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Side by Side: Is NASCAR Doing Enough For Diversity?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side By Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Are the new accounts of racial and gender discrimination that have surfaced proof NASCAR needs to take action? Or is NASCAR doing all it can as far as the issue of diversity is concerned?

NASCAR Is Lagging When It Comes To Diversity

Boom! The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced in the Motor City, news of former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant, a black female, and her $225 million discrimination lawsuit against NASCAR was the talk of garage. So serious and grave were the accusations in the suit that not only did two Nationwide Series officials named in the suit get sent home on suspension, but Brian France decided to meet with the media to address the issue.

At an initial glance, one (myself included) is led to the impression that NASCAR is ready to face the music and begin an investigation, followed by sweeping changes to the enforcement of behavior by its employees. At that press conference, though, France immediately called into question the credibility of the lawsuit, though his reservations did make sense given the order of events that preceded Grant’s lawsuit.

In the days since, what has NASCAR done to remedy archaic behavior and a potential public relations disaster? Not much. After the public became aware of Grant’s claims (such as kidnapping threats from a crew member, racially sensitive and discriminatory language from coworkers, and appealing to deaf ears in management before being fired), the story sat still for a month and a half. There were no reports of employment terminations, rule changes, amendments to hiring guidelines- nothing. Instead, NASCAR remained quiet, only interrupting its silence to claim that Grant should have made formal complaints before attacking the sport’s wallet.

After about 90 days of near dormancy on the airwaves, new light dawned on the story, but not in favor of Grant, as news of a previous restraining order and DWI became public. These details further wounded Grant’s credibility and seemed as if they would precede a likely out-of-court settlement, stopping the bleeding on NASCAR’s dirty little secret.

Instead, ESPN decided to air a timely report on Sunday’s Outside the Lines, not only reacquainting the public with Grant’s claims, but compounding them with more accusations of discrimination and racial insensitivity from minority crew members as well as claims of sexual harassment from a former white female NASCAR employee. In total, the report featured four people with discriminatory claims against the sport and an unannounced number of people in the sport with the same claims, who wished to remain unnamed.

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The emergence of this new evidence suddenly makes Grant’s case much stronger and further pressures NASCAR to act to remedy this problem. This task is not easy and will not be as the months and years progress. As several in the sport have said, including Grant, complaints have fallen on deaf ears to superiors who reinforce the “good ol’ boy” system that has been in place since the sport’s beginning.

Though no excuse for racism or derogation, NASCAR was a different sport with different people at a different time when it began. Now, not only are there drivers from other countries competing in the sport, but there are people of many races and both genders working for NASCAR and its teams. If NASCAR wants to succeed and have the mass appeal that France claims it does, then the environment for all fans and all employees must be comfortable.

NASCAR cannot govern fans’ attitudes toward change and diversity, but it can control the actions of people in the garage. Every employee whose name has even lightly been mentioned should be evaluated and decisions should be made on whether or not they should retain their jobs. Every employee that has lodged a complaint should be able to receive the justice they deserve. NASCAR should also do more to beef up its Drive for Diversity program, a venture that still has failed to land a full-time Cup driver since its inception several years ago.

An insider who spends a lot of time in the NASCAR garages spoke to me in July after I asked him about his thoughts on the Grant lawsuit. He easily could be mistaken for a “good ol’ boy,” but told me that based on his garage experience, he was not at all surprised with the allegations in the suit. He said that Juan Pablo Montoya’s grand entrance into the sport satisfied NASCAR to the point of complacence toward its Drive for Diversity. The sport now had its token superstar minority driver driving for a competitive team with big-time sponsorship and winning races. Why waste time with the riff raff?

There is still a long way to go, concerning the number of female and minority drivers in the sport. In recent years, female drivers Erin Crocker, Shawna Robinson, Tammy Jo Kirk, Kim Crosby, Kelly Sutton and Tina Gordon have all tried their hand at the sport, with only Robinson getting any Cup starts and Crocker the only one with major sponsorship backing. Chrissy Wallace, daughter of Mike Wallace, is the next female driver on the NASCAR horizon, making a handful of Truck Series starts this year. 22-year-old Michelle Theriault has also started a truck race this year and has run in ARCA.

In 2006, Bill Lester made international headlines by making his Cup debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was the first black driver since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 to compete at that level. Lester has been out of a truck ride since the middle of last season. 18-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver Marc Davis currently races in the Camping World East Series and plans to run truck and Nationwide Series races in the near future. Rusty Wallace Incorporated driver Chase Austin was scheduled to make Nationwide Series starts this season, but those plans were rolled back, because sponsor Atreus Homes enjoyed the exposure it was getting with driver David Stremme behind the wheel.

Sam Belnavis, Max Siegel and recently Randy Moss have held executive or ownership positions in the sport and have had some success. Only time will tell how far Moss and Siegel will be able to lead their teams with limited sponsorship backing.

NASCAR needs to begin now to turn the tide against the resistance to diversity that currently exists in the garage. Unfortunately, if tradition remains in place, NASCAR brass will work hard to make this issue go to rest, quelling yet another problem that needs to be addressed. – Doug Turnbull

NASCAR’s Diversity Efforts More Than Adequate, Reported

In a recent interview on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Antonio Morrison, a crew member on the No. 59 Nationwide Series team, concluded that NASCAR will always be a “good ol’ boy sport.”

Mr. Morrison, how you can work in the NASCAR garage and in the racing industry in general and make that statement honestly blows my mind.

NASCAR has gone from a gang of moonshine running “good ol’ boys” to a professional sport. From a regional spectacle to a national pastime. From a subculture to a multi-million dollar industry. It is a truly professional entity, with a fanbase that stretches across both state and international borders, featuring drivers and business people from around the world. For better or worse, NASCAR is no longer a “good ol’ boy” sport.

In fact, the body of persons that make up NASCAR today is, to the letter of the definition, diverse. That’s right, I’ll say it again. NASCAR is diverse.

Take a look at the entry list from the Coca-Cola 600 weekend in May. The race, held in Charlotte, the heart of NASCAR’s past, fielded not 43 drivers from the Southeast, but drivers from Enumclaw, Wash., to Cato, N.Y. From Unadilla, Ga., to Las Vegas, Nev. Don’t forget to include the drivers from foreign countries Canada and Colombia. And that’s just the driver roster.

Let’s not forget the thousands of people, male, female, black, white and everywhere in between that worked with the sanctioning body, Lowe’s Motor Speedway and with the countless hospitality crews that made the Coca-Cola 600 the event it was. Can’t forget the fans either. The crowd of tens of thousands present was no longer just the “many rednecks” that Antonio Morrison referred to as the fanbase of NASCAR in his OTL interview, but instead one composed of fans from numerous countries, countless occupations and a wide swath of socio-economic backgrounds.

Geographic diversity. Socio-economic diversity. Sponsor diversity and the related demographic diversity that accompanies it. NASCAR has all of these things, but for some odd reason they all get overlooked. Like collegiate universities and businesses across the country, NASCAR is being held to one standard of diversity and one standard only… racial diversity.

On this front, NASCAR has taken admirable strides to open doors for minority participation in the sport. NASCAR offers extensive internship opportunities that are available only to minority students. NASCAR’s employment website and related documents go out of their way to establish a sense of welcoming and desire for minority applicants. Most notably, the Drive for Diversity program has given minorities an invaluable opportunity to get into competitive racecars and get on-track experience. Prospects including Aric Almirola, Davis and Jesus Hernandez all largely owe their full-time rides in the sport to NASCAR’s outreach efforts.

Unfortunately, again, these efforts don’t seem to matter much to media outlets such as OTL. Rather than inquiring as to these efforts, slanted, leading questions are being asked of NASCAR, such as why there isn’t more than one minority or female driver full-time on the NASCAR circuit.

What OTL didn’t mention was how many minority and female full-time drivers there have been in recent memory that flat haven’t cut it on the track. They didn’t mention Crocker, who had the full-backing of Dodge’s flagship Gillett Evernham Motorsports organization and still tanked in the Truck Series. Or Hideo Fukuyama, whose limited forays into Cup were for lack of a better word pathetic. Or Shigeaki Hattori, who despite driving for the powerhouse Germain Racing truck team did nothing but wreck almost everything he drove. Or Lester, who in his time drove for some of the Craftsman Truck Series’ premier teams in Bobby Hamilton Racing, Bill Davis Racing and Billy Ballew Motorsports and yet posted only two top fives in 142 starts. Or Deborah Renshaw, who was an accident waiting to happen in her last full-time Truck Series campaign. This is a performance-based industry, and it’s not possible for any team, or NASCAR itself for that matter, to pick a pretty girl or a charismatic black driver, throw them in a car and be done with it.

Another omission by OTL is that the sport of stock car racing is, by its very nature, among the most open for participation by anyone, minority or not, in that it’s not franchised! If someone wants to start a team, they can start one, show up at the track and, provided they pass tech, compete with the big boys. In just the last few months NASCAR has seen minority owners in Brad Daugherty and Randy Moss pop up, owners that have both expressed long-term commitment to the sport. How ironic that NASCAR now has more minority ownership than the NFL, and yet they’re the ones catching flak.

Unfortunately for NASCAR, they have been snakebitten by the Mauricia Grant lawsuit and OTL’s reckless foray into a sport they seldom cover and, as evidenced by their naivety in questioning, do not comprehend. It doesn’t matter that NASCAR within a short timeframe suspended several employees for possible involvement in incidents claimed by Grant. All of NASCAR’s efforts to diversify, all of NASCAR’s current diversity, all of the failures of minorities and females that got their chance in NASCAR and failed have gotten swept under the rug because of the unsubstantiated, over-monetized (and two years dated) claims of an apparently disgruntled former employee with a less than sterile past.

NASCAR has been swept into a furor of guilty until proven innocent. I shouldn’t have to say this, but NASCAR is innocent until proven guilty. And given their track record with regards to opening doors and encouraging diversity, it in my eyes at least will take more than a suspect plaintiff throwing the “n” word and “penis” around to convince me that NASCAR is at fault here. Should it be determined that the individuals named by Grant harassed her, they deserve to be fired and publicly humiliated for their actions. But even if what Grant says is true, it’s not proof positive that NASCAR isn’t doing enough.

Because if NASCAR was still a “good ol’ boy sport,” Grant never would have been an official in the first place. – Bryan Davis Keith

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