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  • Dion "Rocko" Williams, the rear-tire carrier for Hendrick Motorsports, is one of just a handful of African Americans working today in NASCAR's pit crews. (Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
  • Courtesy photo

    Wendell Scott broke the color barrier to become the first African-American driver to compete in NASCAR’s premier series. Scott made his first start in NASCAR’s premier series on March 4, 1961, in Spartanburg, S.C. Two years later he became the first African-American to win a Cup event when he captured the checkered flag in Jacksonville, Fla.
Sunday, April 24, 2011

NASCAR’s other race: Minority inclusion

In the 50 years since Wendell Scott broke the color barrier to become the first African-American driver to compete in NASCAR’s premier series, the sport has spun its wheels in an effort to achieve racial inclusiveness.

Despite its largely symbolic Drive for Diversity program for women and minorities, NASCAR officials have had to defuse several potentially explosive racial incidents. For example, Nationwide Series crew chief Bryan Berry was suspended in 2009 for hurling racial slurs at Marc Davis, the only black driver to compete in any NASCAR event the past three years.

Like former open-wheel driver Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester before him, Davis has been unsuccessful in his efforts to find another NASCAR ride. Aric Almirola is the only full-time minority driver in any of three series – including Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series.

Mauricia Grant, who is black, filed a $225 million lawsuit that accused NASCAR officials of racial and sexual discrimination prior to her termination in 2007. In the lawsuit, she alleged she often was told she worked on “colored people time” and was frightened by an official who made references to the Ku Klux Klan.

Ultimately, NASCAR reached a confidential settlement with Grant in December 2008.

Danica Patrick is the only woman to have gained any traction, mostly because she’s a part-time employee of NASCAR’s most-popular figure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. In contrast, four women – Patrick, Ana Beatriz, Simona de Silvestro and Sarah Fisher – qualified for the 2010 Indianapolis 500. A fifth, Milka Duno, attempted to qualify but failed.

Some NASCAR officials are quick to cast Juan Pablo Montoya as a minority. But the Colombian entered the Sprint Cup Series with loads of cachet – including an Indianapolis 500 victory in 2000 and the 1999 Championship Auto Racing Teams championship.

The University of Mississippi banished the confederate flag from athletic events in 1997 to conform with constraints of political correctness. NASCAR officials seemingly are hesitant to discourage the presence of such hateful symbolism, in part, because such a stance could potentially create an ideological conflict with a vast number of stock car fans.

In Richmond, the preeminent short track in the country is surrounded by predominantly black neighborhoods. While confederate flags are banned inside Richmond International Raceway – site of next week’s Sprint Cup event, the Crown Royal presents the Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400 – they are proudly displayed on haulers and pickups along a two-mile stretch of nearby highway that is dotted with minority businesses and homes.

In truth, confederate flags and NASCAR are joined at the bumper. And CEO Brian France wonders why minority recruitment is often characterized as a token gesture of racial inclusion. Clearly, the Drive for Diversity program is stuck in neutral.

Still, NASCAR is took a giant leap forward by recognizing the 50th anniversary of Scott’s Cup debut during the March 6 Kobalt Tools 400 weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

All the cars competing in the Cup and Nationwide events displayed a commemorative decal bearing Scott’s image. Scott made his first start in NASCAR’s premier series on March 4, 1961, in Spartanburg, S.C. Two years later he became the first African-American to win a Cup event when he captured the checkered flag in Jacksonville, Fla.

“Knowing that every car in both national series will roll onto the track this weekend with a decal honoring our dad makes me smile and makes me proud,” Deborah Scott said in a statement heading into the event.

NASCAR officials can’t possibly be proud of the fact they’ve made little inroads in attracting minorities and women in the past half century. The 43-car field for the Vegas Cup race didn’t have a single minority driver – an appalling reality for a sport struggling to shrug off a troublesome image of being racially divisive.

“Drive for Diversity, and the young men and women who are benefitting from it today, owe much to Wendell Scott,” said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR’s managing director of public affairs. “Wendell was a racing trailblazer who opened the door for people like Ryan Gifford and Michael Cherry, and it’s an honor to be able to celebrate this anniversary in such a special way.”

In 2010, Cherry became the first African-American to win a NASCAR-sanctioned event when he won at Tri-County Speedway in Hudson, N.C. Gifford became the first African-American driver in NASCAR K&N Pro Series history to win a pole.

Inexplicably, NASCAR has fared better in grooming minorities for management positions. Brad Daugherty, a former NBA star, is co-owner of JTG/Daugherty Racing and an ESPN racing analyst. Until Dale Earnhardt Inc. merged with Ganassi Racing, Max Siegel was the only black executive among the Sprint Cup teams.

Still, for all their apparent shortcomings, NASCAR officials have done more to recruit African-Americans than the PGA Tour. In the 14 years since Tiger Woods won the Masters, no other African-American has earned a tour card.

France can shed the negative stereotypes of stock-car racing by making a genuine effort to recruit minorities and women instead of fostering a diversity program that pays only lip service to racial inclusion.