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Fire on Fridays: NASCAR Needs to Reinvent Its Diversity Program

Kyle Larson. Daniel Suarez. Darrell Wallace Jr.

That’s it. And that’s a problem.

Other American sports don’t have this problem. Diversity shouldn’t be such a major issue in 2018. It should be our human instinct to not discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin, where they’re born or their gender.

But in a dystopian society, it’s the circumstances with which we have to deal.

NASCAR over the years has become an industry leader in diversity efforts, even creating a diversity program, but it’s just not enough. As a whole, the American motorsports realm still lacks a needed diversity.

It’s 2018, and we shouldn’t even be having this discussion. But NASCAR needs to continue the progress it has made over the years. Sure, three full-time diverse drivers is better than only having Juan Pablo Montoya a mere decade ago, but there is still work to be done, especially in NASCAR’s feeder series, which have at least 20 drivers that the sport considers to be diverse.

Victor Gonzalez Jr. is the only Hispanic driver other than Suarez to compete in the XFINITY Series this year. Besides Jennifer Jo Cobb, the only other female drivers to compete in NASCAR this year are Danica Patrick, Angela Ruch and Katherine Legge.

Meanwhile, no one born outside of North America has raced in the Camping World Truck Series this year.

Jesse Iwuji is the latest driver of color to make his national series debut, piloting a truck this weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. But other than Iwuji, no other diverse drivers are scheduled to make the jump anytime soon.

The fact that Iwuji’s even a story in that way is kind of sad, and he’s not the only one. Remember how many questions Wallace kept getting asked about the color of his skin when he signed with Richard Petty Motorsports? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why people are so fascinated that someone with a different background can do something they can — and arguably at the same, if not, a better level.

Why shouldn’t more of NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity drivers be rewarded for their skill set? Part of the problem might be that they are being marketed as someone who’s different off the track, but not the same or better on it. These are talented drivers, oftentimes more talented than the likes of Michael Annett or John Wes Townley (who retired after 2016), who bring money and sponsorship to their rides but often lack the results to back them up.

Currently, four Drive For Diversity drivers competing for Rev Racing in the K&N Pro Series East sit in the top seven in the standings. That’s exactly what NASCAR needs. It’s fantastic to see they are getting an opportunity. But others deserve a shot as well.

So, what needs to be done?

For starters, NASCAR needs to continue pushing its diversity program. It has really emphasized to team owners that a driver who isn’t white and fits in with all of the sport’s stereotypes can actually get the job done. It can be more marketable to sponsors to have someone who is “different,” if you would. It makes them stand out to sponsors, and it can attract a company that might have never thought about getting involved in NASCAR until it found someone that identifies with its brand.

Diversity is a beautiful thing, and NASCAR needs to show executives why it is just that.

The problem isn’t just one of skin color, though. When Patrick announced her retirement, there was an immediate void created, as there are zero female drivers for people to look up to in the sport’s premier division.

In a sport that enables men and women to participate on the same grounds, NASCAR needs to promote just that. Motorsports provides a unique opportunity for women to show they can beat men. It’s pretty cool. But it’s not being optimized like it needs to be.

A whole new generation of racers developed thanks to Patrick being such a force to be reckoned with in the sports marketing world. Her brand, as unique as it was, made it possible for people to follow her path.

Currently, NASCAR’s next female driver on the trajectory of making it to the Cup Series is someone it selected for its NASCAR Next program, Hailie Deegan. The 17-year-old shows on-track characteristics similar to predecessors Kenzie Ruston, Johanna Long, Nicole Behar and many others by consistently running in the top 10 and making the most out of her equipment. Through nine races, she has eight top 10s and sits fifth in the K&N Pro Series West standings.

But what makes Deegan different is her marketability. Her father, Brian Deegan, is one of the greatest to ever compete in motocross. And the relationships he developed have clearly helped his daughter follow her dream of becoming a racecar driver. She even has support from Cup Series title sponsor Monster Energy.

As long as she continues to build her own brand, she will more than likely be the next Patrick, and has the potential to run much better than the former IndyCar Series driver. Combining her brand with on-track success will land her a gig at a top-tier team. With a natural talent for stock car racing that is much stronger than Patrick had, she can produce results that might land her in the Hall of Fame one day.

