with them.” Of his General Mills endorsement deal, Lester says it provided exposure (he was featured on boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios) but no significant sponsorship.
Securing sponsorship is a frustrating sell, laments Lester’s wife and business partner, Cheryl. If you can first convince a company that it should consider racing, the second challenge becomes race. “Potential sponsors look at him and go, ‘Well my audience isn’t African American.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I do target African Americans, but they’re not watching racing.’ Then Bill responds that they’re not watching racing because there’s no one in the sport to identify with — the chicken and the egg problem. And most sponsors are not willing to be a pioneer. It’s quite an uphill battle.”
Options for sponsorship are different for white drivers. “[For] many of them, their fathers and grandfathers participated in the sport,” explains Cheryl. “Even if they don’t have the family wealth, they at least know how the sport works and they can get the introductions that you might need to get a sponsor.”
Because many white drivers have grown up in the sport, they enter the amateur circuit at a young age. “There is also somewhat of a scouting system where team owners will go out and look for young talent and take a risk on a driver based on their performance in the amateur level,” Cheryl continues. “But this is a sport where you actually start out at about 5 years old.” Many African American hopefuls don’t start amateur racing until they are young adults — often after they’ve started working in order to fund their dream. Many of the diversity initiatives, including those endorsed by NASCAR, are targeted to college-age students and older.
One area where NASCAR could strongly demonstrate its commitment to not only diversity but also developing a Tiger Woods of the future, is in its support of the Philadelphia-based Urban Youth Racing School (UYRS). Founded by former sports marketer Anthony Martin in 1998, the UYRS is the only one of its kind in the United States. The program is free for students, and trains minority youth ages 8 to 18 in every aspect of motor sports and puts them in cars for what the industry calls “seat time.” It is Martin’s dream to develop similar programs throughout the country.
“I grew up in West Philadelphia and I was a racing fan, but I had no way of getting involved in racing,” he explains. “I started the racing school to introduce inner-city kids to the sport as a possible career opportunity. A lot of kids don’t know that these jobs exist. They don’t know that you can be a tire changer and make $100,000 a year. You don’t have to be the driver, you can be the engineer.”
NASCAR includes the school in its diversity brochure and holds up its patronage of the program in the face of criticism, but offers minimum financial support, says Martin. The school’s biggest financial supporters have been Rensi, who helped found the school, and a number