ESPN Network: | RPM | | | ESPNdeportes | ABCSports | FANTASY

Tuesday, February 12
Updated: February 18, 1:51 PM ET
NASCAR is trying to change its image
By Rupen Fofaria

In hindsight, there was no way Bill Lester wouldn't have stood out among this crowd. But when he first walked into a NASCAR garage at Watkins Glen International in 1999, he didn't think twice about being African-American.

Not until he heard conversations stop and saw fingers point all over the upstate New York track. A very small and fleeting sense of uneasiness set in. Just as fast, though, it left and a smile flashed across the face of the 42-year-old aspiring NASCAR driver.

Bill Lester, No. 8, finished 18th among 36 drivers in Friday's Florida Dodge Dealers 250 truck race at Daytona International Speedway.
"There's a new sheriff in town," he thought to himself. "There's going to be change."

Lester is no longer an aspiring NASCAR driver. Thanks to the Dodge Diversity program, which puts a minority driver behind the wheel of the No. 8 Dodge in the NASCAR Truck Series, a league two steps below Winston Cup, Lester is a full-time presence in stock-car racing.

"As the country becomes more diverse, this sport is going to be more diverse," Lester said from his hauler parked in the Daytona International Speedway infield. "There's no reason why we can't get along and take advantage of the popularity of this sport."

But for NASCAR, it's been hard. As the most successful racing series in the country tries to parlay its popularity with mainstream America, its long-term success will depend on its ability to attract minority fans. The best way to do that is to attract minority drivers, crew members and team owners. But since the sport feels compelled to maintain some sense of its backwoods, good-ol'-boy image, it may have compromised its ability to defuse a perception that minorities are not welcome.

"There is an intimidation involved -- a perception that this isn't a place where we, as minorities, belong," said Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who announced this week that he will become a part-owner of a Busch Series team, one step below Winston Cup. "That couldn't be further from the truth. But from the outside looking in, it doesn't always seem that way."

That's why finding a way to change that impression, without compromising its roots, is NASCAR's No. 1 objective, according to senior vice president George Pyne.

"I think, demographically, the sport over time has changed dramatically and I think it will continue to reflect a broad base of America," Pyne said. "I expect that there will be a day when there will be an African-American driver and an African-American champion in Winston Cup. That's something that NASCAR would like to see. If we can broaden the awareness of NASCAR and also make people feel welcome, it will hopefully result in a more diverse audience at the track."

NASCAR has taken some steps toward reaching that goal, but many more steps are still only in the developmental stage. NASCAR has created a diversity council and a diversity internship program. Quietly, it has become a major contributor to Jesse Jackson's political causes. It also is developing a college tour that will bring NASCAR's stars to historically black colleges.

All of this, NASCAR hopes, will draw minorities to the races. And once they are at the track, the plan is that the high-octane experience that is auto racing will make them a fan of the fast-growing sport.

"I think you just have to come and see what it's like, because I find that it's a really welcoming environment," said Lester, who is among only a handful of minorities competing in NASCAR. "Even in '99 at Watkins Glen, it was just because they weren't used to it. They weren't used to seeing somebody like myself coming through the garage. And that was the only time. Since that day I haven't seen anything that has really made me that uncomfortable."

Jackson isn't the only recognizable personality who made a name for himself in another sport to make his way to the auto racing arena. Former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green recently announced the formation of Dennis Green Racing, a Winston Cup team that will begin competing on the circuit in May. Previously, former NBA star Julius Irving and Joe Washington, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Washington Redskins in 1982, teamed to own a race team on the Busch series.

"I think people make a bigger deal of it than it is," said Tim Shutt, an African-American crew chief in the Busch Series. "I don't find that anybody looks at me or treats me any differently."

The problem is, as NASCAR's popularity has spread across the country and its image has remained largely the same -- still very much associated with its bootlegging, southeastern roots -- minorities do not find an avenue in racing that they relate with.

Willie T. Ribbs
In 1991, Williy T. Ribbs became the first African-American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
"NASCAR has done a great job growing as a sport, but it hasn't done well at all in reaching minorities," said Willy T. Ribbs, who drove the No. 8 Dodge last year and in 1991 became the first African-American to compete in the Indy 500. "If the person that NASCAR shows the world and says, 'Hey, this is NASCAR,' if that person doesn't look like or resemble you, why would you be interested? Anytime you watch on TV and you see the people jumping around in Victory Lane, how many minorities do you see? They aren't there."

But Pyne says that isn't a reflection of any stubborn, NASCAR image. He believes NASCAR's image has become progressive.

"Historically, there might be some merit to that," he said. "But the sport now has become so mainstream that I think it caters to everyone. I think there probably is some young boy or girl from a different background that is growing up today dreaming of being Winston Cup champion. That wasn't the case 10 years ago."

No matter what the reason, the fact is that minorities do not attend races in large numbers. So NASCAR has two plans, in addition to its other initiatives, geared toward drawing folks to the track, although neither are ready for implementation.

One is to hook up with schools near the tracks and take minority students to the races for free. Once they are there, they can decide for themselves whether or not they feel welcome. The other is to draw them in by allowing them to identify with the sport. The thought being that, for instance, as more African-American drivers show up on the scene, the more African-Americans can identify with racing. In that regard, NASCAR is trying to establish a minority developmental league, that would offer minorities the place, equipment and competition to hone their skills.

"It's a matter of exposure," Lester said. "The more they see people like me behind the wheel and Tim Shutt at Joe Gibbs and Reggie Jackson as an owner, the more that we can get numbers out there, the better it's going to be."

But for now, with NASCAR's plans still in its infancy, these numbers are small -- and so too is that minority fan base.

On the flight to Daytona Beach, Fla., Lester's crew met an African-American couple going to Daytona. They weren't interested in the Daytona 500, though. In fact, their flight left Daytona two days before the big race. They wanted to see the No. 8 truck race. They were interested in Lester.

"That's pretty neat," he said when his crew told him the story. "But that's just a start. That's a really good start, but there is so much further to go."

Rupen Fofaria is a beat writer for the Raleigh News & Observer.

Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories

Is Jesse Jackson out of his league?

Sports Mall