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Thompson in Turn 5: Diversity the Road to NASCAR’s Future Growth

Growth is the primary goal for any American enterprise, and NASCAR is the epitome of an American business. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that, when you look at this year’s TV ratings, NASCAR’s popularity has not grown one bit… if anything, it’s actually declined. Ratings are down in all but two races this season, and it appears fans are looking for some new energy to rejeuvenate their interest in the sport. As the powers that be convene in Daytona during the offseason to discuss where that interest might affect them… they may simply discover they need to look around and start seeing the outside world. NASCAR’s future growth, it seems, will depend greatly on further acceptance by diverse groups of Americans on a nationwide scale as NASCAR moves further and further away from its deep Southern roots.

That’s not to say the sport isn’t trying already to become more of a national sport. However, despite ongoing efforts by not only NASCAR, but also individual teams to broaden their fanbase and increase sponsorship opportunities, progress in attracting more support from the African-American and Hispanic communities is moving along at a slow pace. These two ethnic groups represent a largely untapped and profitable market, with each group currently representing approximately 13% of all Americans. Growth predictions over the next 40 years indicate that these two groups will account for more than one-third of the total population, with the majority of this growth predicted to come from those of Hispanic heritage.

Because of that, it should be apparent even to the casual NASCAR observer that there has been a noticeable increase in participation of minority celebrities, largely during pre-race activities. These personalities span the entertainment world, ranging from Mexican-American comedian/actor Cheech Marin to African-American athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Trotted out in front of the television cameras not because of their involvement or knowledge of stock car racing, NASCAR has these men and women appear in hopes that their star power will attract interest from their ethnic groups, sending a message to non-white viewers a message that they too are welcome to become involved in the sport. That’s important because to date, NASCAR has provided little for women or racial minorities to self-identify with.

Though NASCAR has grown at a tremendous rate in the last decade and a half, its growth has not come as a result of any measurable support by minority groups. The sport, and the sanctioning organization itself, is and has been essentially white. This is not to say that minorities are not presently participating in race events as employees of NASCAR or individual race teams; they just have rarely been visible in the more high-profile positions, such as drivers and crewmen. And though there certainly are fans that are part of this racial minority, these race fans comprise a very small percentage of their ethnic group.

Over the year, NASCAR has been subjected to tremendous criticism for this problem… but that’s unfair. Historically, NASCAR has not overtly discouraged or excluded participation by minorities, nor are they the only sport that is made up of predominately white participants. Over the years, white athletes have dominated almost exclusively such sports as the NHL, tennis and golf. However, while these sports have diversified themselves through the years, the numbers do indicate that NASCAR lags well behind in the percentage of minority participants.

There is no avoiding NASCAR’s Southern heritage, established at a time when racial segregation was still a generally accepted part of life in that part of the country. However, today’s sport, and the South as well, have moved well beyond those days. Any suggestion that NASCAR is less than sincere in its desire to draw minorities into all facets of the sport, ranging from fans to drivers, would be based on an erroneous understanding of what big-time stock car racing has become. Not only is NASCAR the preeminent motorsports organization in the nation, it is also striving to compete with the nation’s leading sport, the NFL. Common sense dictates that NASCAR management understands that such lofty goals cannot be achieved with one-third or more of the population feeling they have no real connection to the sport.

Of course, when you talk of minorities trying to find their place in NASCAR, you also can’t ignore the lack of women, either. Few female drivers (18) have competed in NASCAR’s top series during its 56-year history, and none have participated in the last four years. NASCAR has still done an admirable job of being able to market the sport to women, who represent a high percentage of the fanbase, unlike some of the other minorities mentioned above. However, the impact that a successful female driver would have on the sport is almost unfathomable. When one stops to consider the media hype that has surrounded Indy Racing League competitor Danica Patrick and her 15 career top-10 finishes, it is reasonable to suggest that if a female driver came along capable of winning the Daytona 500 or qualifying for a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship, the ramifications would be very big for NASCAR.

In fact, the attention that Patrick brought to the IRL, a racing organization with a considerably smaller following than NASCAR enjoys, may be the best known indicator of how success by women or minorities at the Cup level could advance the sport. For a few days in May of 2005 it was all Danica, all the time. The interest in her performance at Indianapolis became the leading water cooler conversation for both race and non-race fans alike. Forget the NHL, the NBA and Major League Baseball, all active during that time period… Danica’s success translated into record television ratings for the Indy 500 and has resulted in a noticeable increase in attendance for the IRL.

Knowledgeable of that success, NASCAR is trying to do its part to catch up. Now in its third year, the NASCAR endorsed Drive for Diversity Program is designed to give opportunities to young minorities and females to gain valuable experience racing in lower division stock car organizations. Eight drivers per year are selected for participation in the program, some of whom are now starting to make inroads into higher levels of competition. This program, co-sponsored by some of the most prominent owners in Nextel Cup, also provides opportunities to deserving young people in other team positions within the race shops. Although success of this program cannot be measured for several more years, NASCAR’s efforts are to be commended, even though they haven’t yet produced the star drivers they’re looking for.

Other positive events have been developing in the area of diversity as well. Most notable among them is the recent news that Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, the immensely successful open-wheel driver, will race his first stock car race this coming Friday at Talladega Superspeedway in a ARCA Re/Max Series event for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. The race team had previously announced that Montoya would race a full Nextel Cup schedule in 2007. The popular driver may serve to spark interest in NASCAR racing amongst not only open-wheel fans, but also Hispanics as his career develops as hoped at the high profile Cup level.

Additionally, Craftsman Truck Series driver Bill Lester, the only African-American driver competing full-time in NASCAR has indicated that he may, sponsorship-permitting, attempt to race more frequently in the Nextel Cup Series. Lester has yet to consistently post outstanding results in NASCAR, but has the background and personality desirable to promote and serve as an inspiration to other African-Americans that might aspire to eventually participate at the Cup level. With future on-track success, Lester could unwittingly become one of NASCAR’s most valuable assets.

Regardless of Lester’s or Montoya’s success or failure, minority growth should continue to some extent with slick Madison Avenue generated advertising campaigns and expansion into virgin geographical areas of the country. But there will be no dramatic jumps in television ratings or track attendance until the large African-American and Hispanic population in this country feels comfortable enough with the sport to invest their time and money in it. Drivers need to seem familiar and similar to the person next door or the fellow down the street. Maybe like Dad or a favorite cousin, something that indicates to the spectator that they belong in the stands and in front of the television screen. Right now, NASCAR doesn’t have that.

So, diversity will continue at a slow pace… but, be patient, for it will continue. It’s where NASCAR understands it needs to go.

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