There’s the likes of ARCA’s Natalie Decker and maybe even Venturini Motorsports teammate Toni Breidinger. But that’s about it in regards to potential female racers who can be the next face of the sport in the next five years.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bms5eKlnzm3/?taken-by=natalieracing

The two Venturini drivers are backed by partners that will continue to grow with them. Decker is sponsored by N29 Capital Partners, which is expected to back her as she moves up through the rankings. And each of their brands are supported by a strong social media presence, which can attract companies that might have never even heard of NASCAR.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BmuDSmil5Lp/?hl=en&taken-by=tonibreidinger

But none of these women are anywhere close to being Cup Series ready. The good news, though, is there are many women racers at short tracks across America who are a few right steps away from making it into NASCAR. That could mean a chunk of Cup drivers in the future will be women.

What’s NASCAR supposed to do until then, though? Besides waiting for them to make their way through the rankings, the sport needs to find a way to build their brands, make them the future of the sport, give them as many resources as possible.

These are talented drivers, and they deserve a chance. Not only will this help them succeed, it will also bring positive attention to a sport that so desperately needs it with ratings and attendance on the decline.

Imagine how many new fans would come to and watch races with drivers who they identify with. Sorry, but three drivers won’t change the demographics anytime soon.

While the Cup Series’ three main diverse drivers continue to succeed, there is now a path others can follow. That’s much better than it was a decade ago, when it seemed impossible for anyone who wasn’t a white man to compete in NASCAR.

And the path that NASCAR carved out for those who want to compete and know teams are reluctant because of their heritage is starting to work. The fact that a team with Richard Petty’s name on it has an African-American driver is crazy to even think about.

People can change, and that’s what NASCAR does best. It provides change for those who want it.

Let’s hope NASCAR continues to push team owners to hire those with talent — no matter what they look like — rather than just those with money. Because at the end of the day, racing is about winning. If a driver can get the job done, it shouldn’t matter if they’re different from you.

Different is good. It’s great, actually. And when other forms of racing, such as Formula 1 and even the IndyCar Series, have drivers from all around the world on weekly entry lists, something has to change.

Maybe, just maybe, someone will read this and consider hiring a graduate of NASCAR’s diversity program. It will surely be worth it.

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21 thoughts on “Fire on Fridays: NASCAR Needs to Reinvent Its Diversity Program”

  1. I guess your solution is to resurrect the “provisional” starting positions but instead of a past champions provisional we have slots based on all of the “diversity” criterion you spelled out. A Woman provisional, a Black provisional, a Hispanic provisional, a gay provisional, etc. Or better yet, lets weight the provisionals by representation in the population at large. 50% for Women, 13% for Blacks, 18% for Hispanics, we will need some double dippers to make the math work. In your fantasy world we could have a NASCAR that looks just like America!!!! Oh but wait, we want to be more like Formula One or Indy Car where we have drivers from all over the world but the math just got harder unless we can come up with that Gay, Chinese, Uyghur, Woman driver that checks a bunch of boxes.

    But what if, after all of that diversity on the starting grid, some white guy keeps winning all the time? What then? Oh, I guess it would be like Formula One where the Black British guy wins all the time.

    Bubba is one of my top 5 favorite drivers in any series, I just plain like the guy and I think he has a ton of talent. I know Jennifer Jo Cobb, she is a delightful person and a blast to hang out with in the pits. Jennifer Jo has more talent than the truck she drives but even with the best ride I personally think she is a mid pack talent at best. In the ARCA ranks, although she has a spotty finishing record, I think Natalie Decker looks promising. Lelani Munter, not so much. I haven’t seen enough of Toni Breidinger to form an opinion.

    Joseph,

    At some point in your life you are going to need to figure out that America is a meritocracy. Usually, but not always, the best driver in the best car wins. The reason that the best drivers are in the best cars is because they earned it. Joe Gibbs doesn’t have a “Whites Guys Only” sign on the door, it just turns out that most of the the best drivers, like most drivers overall, are plain ol’ white guys. He didn’t have a “Blacks Only” sign on the door at the Redskins but it turns out that most of the best players, like most players overall, are really big black guys. There are exceptions, The Danica had one of the primo rides in the sport and never did anything with it but she brought in money to help fund the rest of the guys that knew what they were doing.

    NASCAR is essentially having a 5 alarm fire and you want to stand at the door and check off the firefighters to make sure that their demographic representation is correct?

