The New Face of NASCAR

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

black colleges and universities. Dean Thurman Exum is director of motor sports technology at North Carolina A&T State University. He says the school has been in conversations about diversity with NASCAR for the past four years — even prior to the council, on which the university’s chancellor now sits. Based on their discussions, Exum says A&T revamped its program, which orig
inally focused on automotive technology. “Our mission [is now] to develop African American motor sports professionals,” he explains.

Approximately 10 A&T students have applied for scholarships from NASCAR during the past four years. Only one scholarship has been awarded. “When we call back to find out why, we receive no feedback.” Exum is hopeful, however. Through Access Communications & Marketing, the university has placed one student in an internship program with Richard Petty, one with Jack Roush, and one with Hamilton Motorsports. A racing enthusiast for 30 years, he huffs, “It hasn’t been a smooth situation. We’re making progress but, boy, is it slow.”

“We’re not where we need to be,” comments Dora Taylor, NASCAR’s senior manager of diversity affairs. “We’re the first to say that.”

And there is a strong chorus in agreement. Last year, conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly reported that NASCAR paid hush money to Jesse Jackson to keep him from being critical of its lack of work toward diversity. It evoked a firestorm of emotion and criticism. Conservative supporters were upset that NASCAR would involve its organization with someone who had been so critical of the United States going to war with Iraq. Others in the black community were disappointed that Jackson could be so easily convinced to turn a blind eye to NASCAR’s discriminatory environment. Both NASCAR and Jackson deny the allegations, and neither side will say how much Jackson has received. “I take exception to that, quite frankly,” says NASCAR’s Pyne. “To the degree that Rainbow/PUSH can help make NASCAR more diverse, we will support them.” Jackson, who claims credit for securing sponsorship with Dr. Pepper for driver Morty Buckles, responds, “[Critics] make a donation seem like some kind of bribery.”

Willy T. Ribbs has been one of the harshest critics to go on record. A world-class racer, Ribbs enjoys a long list of racing accomplishments. He was the first African American to compete in the Indianapolis 500. “I have competed longer than any African American ever,” he says. Of his experiences at Indy, another racing entity, he says he has treasured experiences. But in 2001, he retired from the sport. He is so angered by his experience at NASCAR that he no longer even follows motor sports.

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots, no matter what spin they put on the new face,” he asserts of NASCAR’s proposed diversity initiatives. “It was founded in the South and its patronage is the South. Some of its most fervent supporters are the ones with the Confederate flags on their motor homes or on their trailers in the infield. Now, can you imagine Jesse Jackson turning a cheek to the

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