The New Face of NASCAR

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

NFL or the NBA, or Major League Baseball, if they had fans flying Confederate flags in the stadium? He’d be the first one down there. As I said, he’s bought and paid for. [NASCAR] silences who they want to silence.”

Interestingly enough, Ribbs’ contributions to racing are not included in NASCAR’s diversity brochure. Ribbs was the first African American to drive at the Winston Cup level in 1986 and the first African American in the diversity program sponsored by Dodge in 2000. NASCAR does, however, pay tribute to Wendell Scott.

Acquiring a team is another barrier for African Americans. Belnavis, a former director of sports marketing for Miller Brewing Co. in the ’80s, convinced the brewer to sponsor its first NASCAR driver. Last year, he became the next African American after Scott to have ownership stake in a NASCAR team to run a full season on the demanding Winston Cup. Many African Americans have tried before him, including Julius Erving and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The difference? According to Belnavis, who spent nearly two decades around the sport, he knows it from the inside. “NASCAR has a system,” he says. “And that system consists of owners, drivers, and people who have been with the sport and have grown the sport to the level that it is.”

The sport is also heavily supported by sponsors — and in racing, sponsors want winners. In early 2002, Belnavis landed a sponsorship deal with the National Guard but lacked a car, a driver, and a crew. Help from industry insiders led to a partnership with veteran team owner Travis Carter, who had the car and crew but no sponsor. It cost BelCar between $10 million and $12 million to race last season. After the team finished a disappointing 31st (and earned only $2.5 million), the National Guard took its advertising dollars to a car owned by Jack Roush, who owns many successful teams in the sport, including the car driven by last year’s Winston Cup champion, Matt Kenseth. BelCar Racing folded in November.

It’s not uncommon for teams to fold in NASCAR, and when they do, owners begin looking for new partners or new sponsors and crews, and drivers start looking for another job.

Belnavis helps oversee two Roush trucks and one Nextel Cup car. He is also the chief diversity officer for Roush Racing. (The partnership consists of Jack Roush, his son, his daughter, and Belnavis. Belnavis wouldn’t disclose what percentage of ownership he has in the Roush vehicles.) His partnership includes Roush managing and Alex Haley Racing, which was created by the Alex Haley estate. As of this writing, they have yet to find a sponsor. Talks are under way with several potential sponsors. If a sponsor is found, Roush will provide garage space, a crew, and other resources, but he will not have an ownership stake in Haley.

This season, Lester is driving a truck for Toyota. (This is the first time a foreign automaker has fielded a racing vehicle in one of NASCAR’s professional leagues, which has drawn

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