    • Qzark,
      You absolutely nailed it! Nobody is keeping any blacks, Hispanics, women, trannies, etc from racing. The sport does not need their version of affirmative action. If a “minority” has the talent then he will probably make it, and if he or she doesn’t it isn’t because of some make believe discrimination.

      And for the “author” your opening statement said “It should be our human instinct to not discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin, where they’re born or their gender.” Do you really think there are so few minorities because the owners in nascar are racist or sexist? You should be ashamed of yourself for writing such nonsense!!

      • I honestly feel that despite what the media says (trying to divide us for their monetary gain I might add) the large majority of the people in this country are accepting of anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, background etc. Nascar fans in particular. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that Bubba’s fan base has more to do with who he is and what kind of person he is, than the color of his skin. He also didn’t get his Cup ride because of it either.

        Sadly there will always be racists, bigots etc, but the highest levels of sports will always be about merit. Period. If you can do it well, make your team successful you will get “hired”. I’m not sure how having an “Affirmative Action” program just to please the SJW’s/PC among us, or to as someone said “check a box”, is going to do Nascar any favors.

        This article lost me when the assumption was made that everyone is somehow intolerant of diverse people and team owners being the conservatives that they are should stop being so intolerant and hire more minorities. That’s really quite sad. Just when I thought I could come to a Nascar website and get away from this crap. I guess not.

    • The problem is not that the majority of potential great drivers are white guys from America.

      The problem is that there’s still stigma that scares potential great drivers away from attempting to start their career on the local level. I’m sure a few women were turned away from racing by their parents or potential car owners simply because it’s not “lady-like”, or that it’s “only for boys”. Now that Patrick has shown the mainstream that, at the very least, women can race at stock car racing’s highest level, there’s been an explosion and now there are a lot more female drivers coming up through the ranks than there were before Patrick came into the sport.

      It’s the same reason why African American quarterbacks at the pro level were a rare thing until the last 10-15 years. It was because coaches at the high school level were either subconsciously racist (“He seems like he’d be better at running back, that way he can just run fast and doesn’t need to make too many decisions”) or outright racist.

  2. Diversity in NASCAR? It has little if anything to do with the drivers. The lone exception being that “Any Driver” that can bring Mega Bucks to the table can buy a ride. But really It’s the team owners that have to become diverse. Wealthy diverse individuals be they from whatever race, gender or nationality must invest in NASCAR on the same scale as current owners. Most likely these new owners will hire drivers that reflect their own diversity.

  3. The problem with “DIVERSITY” programs, “AFFIRMATIVE ACTION” and all the WELFARE programs is IT NEVER ENDS, IT IS NEVER ENOUGH…IT DIVIDES, and ultimately puts the bar LOWER! Mediocrity is the new GOLD STANDARD!. From college admissions to private and public jobs, the bar has been lowered to fill a BS quota regarding “diversity”! How many non diversity people more qualified were past over! Not sure how NASCAR handles that, and I don’t claim to know, but to even think along those lines is, well..something I don’t agree with at all. I have seen for years qualified people getting screwed for the sake of “diversity” and all the money it brings to those who fall in line with that mindset, once they accept those trappings, they are stuck and can never fire. Again, not saying this is NASCAR’s issue. I believe in merit based everything, but that is me. Tests have been so dumbed down, etc. It effects us all, you just don’t know it, or maybe you do!. I would think all of this would be insulting to someone who is considered in the “DIVERSITY” group. But no, oh no..the majority exploit it….IMO…lived it, watched it for years. It is in the fabric of our society that if you point out the obvious..YOU ARE A RACIST, etc. Not true, but this ingrained in the sheeple’s mind.

    • I share your sentiments kb. A quote from this article “It should be our human instinct to not discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin, where they’re born or their gender.” If a search is made to find a driver based upon color of their skin, sex, or their ethnicity, then that is discriminating on those who don’t fall into those categories.

