Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Race...And Racing

We talk about racing every day on “Sirius Speedway.” And once in a while, we talk about race. Today was one of those days.

Bill Lester will attempt to qualify for Sunday’s “Golden Corral 500” at Atlanta Motor Speedway, hoping to become the first African-American driver since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 to race on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. The fact that it’s been two decades since a black man took the green flag in NASCAR’s premier division is sad. The fact that today – 20 years later – there is still just one black man at the upper levels of NASCAR is sadder still.

To a point, Lester is correct when he says, “It’s not about race, it’s about racing.” But until NASCAR succeeds in recruiting more minorities into its ranks, people like Lester and Erin Crocker will continue to attract more than their share of attention. And judging by some of the on-air reaction we get to stories like Bill’s, there is still plenty of work to do.

Earlier this week, after Lester announced plans to race in Atlanta, I spoke about the continuing dearth of minorities in NASCAR. Within minutes, a caller commented that he believes NASCAR should remain a “white man’s sport,” just like the NBA was a “black man’s sport.” I have been criticized in the past for allowing racists and bigots to have their say on our airwaves. I have defended this practice, though, believing that the best way to expose a fool is to let him speak. And the more this man spoke, the more discouraged I became about some of the people that call this sport their own.

It has become clear to me in three years hosting “Sirius Speedway” that NASCAR’s image as a lily-white sport, intermittently sprinkled with racists is not entirely undeserved. Listen to what some of our callers have to say on this matter; look out over the sea of Confederate Flags in the infield at Talladega, Richmond, or even Pocono; search the grandstands for the occasional black face, and you’ll see what I mean.

The bigots may be in the minority, but they're out there.

I interviewed Greg Moore of blackathlete.net on the program this week; an intelligent, reasonable, far-sighted man who sees NASCAR as the next great sporting opportunity for women, and people of color. He wondered -- as do I -- how long it will take for NASCAR’s "Drive For Diversity" to have any real effect on the sport, and he wondered how we begin to make NASCAR a realistic and appealing option for minority youths. He lamented what he called today’s “microwave society,” where everyone wants instantaneous solutions to the most complex problems, realizing that no matter how much we might want it to happen -- right here and right now -- the diversification of NASCAR is still some time away.

The key to the deal, in my opinion, is the children. While NASCAR should be applauded for creating opportunities for minority drivers and crewmembers through its “Drive For Diversity,” I feel the first step is much more simple. Somehow, NASCAR – and IRL, Champ Car, and the NHRA, for that matter – need to get their events into the living rooms of minority families. If Mom and Dad aren’t interested in motorsports, the odds of Junior getting “hooked” are astronomically long. But if the race is on in their living room every Sunday – just the way the NBA is on Saturday night – racing has a chance to capture the hearts and minds of America’s minority youth.

I am hopeful that a certain percentage of the minority community will tune-in Sunday to watch Bill Lester do what he does best. And maybe…just maybe…a few little boys and girls will be drawn to the noise and drama and color of stock car racing, just like I was when I was young.

That’s when the real progress will begin.

6 comments:

  1. Lance from PA3:24 PM

    I agree with your comments wholeheartedly. I called-in after some of those callers, and I still believe that the bigger challenge in the drive for diversity is the numbers game. There is an extremely small percentage of kids who are exposed to participation in racing, especially compared to the stick and ball sports.

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  2. Lance from pa4:04 PM

    to expand on my previous post, I was exposed to racing very young, but still never had a true chance to participate.

    My dad was involved as a business partner at a dirt track that ran modifieds and late models every friday night. I was at the track every week since the age of five and I worked in many different capacities at the track on those friday nights. Being the youngest of three boys, my parents essentially made me focus on school. Looking back, I'm glad they did. My point is this...I was exposed to racing at a young age and still love to follow it, yet I didn't necessarily have a true opportunity to participate. Imagine the challenges that minorities face if they are not exposed to racing in a participatory fashion. I feel there needs to be more scaled-down racing facilities like quarter midgets and carting which are geographically dispersed.

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  3. I totally agree with what you said Dave. I still continue to think it's a matter of exposure, and like you said until the parents expose their kids to something "different" you will only have a small percentage find motorsports on their own. I think the commercial to NASCAR'S ever so minimal african american heritage is a step in the right direction. I think Mr. Lester has the opportunity to do something very special if he makes the race on Sunday. I'm not going to say he's the Jackie Robinson of motorsports, but given as you say "the lilly white landscape of NASCAR" He has the chance to make a similar impact for years to come.

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  4. Jason in California12:13 PM

    Well if you are not pulling for Bill Lester this week you don't have a heart. I never thought there was a problem in racing. The only thing that keeps people out of racing is money. However, why is it that the media has not picked up on the Bill Lester story like they have with Danica Patrick? What Bill Lester has done thus far is just as rare and special as what Danica did in her rookie year. Maybe we will see this next season when Bill runs full time in the Cup series. If not then maybe there is something to this after all.

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  5. John From New Jersey7:29 AM

    I believe the best 43 racers should take the green flag. Period. I do not care if they are Black, Asian, Female, Homosexual, or White.

    The problem I have is with the word "recruting."

    If a person of color want to race there is nothing stopping them anymore.

    I do not approve of the drive for diversity. I approve of the drive for the best driver. When that happens then you truly take racism out of the picture.

    Willy T. Ribbs were flat out racer. He made it when the playing field was not fair. I feel in the environment today the playing field is fair.

    Let the best drivers race regardless of race or gender.

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  6. Bill Rice11:08 AM

    The real issue with getting in to motorsports is money. Not just any kid can get a ride at the local dirt track or cart oval. It dosen't matter what color you are. IF your parents aren't rolling in cash they can't buy you a cart or a sprint car.
    Add to this problem that mioritiy families are on average poorer and that those that are not problably aren't likely to engage in the radical investment strategy of putting all your available money into a race car for your kids.
    There is the real rub these days. My local short track pays the same for a win that they did in the 1960s. There is no way to break even driving a race car until you get to a high level and even there it's a crapshoot. It's easy to loose alot of money fielding a sprint car or silver crown car or Hooters pro cup car.
    This leads to another issue, Backlash. There are millions of white kids that would LOVE to get a chance to race. They want ot so bad they can taste it but for EVERY Carl Edwards or Burney Lamar there are thousands of kids that won't get that chance. It's hard to see that Black kids or girls are given chaces at good rides or development seats when white boys are passed over even though they might have more natural talent. It get's discouraging and is a seed for more bigotry.

    Thanks, Dave for addressign this issue here, Sometimes it get's lonely in the stands cheering for Erin Crocker and Bill lester. I've been given a few dirty looks but nobody has been dumb enough to say anything. That's a sign of good things for me at least.
    Rice

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