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Up until recently, if you asked me to blurt out the first thing that came to mind when someone said “NASCAR,” I’d probably yell, “RICKY BOBBY!”

Shameful.

In confidence, I knew five sure things about NASCAR: fast cars (duh), Dale Earnhardt Jr., horrific crashes, Danica Patrick, and that historically, it’s been populated with non minority men.

So when Minorities in Sports — a professional group whose members are diverse influencers in sports business — invited me as one of their representatives for the NASCAR Diversity Opinion Leader Initiative (NOLI) — a program which builds and drives more awareness and participation in NASCAR — I could not refuse the opportunity.

Along with ‘MiS’ members Deontay Morris, Taunita Stephenson, Cecelia Townes, and few sports journalists, I spent last Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway learning about the sport’s programs, touring its pit and garages, visiting the control room, and viewing the NASCAR XFinity Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races.

 

 

(Moments from the NASCAR XFinity Series race)

NASCAR DIVERSITY & PROGRAMS

As mentioned before, it was my impression that most of the faces of the sport were non minority men. Fully aware of this perception and being a proactive change agent, NASCAR Diversity — which is managed by two women: Lauren Houston, Senior Account Executive; and Gloria Molina, Manager of Diversity — has fully committed itself to diversifying the sport through its programs: two of them are the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Drivers Program and NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program.

These programs assist women and minorities with the coaching and training necessary to advance further in the sport.

 

(L to R: Gloria Molina and Lauren Houston)

‘D4D’ has helped up-and-coming 20-year-old racing phenom, Madeline “Maddie” Crane, find success.

In 2016, she earned twelve top-10s (position placements) and two top-5s at NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series.

Crane, who was on-hand to reflect on her experience, does not take her representation in the sport lightly, and spends her “off-time” doing something around the track related to racing.

When asked about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry she said, “you just have to go out there and earn your respect and prove that you’re able to be out there just like everybody else.”

(Madeline “Maddy“ Crane)

Jim Cassidy, Senior Vice President of Racing Operations at NASCAR, who oversees multicultural development, met with us on our tour and emphasized just how important diversity is to the sport and to him personally.

“I dedicated a fair amount of time to it, and I want to continue to grow our driver base, and more recently, grow our crew member base. [I want to] provide opportunities outside of the obvious [becoming a driver].”

He also shared how NASCAR’s Diversity Internship Program may be a successful path for those who don’t become drivers and want to work in the sport.

“I wanted to be a driver growing up, and that didn’t happen. I’m so thankful for other many professional avenues to enter the sport of NASCAR. Some of the folks that worked with me came through our Diversity Internship Program and worked their way up into other areas. I think they’re well on their way to becoming well-based in the sport.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR

From its inception in 1948 by Founder Bill France Sr., NASCAR has been a family-owned and operated business and continues to hold that legacy after France’s grandson, Brian France, became the Chairman and CEO.

While the tradition of “keeping it in the family” remains true for most drivers, and father-son combos like Richard and Kyle Lee and Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. have been remarkable cases in the sport’s history, there’s a fresh crop of first generation drivers who are carving out their own lane.

Noah Gragson, an 18-year-old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver, who also enjoys downhill mountain biking in his spare time, is one of the sport’s future faces.

Gragson was open about the challenges of starting out as a “first-gen” racer, including how high the costs associated with driving can be (a single engine can start off at $100,000). He candidly joked that his supportive father once called his career the “most expensive mistake he’s ever made,” but is excited for his journey.

Despite being the first in his family to race, Gragson is thankful to have a mentor like driver, Kyle Busch, guiding him along the way.

(Noah Gragson)

Salvatore Iovino, another first-generation driver and future face of the sport, began his racing career with NHRA drag racing in 2012 and officially kicked-off his NASCAR debut at the Daytona 500 last year.

Iovino, who we met, has a young but impressive résumé racing in the the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. In 2016, he finished 18th out of 57 drivers and won the title of ‘K&N Pro Series West Most Popular Driver’ after only competing in 7 of 14 races. He shared that this is a serious business and that there’s an extreme dedication and professionalism required on and off the track to find success.

When Iovino isn’t racing, he and good friend and fellow NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji, volunteer their time speaking in local communities at youth-based organizations inspiring young people and aspiring racers to stay positive and committed to fulfilling their dreams.

(Minorities in Sports with Sal Iovino: L to R, Taunita Stephenson, Ceceilia Townes, Nicole Powell)

WENDELL SCOTT, NASCAR TRAILBLAZER

Wendell Scott was a NASCAR pioneer who broke the color barrier on March 4, 1961, by becoming the first African-American to be licensed as a NASCAR driver, and to this day, the only African-American to win a race in the sport’s top division (1964). The 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee paved the way for many drivers like Bill Lester and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.

Scott’s legacy was honored with a decal on every stock car at Atlanta Motor Speedway the weekend of the NOLI.

NASCAR IS FOR BALLERS, TOO

Athletes love the thrill of competition no matter the sport, and that holds especially true for Dion “Rocko” Williams.

Williams, a front tire carrier at NASCAR, formerly for Hendrick Motor Sports, is a 12-year veteran who oversees every aspect of the front-end of a stock car.

The former college football player at Wake Forest University turned to NASCAR on a whim after having his NFL aspirations dashed, and found great success in the sport.

Williams holds the distinct honor of being the first African-American to ever wear a fire suit [protective suit] for Hendrick Motor Sports and to work for the iconic Jeff Gordon — one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest racers of all time.

He is also the first to serve on a winning crew at the Monster Energy Cup.

 

(Dion “Rocko” Williams)

I asked Williams his feelings on being a barrier-breaker in the sport.

“Seeing how the amount of people of color and even athletes has risen [at NASCAR] and knowing that you had a part of that is rewarding,” Williams reflected.

He added, “Wendell Scott paved the way. He created an opportunity and he gave you something to shoot for and aspire to. The things he had to overcome, and the risks he had to take to open that door, and bridge that gap, were monumental. Guys like him are the reason why we’re able to do what we’re doing.”

(A pit crew team working on a vehicle)

SPEAKING OF BALLERS

Retired NBA Champion Shawn Marion was a surprising site to see cavalierly roaming the grounds at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and is just an example of how broad the sport’s audience is.

 

“The Matrix,” as he is known in NBA circles, gave the group several minutes of his time to explain what brought him out to the raceway.

 

THE FINAL LAP

As the experience drew nearer to crossing the proverbial checkered flag, I walked away feeling overwhelmed by the appreciation and respect I gained for the sport.

Sometimes all it takes is a little exposure to something outside of your comfort zone to open you up to your next exciting hobby or passion, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to NASCAR Diversity and Minorities in Sports for the opportunity.

Photos/Images: NASCAR Diversity, Minorities in Sports, The Sportstyle, Taunita Stephenson