The New Face of NASCAR

Race, money, and politics in motor sports' fast lane

of corporate sponsors that include General Motors, GMAC, and Sears. The school has also received tremendous support from NASCAR drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmy Johnson.

“The challenges [for African Americans] I have seen are access,” explains Toure Claiborne, director of partnership marketing for Sears and recent appointee to the council. Sears is also the title sponsor for the Craftsman Truck Series. “So schools like the Urban Racing School, instead of waiting for someone to bring the sport or send an invitation, [are] actually taking the sport to urban communities.” It’s in working with youth that NASCAR — or any sporting organization — will find its next champion. And for that reason, developing new driving talent will be a relatively long process.

Unlike other professional sports, getting started is significantly more expensive than buying a basketball and going to a local court or having the support of high schools and colleges. (Fielding a team in the Nextel Cup costs about $15 million a year; talented drivers can’t simply be drafted into the series.)

Recruitment within the industry also involves networking. “The racing world is no different from a lot of other businesses,” explains Martin, who has placed students from his school in racing internships and college programs to support their goals. “Having connections and relationships helps tremendously. We build bridges between the racing school and the racing team. Now we have relationships with Joe Gibbs, for example. He will look to the school for talent.”

Claiborne says that the sanctioning body is simply struggling in unfamiliar territory. “NASCAR has been slow to embrace diversity because it is a family-owned company based on tradition and the good ol’ boy network. People who aren’t familiar with urban culture or the African American culture [are] not going to jump and make any quick decisions without having some certainty of what they’re getting involved with. As much as African Americans are uncertain about the sport, NASCAR is uncertain about how to embrace diverse cultures.”

Rensi agrees. Since his retirement from McDonald’s Corp., he has submerged himself in his longtime hobby of motor sports. Today, he is chairman of Team Rensi, which operates at the Busch level. His major sponsors include the U.S. Marine Corps and Timberland. Rensi was also responsible for sponsoring Lester at the Busch level. “Progress in this area always comes way too slowly — and ever so painfully,” he asserts. Rensi says NASCAR’s diversity efforts are genuine. “Is anybody satisfied? Absolutely not. Can more be done? Yes. We’re overcoming 53 years of culture in this racing industry. I don’t want to defend them. I don’t want to make excuses for them. It’s got to get fixed and changed, and I think they’re putting a good effort at it.”

NASCAR has started an internship program geared toward minority college students. The organization says that it has increased openings. There were 14 in 2003 and 32 this year, but no one is able to confirm how many openings were filled. NASCAR also supports a promotional campaign to generate awareness at historically

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