the front for 44 of the first 59 laps of the race.

Those would be the only laps he'd run all night.

Dissatisfied with another driver in the car, sponsor Rockwell Automation met "as a group" with the No. 20 team and decided that Hamlin should finish the race. Based in Milwaukee, this was the main attraction for a longtime sponsor, and they couldn't bear to see some unknown win it in the face of all the money they're putting into someone else.

That left Almirola sneaking out of the track in a secret exit, frustrated and despondent while, in the meantime, Hamlin responded to the change to the tune of a Busch Series win.

Without starting the race, Hamlin’s win goes under Almirola's name…but it hardly registers under the his broken heart.

"I just want you to know that no one cares more for Aric and his future than we do," said No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs, holding court with the media in the shadows of Montoya's victory. "That is a huge deal for us. At the same time, Rockwell has been a great partner. They stepped up and filled the gap when no one was there to span that gap."

With that, the arduous topic of money came up. Money supposedly talented drivers should have at the tips of their fingers - but has mysteriously crumbled in NASCAR circles at the mere mention of words like "Cuban", "African-American" or "Japanese" being spoken in the name of driver development.

Still, Gibbs would not back down. Mother Teresa he wasn't, and he made it indirectly yet perfectly clear he wasn’t about to mortgage his future on a talented driver without monetary backing.

"In most of these Busch programs, the owners spend money out of their own pocket to make it work," he said. "You can’t do it just on sponsorship. So we’ve got to say that it’s partly an investment in our future. And if we get enough from a sponsor and get them to step up and they want to go with a young guy…if they invest a chunk in that and we invest a chunk in that, we can make it happen. But in order to do that, you’ve got to show people that you can win and you’ve got to show them you’re on top of your game.”

Apparently, Aric wasn't worth enough to show it on Saturday night.

“He had a great car, he practiced it and qualified it and I know it is frustrating for him," lamented Gibbs. "(But Busch sponsorship); it’s very hard to sell. Hard to sell."

So, instead of forcing a diversity sale, NASCAR's participants currently choose to buy it when it's convenient, both for their sponsors and for their publicity. It's an impressive short-term fix, that's for sure; Montoya's presence in Victory Lane can tell you that much.

In the end, though, that's clearly a recipe for long-term failure.

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Ed
06/25/2007 06:43 AM
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Who cares about a drive for diversity? Every entity doesn’t have to be equal to all and have it’s quotas. If you can drive, you should be there, no matter what. If you can’t you shouldn’t. When you are talking about the world, it’s all pretty relative. Montoya is a Columbian, so what makes him special as far as his nationality is concerned? He is a great driver and has shown that he can drive no matter what series. If Dario Franchitti races in NASCAR, will he be an example of diversity because he is a Scotsman? Ron Fellows is Canadian. Does he make NASCAR more diverse?

William T.
06/25/2007 07:17 AM
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I’m with you Ed. YOu can either drive or you can’t. Race or Ethnicity should have nothing to do with it.

4x4s
06/25/2007 07:32 AM
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Hey Tom, I know you were searching for a politically correct phrase, but you missed with “African-American phenom Lewis Hamilton”.

Hamilton is British.

Travis Rassat
06/25/2007 07:34 AM
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Technically speaking, since Lewis Hamilton is British and of Caribbean descent, he’s not “African American”, but I got your point. Regardless of where he’s from or what color his skin is, he’s an amazing talent.

Great article!

M. B. Voelker
06/25/2007 08:21 AM
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“Diversity” is bunk.

The real problem was Rockwell’s toddler-tantrum of bad sportsmanship in refusing to accept that life hadn’t worked out the way they’d planned so now they should deal with it.

Aric’s Cuban ancestory is completely irrelevant to the situation. What’s relevant is Rockwell’s insistence that Gibbs yank him out of the race — after he’d led laps and while he was running 3rd — just to satisfy their egotistical desire to see a star race in person.

When problems for the star create a situation where the understudy gets his big chance and is doing a great job yanking the rug out from under his feet is simply one of those things that is NOT DONE.

Some will babble on and on about it being “just business” but this business is a SPORT. And fair play is what sports are about on the most basic and fundamental level.

Gibbs’s and Rockwell’s treatment of Almirola is not an outrage because of Aric’s ethnic heritage. Its an outrage because of his humanity.

