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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

NASCAR looking to build, and broaden, its appeal

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Thousands of fans watched yesterday's Busch Series race, and many more will watch today's Winston Cup race. But NASCAR officials are trying to attract more minorities. Thousands of fans watched yesterday's Busch Series race, and many more will watch today's Winston Cup race. But NASCAR officials are trying to attract more minorities.
WADSWORTH / BLADE Enlarge

BROOKLYN, Mich. - Stock car racing is a sport that has never lacked for color. The cars and the drivers are mobile billboards plastered with every hue in the artist's palette.

But NASCAR wants more. When they look at the face of their sport, part of the rainbow is missing.

The wildly popular sport can pack more than a hundred thousand fans into Michigan International Speedway here in the middle of the Irish Hills area twice each summer. Today's GFS Marketplace 400 at MIS has been sold out for some time - all 136,000-plus seats.

And millions more fill other tracks around the country, and make up a huge weekly television audience.

The NASCAR brass realize that their healthy, highly profitable and growing-by-leaps-and-bounds sport lacks diversity across the full spectrum. It does not look like the melting pot that is America, and they are intent on changing that.

The plan is to bring people of color into every aspect of stock car racing, which should serve to make the sport even bigger.

“Everyone has noticed the impact the Williams sisters have had on tennis, and what Tiger Woods has done for professional golf,” said Dora Taylor, who directs NASCAR's diversity programs. “They have not just taken their sports to higher and new levels of success, they have opened up the sport to new markets.”

NASCAR named a diversity council in 2000, with representatives from the sanctioning bodies, teams, drivers, licensees and the corporate sponsors.

“This is a fragmented industry. Everyone is a separate entity, so it is a little more difficult to make direct changes,” Taylor said. “When it comes to the sanctioning body we have some control, and the rest of our job is about educating the industry and leading by example.”

NASCAR has an internship program to place minorities in all areas of the industry, and it also has programs to introduce the sport in the inner city. The internship program has introduced more than 60 college students to the sport in the past two years.

“It lets them try on motorsports careers,” Taylor said. “It lets them see that there is more to NASCAR than just being behind the wheel. There is a much bigger picture with a multitude of opportunities.”

Taylor said NASCAR officials are encouraged by the continued growth of their ethnic fan base, and say they are seeing more communities of color involved.

From 1999 to 2000, NASCAR's television viewer fan base within the African-American community rose by 29 percent, while the Hispanic fan base went up by 23 percent, according to a poll conducted by ESPN.

“That is critical, because we know that the progression of a fan starts with watching the sport on television,” Taylor said. “And as their interest increases, we start to see more at-track attendance. These are all good gauges that we are on the right track.”

Taylor said that the addition of a minority driver on either the Winston Cup or Busch series would spike interest within those communities.

“It would be phenomenal if we were to see a successful driver of color,” Taylor said. “And then see more successful drivers of color, owners of color - and doing it the way everyone else does it - built on your success, tenacity and passion.”

Team owner Richard Childress, who has three cars entered in today's Winston Cup race at MIS, said people of color have traditionally not been introduced to stock car racing at a young age.

“If you watch drag racing, there are a lot of African-Americans in drag racing,” Childress said. “They were brought up in that area. One of the problems we have is that they're not brought up around Go-Kart racing and Short Track racing.”

Childress said he expects to see drivers of color on the top circuits.

“There are a couple of drivers out there who have some future in NASCAR racing,” he said. “But you've got to start out when you are very young. When I was a kid, I started going to races when I was 6 years old. They haven't been given access to it through their parents or locations or whatever.

“But I think they have all the chance in the world. Some day you will see an African-American racing Winston Cup. If you can get the kids interested and get them to an event where they can see, taste and smell the excitement of NASCAR racing, it all has to start with youth and getting them involved. We welcome all forms of racers. They bring in new fans, and it is great to have new fans.”

Taylor, who has been with NASCAR since January of 2002, previously worked for Denny's and was instrumental in that corporation's dramatic turnaround in the area of diversity. She said NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series experienced a significant shot in the arm in the area of diversity earlier this year when Grammy award-winning rapper Nelly bought a share of a truck team.

“You have to remember, hip-hop has become a crossover sensation,” Taylor said. “Nelly coming into the sport is very exciting. He has a huge, general market fan base, and certainly his fan base would look at anything he is involved in. That is helping us reach a broader audience that has not been involved with the sport before.”

The Craftsman series truck, from Billy Ballew Motorsports, features Nelly's Vokal clothing label. The Atlanta-based Vokal Racing Team is currently using veteran Andy Houston, but eventually will look for a minority driver. According to a spokesperson for Vokal, Nelly has been a fan of racing for a long time.

Taylor said she expects to see continued progress in bringing a more diverse fan base to stock car racing.

“We're seeing a lot more women and people of color involved in regional series. That means the pipeline coming up to the top three series is more inclusive, and that is encouraging.”

Over the years, a number of prominent minorities have tried - unsuccessfully - to make their mark in NASCAR.

Julius Erving, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Willy T. Ribbs have all owned or driven cars, but none has enjoyed much success. It has been almost four decades since Wendell Scott became the first and only black man to win a race in NASCAR's top series, then the Grand National.

There is only one black driver - Bill Lester in the truck series - on NASCAR's top three circuits.



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