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Inside NASCAR’s Forever Race for Diversity

NASCAR is continuing to make inroads in its effort to diversify racing through programs and leveraging big-name minority talent.

Today, there are only three drivers from Black or minority backgrounds competing in The NASCAR Cup Series, the organization’s most prominent racing series. They are Bubba Wallace, who is Black, Aric Almirola (Cuban-American), and  Daniel Suárez (Mexican-American).

Even worse, the best minority drivers may have never even had the chance to prove themselves.

“The best race car drivers — NASCAR drivers in particular — are probably playing in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and MLS,” said NASCAR VP of Diversity & Inclusion Brandon Thompson in a Zoom interview. “That is probably because it was a place where people did not feel welcome and because of that there was a lack of exposure to the opportunities.”

NASCAR has continued trekking on its path for diversity on all levels, but it starts with increasing opportunities to potential drivers. One of the biggest challenges NASCAR faces isn’t even about its own wrongdoings. It has to do with money.

“Great auto racing is expensive for anyone. We have seen that it doesn’t matter what race you are or ethnicity, male or female, racing is an expensive sport,” Thompson said. “The challenges with Black and Brown communities and other underrepresented communities, whether it be LGBTQ or women, sometimes resources aren’t as readily available.” 

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The NASCAR executive explained that for a child who is interested in driving at an early age, there is no shortage of paths. Whether it be with go-karts, bandolero cars, late model vehicles, or even limited late model race cars, there are a number of choices. Unfortunately, all options have one thing in common: they are expensive.  According to gokartguide.com, a racing go-kart can sell from anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000, while a bandolero is around $7,000, and floracing.com says quarter midget race cars come in at a whopping $15,000.

For context, an Aspen Institute Survey in 2019 ranked ice hockey, skiing/snowboarding and field hockey as the top-three-most expensive sports, per child, per year. Ice hockey cost $2,582.74 per year, skiing/snowboarding came in at $2,248.84, and field hockey ended up at $2,124.62. Football, basketball, baseball and soccer were no more than $700 a piece. 

On The Drive

NASCAR knows that the pricey nature of its sport can turn families away fast. To help, the company has 11 different programs aimed at bringing people from all walks of life to racetracks. Those programs include the NASCAR diversity internship program, the NASCAR Rise Partnership, NASCAR Institute for Sports & Social Justice, and NASCAR’s partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. 

The oldest and arguably most successful — yet under-the-radar — program is its Drive for Diversity Program, which Wallace and Suarez both came through. Its mission statement reads: 

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program is an academy-style development program launched in 2004  for female and ethnically diverse drivers and pit crew members who have the potential and  determination to succeed at the highest levels of NASCAR.  

NASCAR finds drivers through combines hosted by Rev Racing, where individuals compete for spots to race in the ARCA Menards Series East and the ARCA Menards Showdown Series, NASCAR’s top developmental series. Outside of the drivers, there is also a pit crew development program that now has more than 55 graduates working in NASCAR and more than 25 at the Cup Series Level. 

The Rising Stars

Rajah Caruth waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series A-GAME 200 at Dover Motor Speedway (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

With drivers getting the bulk of the attention, NASCAR is searching for people who can get behind the wheel so that when diverse viewers are watching the sport, they can see someone who looks like them participating. 

A rising star in the program is Rajah Caruth. Caruth is currently a student at Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU in North Carolina. The sophomore, majoring in motorsports management, will race this weekend as part of the Coca-Cola 600. Caruth joined the program in 2018 and has since been on the fast track to the top, currently sitting in first place in the National ARCA Menard series. He drove a WSSU-themed car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

“I’m really excited to drive the Winston-Salem Rams race car this weekend at the General Tires 150,” Caruth told HBCU Gameday. “I mean, I have my school [on] my race car, and it being an HBCU, it means a lot. And I’m just really excited to get going.”

Outside of his skill, Caruth has buy-in from some people at NASCAR.

“There are two things that I think he has that has me bullish about his future,” said Pete Jung, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer. “He has a super positive attitude and he’s a go-getter. He’ll get his work in at the track, do media, work with sponsors, I think in the pipeline of diverse talent I would say he is one that I have the highest expectations for in the coming years to compete at the highest level.” 