R. A. Wilson
06/25/2007 08:57 AM
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Amen! Gibbs so called ethics won’t allow him to take Budwieser as a sponser but he will “sell out” a great talent for the right amount. Almairola was getting the job done and it should have been his race to win or lose. The move by Gibbs and Rockwell was all about money talking and sadly, money and the power it is allowed to wield will be the dome of NASCAR and many race teams. Yes, diversity got a black eye but the killing blow came to the heart of a young, talented driver, who will forever have the mark of not being “good enough” to get the job done. This will come back to haunt JGR and Rockwell. Neither of them should sleep well for a long time to come.

Ed
06/25/2007 09:59 AM
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I got so tied up with the diversity bunk that I forgot about Almirola’s treatment. I agree with the rest. Pulling him from the car was bush league. I don’t think it was due to his ethnic background, however, and should not be viewed negatively from that standpoint. He shouldn’t have been kept in the car because of the “drive for diversity.” It is further confirmation that money drives everything and true sportsmanship and racing mean nothing.

Ed
06/25/2007 10:02 AM
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One other thing. Did anyone notice how quickly Rusty Wallace ran from his early criticism of taking the kid from the car to condoning it. NASCAR must have threatened him pretty good.

Steve Cosentino
06/25/2007 10:06 AM
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Ever here of Bill Lester? He drives in the truck series in case you didn’t know. He’s also tried for some races. According to your logic he should be exempt from the top 35 and just put him in cause he’s black. I bet you he would not agree with you. As for the race sat…What is wrong with you people? He was a fill in. And he knew it. That was his job for JGR. Whats so pathetic about this is that if he wasn’t in first at the time no one would of said anything. Do your homework next time and think before you want to give NASCAR a black eye. Do you know who the first black quarterback was to start a superbowl? And do you know what team he played for and who was the coach?

You really should stick to what you may know and thats racing. Not race.

Hank
06/25/2007 10:47 AM
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Wasn’t it Doug Williams with the Redskins coached by JOE GIBBS?? Ahh, yes it was!!! Do I get a cookie??

Randy R
06/25/2007 10:58 AM
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NASCARS Dirve for Diversity is a farce. The only reason they have the program is to keep the Poverty pimps like Jesse Jackson off their butt. If you are going to have a diversity program then have one and stop the crap. The situation with Almirola was the team made the decision. They did not have to take him out, they could have let him finish the race. “The team made the decision.” JD Gibbs should be ashamed of himself.

Brian France Sucks
06/25/2007 11:19 AM
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JGR and their so-called ethics were trumped by a bunch of white collar stooges. Rockwell wanted Denny Hamlin in the car, period. They got what they wanted. Almirola got the shaft. Just another example of sponsorship ruining NA$CAR. Don’t say this, look like this, mention sponsors at any/all opportunities, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH. And by the way, if you can drive the car, then you should have a ride. The stopwatch doesn’t know what ethnicity you are.

kyle
06/25/2007 12:06 PM
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drive for diversity is akin to affirmative action … both good theories on paper, but don’t amount to much in reality. what i mean is that it’s “nice” and “polite” and “the right thing to do” to push for diversity and ethnic varieties in the sport, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions! the drive won’t give NASCAR a black eye, but unfortunately becomes a mere punchline … just like the origin of JD Gibbs’ morals (can’t have the beer guy, but we’ll surely take your corporate money!) saying Aric is family to him should get JGR the backhanded compliment of the year!!!

checkeredpast1
06/25/2007 01:02 PM
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Unfortunately, NASCAR can’t do a thing about JGR’s and Rockwell’s decision to pull Amilrola from the 20 car.
Remember JGR is and independent contractor, by the rules and papers they signed on entry to the Busch series
JGR and Rockwell deserve all the derision and more for the money-grubbin move they made. Diversity program? Only if it means more money to NASCAR and JGR. The supposedly highly principled team and it’s stated “moral superiorit” over their competitors proved to be nothing by The Big Lie. OOwn up to it, boys. Quit telling the big lie and admit it. Amilrola can be quickly released, and probably will be for not showing up and smiling to everyone about this race he just “won” I expected more from the Gibbs organization, but they are just like the rest of them. No more prayers, Coach, just go out and roll over for another sponsor

Tom Bowles - FS
06/25/2007 02:05 PM
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Hey everyone,

Read all of your comments with great interest. I just want to make sure people aren’t missing the central point I’m making here.

When it comes to Almirola, of course pulling him came down to money. Rockwell paid for Hamlin, and that’s what Gibbs felt like they needed to deliver…so they sold their soul to the highest bidder. But the message DOES hit much deeper than that. The problem with the diversity project has always been this exact same type of scenario. Instead of owners and sponsors taking a chance on someone like Almirola, Bill Lester, development drivers like Chris Bristol – they’re content taking the money (or in a sponsor’s case, spending the money) on drivers that are already successful. Why bother to develop someone when you can make lots of money promoting Denny Hamlin? It’s everyone selling their soul to the highest bidder, and sponsors are looking only for drivers who have had previously succeeded or fit a “certain mold.”

With that concept, how is Almirola ever going to get his true chance? He’s clearly been told his pecking order at Gibbs through this horrible turn of events…no matter what, he’ll always be behind Stewart, Hamlin, and Yeley, and the money will always go to them first. If there’s any left over, maybe they’ll spend it on Almirola…but them trying to get Rockwell to go full-time with Almirola is a whole bunch of bull, in my opinion. Why would you pull a driver you’re trying to sell to a sponsor? It’s backpedaling from a difficult situation that proved impossible for Gibbs to put a positive face on…

That type of “doublespeak” was what was so confusing about Gibbs’ comments. They claim that diversity is a big part of their future, but Gibbs also claimed in his impromptu press conference that they would clearly not spend a ton of their own money to build that future. So, instead of taking a chance on a guy like Almirola, they’re just content using the sponsorship money for the drivers they have to ensure continued success. How is that building diversity? That’s saying “Oh, we’ll build this program if it’s convenient for us and if someone writes a check.” How is that taking the next step? How do you bring other drivers up through the ranks if you’re not willing to spend the cash to invest in their future?

The bottom line is that you build diversity from the ground up, not buy an established house (see : Montoya) or utilize the concept when it’s convenient. So it’s just a sad, sad thing for the sport how this whole thing with Almirola went down, because it was more than just money – it exposed some of the fraudulence behind the whole diversity concept, a concept that is preached but never truly practiced.

And for those claiming talent should have nothing to do with whether or not you get on the track, well there are a whole lot of talented drivers sitting on the sidelines right now whose careers are on hold BECAUSE of their race. You don’t hear of a lot from them…because they don’t get the chances and equipment opportunities several other drivers with a different pigment of skin do because they fit the “mold” of a certain sponsor. The subtle racism is there, and it’s still happening. Don’t be blindsided; sadly, this type of scenario still exists in the world we know today.

Hank
06/25/2007 02:06 PM
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It was the team’s plan to pull Aric as soon as Denny showed up anyway. Quit making a big deal out of it when it really isn’t.

McQuiston
06/25/2007 03:37 PM
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I’m going to make it a point to remember the name, Thomas Bowles. Next time I see it, a flag will go up that says, “Don’t read!”

I can’t imagine a writer using so many words to say so little about a totally uninmportant and irrelevant subject. More politically correct BS about diversity. We get enough of that in our liberal newspapers.

As if you believe what you write, you talk about a “scintillating” victory by Montoya.

It was a million-to-one lucky shot on fuel milage. Montoya will probably never win another race with Ganassi.

Thomas Bowles, you are a boring person who consistently misses the mark. Look for another day job.

Adios.

Barry
06/25/2007 04:51 PM
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JD Gibbs, in one stupid act, destroyed the reputation that his father spent a lifetime building. What a shame.

falcon325
06/25/2007 09:09 PM
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The damage that has been done to NA$CAR’s ill-conceived “Drive for Diversity” is that Rockwell Automation, a sponsor that was willing to accept a split-driver deal with a promising minority, is getting crucified. They were scheduled to have their “A” driver in the car at this race and they had the gall to ask for what they were paying for.

Amirola’s pout-fest has given Rockwell a black eye and has sent a blunt warning to sponsors to avoid him and DFD drivers in general at all cost. There’s too much of a sense of victimhood and entitlement and way too much baggage with that bunch.

Rockwell should take a look at Danny O’Quinn. He’s a better driver than this Amirola character and is more likely to appreciate the opportunity.

Marc
06/26/2007 06:40 PM
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Look at this people. The great drivers have all paid their dues on the short tracks, the lower tier series, and raced all their lives. Where in the heck are these diverse drivers supposed to come from? Go to your local short track. Where are the blacks, the Cubans, the Comancheros, whoever? They are not there. The laws of supply and demand would be a factor. If there was a demand, there would be a supply. If there was a supply, then the demand would come. Drive for Diversity and a pile of money keeps Jesse Jackson off NASCARS back. I say, “Go home, Jessie Jackson.”

Let the big dog eat.

 

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