3:00pm

Sat February 15, 2014
Code Switch

Drive For Diversity, NASCAR's Commitment To Race

Originally published on Sat February 15, 2014 7:18 pm

On Sunday, the K&N Pro Series East begins down in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. And if the track and pit look a little more diverse than they have in the past, that's in part because of a NASCAR program designed to entice different communities to try out the sport.

Market research says NASCAR's bread-and-butter fan base is about 60 percent male and 80 percent white, mostly from the Southern and Midwestern states. But as the country continues to become even more diverse, the sport is working to make sure its fan base is, too.

That's a challenge.

Last year, Arsenio Hall captured NASCAR's dilemma while making it his punch line with references to racial profiling and NASCAR's traditional homogeneity. He joked that Darrell Wallace, the first black NASCAR driver to win a series in 50 years, "actually would've won by a wider margin, except the police pulled him over three times."

And in the past, NASCAR hasn't always been considered welcoming for ethnic folks, especially black ones. An incident from two years ago, when first lady Michelle Obama was booed by some in the crowd during her visit to a Florida track, still remains a sore spot for many black folks.

Max Siegel is a former sports and entertainment attorney who saw an untapped opportunity in NASCAR. He came to the organization from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s race shop where he'd been head of global operations.

Siegel saw a chance to increase the sport's fan base by getting women and people of color interested in racing through a NASCAR program called Drive for Diversity. And he quickly identified where he needed to focus his efforts.

"What we found is the biggest barrier in diversifying the audience is the perception," says Siegel.

So Siegel went on the road, speaking to church, school and civic groups to tell them about Drive for Diversity. And, drawing on his entertainment experience, he built another potent weapon:

"I created a reality show with BET called Changing Lanes, and we were trying to find the next woman or minority driver," says Siegel. "And that was one effort to start to educate a broad community about what goes into racing and the sport."

Think Survivor meets Big Brother at dangerously high speeds with plenty of high-octane fuel.

A few years ago, Siegel left NASCAR to found his own shop, Revolution Racing, in Concord, N.C. That made him the first and only African-American president of a NASCAR franchise. His mission: to find new drivers and fans.

Down the hall from Siegel's office at Rev Racing, two of his drivers are getting ready for the season. Daniel Suarez, 22, joined Drive for Diversity's Class of 2013, after having raced for years in Mexico. He's excited that corporate sponsors are excited about them, since corporate underwriting is essential.

"This year, 2014 , we've got 16 races, and we've got three or four sponsors for every race," says Suarez.

Devon Amos is also 22 and part of the Class of '13. The young African-American grew up in Rio Rancho, N.M., and first became intrigued with NASCAR because of a cartoon.

"I remember — I think I was 9 or 10 — the show that really got my interest in NASCAR was NASCAR Racers," says Amos. "And it was not realistic or anything — I mean, they were going upside down, doing loops with jet boosters — and I thought, 'Man, that's so cool, I want to do it some day.' "

And like Suarez, he started with go carts and worked his way up.

Siegel says he's proud of Drive for Diversity's record so far, and Rev Racing's role in it.

"We've been able to place about 26 women and people of color throughout the NASCAR ranks in the pit crew side of things," he says.

So the track and the pit crew are both diversifying. But as for spectators, that's taking longer.

Introducing the 2014 Drive for Diversity class, NASCAR spokesman Marcus Jadotte said the drivers have their eye on the ultimate prize.

"The multi-ethnic, diverse group of drivers we introduced today as part of the Drive for Diversity Program, we believe represents the face of what NASCAR can become," he said.

And that more diverse face, Jadotte says, will be the key to growing and broadening NASCAR's fan base.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And on a different sports front, if it's almost spring, it's time for NASCAR. Tomorrow, the K&N Pro Series East begins in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. And if the track and pit look a little more diverse this season, that's because of a NASCAR program designed to entice different communities to the sport. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates explains.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Market research says NASCAR's bread-and-butter fan base is about 60 percent male and 80 percent white, largely from the Southern and Midwestern states. But as the country continues to become more diverse, the sport's working to make sure its fan base is, too, and that can be a challenge.

ARSENIO HALL: And finally, in sports news, congratulations to Darrell Wallace Jr. who became the first black NASCAR driver ever to win a national series race in, like, 50 years, I believe, the number was. And he actually would have won by a wider margin, but the police pulled him over three times during the race, unfortunately.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Last year, Arsenio Hall captured NASCAR's dilemma while making it his punch line. Black race car drivers are still awfully rare. And in the past, NASCAR hasn't always been considered user-friendly for ethnic folks, especially black ones. The reception Michelle Obama got two years ago when she visited a Florida track to support veterans remains a sore point for many black folks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden.

BATES: Max Siegel is a sports and entertainment attorney who saw an untapped opportunity in NASCAR. He came to the organization from Dale Earnhardt Junior's race shop where he'd been the head of global operations. Siegel, who's African-American, saw the chance to increase NASCAR's audiences by getting more women and people of color interested in the sport. He thought that could happen through a program NASCAR developed called Drive for Diversity.

MAX SIEGEL: What we found is the biggest barrier to diversifying the audience is the perception.

BATES: So Siegel went on the road, speaking to church, school and civic groups to tell them about Drive for Diversity. And drawing on his entertainment experience, he did this.

SIEGEL: I created a TV show. It was a reality show with BET called "Changing Lanes," and we were trying to find the next woman or minority driver. And that was one effort to start to educate a broad community about what goes into racing and the sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) All I do is win, win, win no matter what.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's an adrenalin-fueled rush, a national phenomenon. It's NASCAR.

BATES: It's "Survivor" meets "Big Brother" at dangerously high speeds with plenty of high-octane fuel. A few years ago, Siegel left NASCAR to found his own shop, Revolution Racing, in Concord, North Carolina. That made him the first and only African-American president of a NASCAR franchise. His mission: to find new fans and drivers through Drive for Diversity.

Down the hall from Siegel's office at Rev Racing, two of his drivers are getting ready for the season. Twenty-two-year-old Daniel Suarez joined D for D's class of 2013 after having have raced for years in Mexico. He's excited that corporate sponsors are excited about them since corporate underwriting is essential.

DANIEL SUAREZ: This year, 2014, we've got 16 races, and we've got, like, three or four different sponsors for every race.

BATES: Devon Amos is also 22 and part of the class of '13. The young African-American grew up in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and first became intrigued with NASCAR as a cartoon.

DEVON AMOS: I remember - I think I was 9 or 10 - the show that really got my interest in NASCAR was the show called "NASCAR Racers."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) NASCAR racers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Extreme machine.

AMOS: And it was not realistic or anything. I mean, they were going upside down, these big loops and jet boosters and stuff like that, and I thought, man, that's so cool. I want to do it someday.

BATES: And like Daniel Suarez, he started with go-carts and worked his way up. Max Siegel is proud of Drive for Diversity's record so far and Rev Racing's role in it.

SIEGEL: We've been able to place about 26 women and people of color throughout the NASCAR ranks in the pit crew side of things.

BATES: So the track is diversifying and so is the pit crew. Spectators, that's taking longer. On the day he introduced the 2014 D for D class, NASCAR spokesman Marcus Jadotte says they have their eye on the ultimate prize.

MARCUS JADOTTE: The multi-ethnic, diverse group of drivers that we introduced today as a part of the Drive for Diversity program, we believe, represent the face of what NASCAR can become.

BATES: And that more diverse face, he says, will be key to growing NASCAR's ethnic fan base. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: