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.