NASCAR being able to find and develop Caruth stems from its relationship with HBCUs. The organization has traveled to a multitude of HBCUs to gauge interest from students as well as educate them on any misconceptions they have. And with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program beginning before many other sports leagues began theirs, often times they did not have to compete for attention as much as company representatives had to teach.

Brandon Thompson

Thompson, an HBCU grad himself from Clark Atlanta University, has seen this develop over time.

“We’ve had a longstanding history of recruiting at HBCUs, both for front office roles but also on the athletic side.,” Thompson said.

Outside of Caruth, HBCU grad Brehanna Daniels (Norfolk State University) became the first African American woman to go over the wall in a national racing series and the first Black woman to work in a pit crew in a national NASCAR race.

“That is very significant to us, we hold that with high esteem. It was a direct pipeline from our Drive for Diversity Program through Norfolk State that enabled her to have that opportunity,” Thompson said.

Those are just two examples of Black drivers on the come-up. But what about other young stars? Jung said NASCAR is looking for overseas answers.

“International expansion is a priority for the company. I would be very surprised if at some point this year NASCAR does not make an announcement of international expansion.” 

As for the up-and-coming drivers stateside, it is a slow grind to the top. Success on the track is essential, but it takes time. 

“It is tough because as the league or sanctioning body, it is not like NASCAR can go padding pockets of certain drivers or stuff like that because then it gets political,” Jung said. “What we can and are doing is really making sure that every opportunity, introduction, and everything that is going to make Rajah and so many others competitive, happens.”

Changing the Public Perception

For many years, NASCAR allowed the confederate flag to fly openly in its events. That changed when Wallace called for the organization to ban the symbol in 2020. Thompson, who has been in NASCAR for over 15 years, said he has seen his company legitimately try to change its perception since then.

“One of the things that I always point out is that had it not been for the effort that NASCAR put forth at the start of the new millennium, anything that happened in 2020 would not have been possible,” he said. “That foundation and recognition relatively early put us in position to have the breakout year as it relates to diversity and inclusion in 2020. I certainly think since Bubba stood up that there is an expectation now for NASCAR to show up in certain places and participate in certain conversations.”

Wallace is on NASCAR’s diversity board and told Boardroom earlier this year that he has seen change too.

“We’ve had those heart-to-heart talks and I told [NASCAR president Steve Phelps] with everything that is going on you can’t just come out and say we don’t stand for that. That ain’t gon’ fly. We have to put procedure in place and correct the people in place to execute these procedures and make sure that we are continuing to make this world of NASCAR a better place for everybody.” 

Still, NASCAR isn’t satisfied with where it is now.

“For Bubba at the Cup level to be the only Black driver, that’s not sufficient and we’re not shy about that,” Jung said. “I hope and expect that there are more people of color competing at the top level and I think [Rajah] is going to be there fairly soon.”

From the Top

NASCAR has made significant progress with diversifying its owners; the organization boasts more majority Black owners than the NFL, NBA and MLB combined. Additionally, those owners come with their own limelight, as each one of the figures, including Michael Jordan and Emmitt Smith, is a former athlete who is an all-time great in their sport. Rapper and Miami native Pitbull is also a co-owner.

“The bigger step with that is [it’s] more appealing and approachable to invest in a team,” Jung said. “We are working to make the business model from a team perspective more compelling. And that has attracted more new teams than we’ve seen in decades.”

Jung also said Jordan’s presence and others have turned more eyes and ears to NASCAR than ever before.

“Michael Jordan has had a profound impact on people’s perception. He’s obviously a very smart business person. Other people like Pitbull investing, candidly, I don’t think they would have ever placed investment in NASCAR five to 10 years ago.”

When Jordan originally bought the team back in 2020, his first statement was: “Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life. The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.”

According to rookieroad.com, it costs nearly $400,000 per week to own a NASCAR team over the course of a 38-week season. On average that is $15.2 million annually.

It remains to be seen exactly how far NASCAR can go to attract more diverse candidates to own its teams, drive its cars, be on teams, and work for the company. It’s made improvements, but the goal is never ending.

“We want the competition base and fan base to be reflective of the world and we are not there yet but we are making progress,” Jung said. 

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