  4. As a black dude(not american) thats watched NASCAR for almost 20 years, Johanna Long had superstar potential. I watched nationwide races just to pull for her. She was the anti-danica, not one of these Danica Patrick clones. Penske, Gibbs, Hendrick, Roush, not one of these big names owners would pick her up for their development programs. Apparently JR Motorsports was trying to get her a ride but they couldn’t get the sponsorship right. As many sponsors as Jr has, he couldn’t get one to sponsor her for one race? The fact that you can get to the xfinity series level as a female driver and NASCAR doesn’t step in to try to help keep you in the sport, maybe draft you into the diversity program, tells me that their priorties are all wrong. They’d rather promote their hand picked son of a 16 type driver. Not saying NASCAR should force drivers onto teams but they should have a marketing team that tries get sponsorship for young drivers so we don’t get excited about following a driver to cup series and then they’re gone.

    • Right on. Long outqualified Patrick and was roundly ignored by TV. Give her five fully-sponsored seasons, and she definitely wins something, somewhere. NASCAR didn’t step in for her because they didn’t care; they were on the front end of the short-term Danica gravy train, and thought it would always be that way.

      • (screwed up my name & a bunch of sentences trying to write that post way too late at night.. posted it when I woke up without checking)

  5. The biggest challenge with this effort, like everything in racing is $$$. It’s hard to get diversity when it costs so much to race even at the lowest levels. It’s not like stick and ball sports where you can go down to the local sporting goods store and get the equipment you need of the rack for a reasonable price. Just about every driver that makes it to the national series at least has parents that can afford some of that cost. If anything, NASCAR should structure its diversity program so that at least one driver a year gets paired up with sponsor and a quality Truck team. Unfortunately, these candidates rarely get fair shots in quality equipment. When they do, some have really shined (Bubba Wallace with KBM, Kyle Larson with Ganassi).

  6. The problem Danica had was that the money sponsors pushed her too fast in stock cars… something she had never driven… she should have stayed in Nationwide another year… would have probably won at least one race there and GAINED STOCK CAR RACING EXPERIENCE… but, the money sponsors wanted her in Cup for the larger exposure and she had no choice but to go there. She started to show some improvement, but mistakes in Crew Chiefs changes and the loss of a stupidly picked sponsor by SHR (not Danica) in Nature’s Bakery was the beginning of the end for her. That last year was a disaster as the cars were crap (even at tracks where she had done great before they were crap slow) and she got taken out in almost 1 out of every 3 races… in 90% of those it was caused by other driver’s wrecks.
    As for the women coming up, for the most part they are getting a lot of stock car racing experience, on different surfaces (even dirt), and that will make the difference when they get to the higher levels. Out of this next batch of women there will be a few that will win in NASCAR.

      • I felt exactly the opposite. Danica was a subpar driver that did not have the talent to warrant a ride on a top tier team. The only role she could fulfill satisfactorily was the sponsorship part. That is, until it became apparent that sponsors would not get the return on their investment (good finishes and representation in the playoffs). That is why she had sponsorship issues toward the end of her tenure.
        Funny how Amlrola has come in, gotten decent top ten finishes and is positioned to make the chase in his first year (something Danica couldn’t do in 5 years). Yes she did get rushed to the Cup series too quickly. She should have spent about 3 more years (at least) in Xfinity or better yet just stayed in Indy. She wasn’t the only Indy driver that tried to make the switch and failed but she certainly was the one that was given the longest time/chance to succeed.
        The best part of her not being around in the series anymore is not having to read comments that make excuses for her failure. The bottom line is she sucked in stock cars and she never seemed to improve. You can throw out all the lame excuses you want to deny that fact but the proof is in the stats; Almirola in one season vs. Danica in 5 seasons.

  7. This is hardly a “dystopian society,” Joseph Wolkin. There is probably no society in the history of mankind where more people get a free ride than the U.S. of the late 20th to 21st century. But at the highest level of sport and/or business, it is also a meritocracy, as Ozark_Lee pointed out. Talent, like water, seeks its own level.

  8. “…emphasized to team owners that a driver who isn’t white and fits in with all of the sport’s stereotypes…” Is a racist, demonizing statement in itself. All for diversity for sure, but it is meaningless unless it is earned as well. Danika will be missed; her racing credentials are stellar, they were earned, not “given”.(like Janet Guthry) NASCAR may not be as diverse as other sports, but it also isn’t as large by number of players participating in other sports. As one of the other contributors stated, it is a “meritocracy” – as it should be. Achievement means nothing unless it is earned by skill, effort and time, not given by a quota. I live in NYC where diversity is the norm. Maybe there should be more of whatever in NASCAR, but their resources are limited, bit at least they are explicit.

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