The New Face of NASCAR

On a warm but breezy morning in Florida, Bill Lester is surrounded by a flurry of activity. Although it’s the middle of winter, the 80-degree weather promises for a good day at the track. Standing amid an array of tires, tools, and oil canisters, Lester is the calm in the middle of a storm. Technicians and mechanics dressed in multicolored uniforms rush to prepare their 650-horsepower beasts to race the 3.2-mile oval at Daytona International Speedway.

The garages that house these mighty race vehicles are more reminiscent of the antiseptic rooms of NASA than the oily, grimy confines of traditional garages. Breaking the silence is the occasional deafening howl of a combustion engine as a vehicle streaks past. The growl eventually fades into the distance, yet the choreographed gust of activity continues for what is known as SpeedWeek.

Lester, the handsome, polished, amiable driver of Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 Toyota Tundra, remains so calm that it seems quite impossible that he will soon be turning laps at 190 mph in the qualifying session of the Craftsman Truck Series. But after 11 years in the cutthroat business of fighting for corporate sponsorship dollars, an afternoon drive brings its own kind of peace.

Lester is among some of the new faces of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the sanctioning body of a sporting division once associated with Confederate flag waving. NASCAR is now looking to build upon its growing African American fan base by showcasing its black drivers and owners. George Pyne, NASCAR’s chief operating officer, hopes the organization finds its Tiger Woods or Williams sisters to generate excitement and take the sport to the next level, but some remain critical of its diversity efforts.

Many doubt that NASCAR is willing to upset the status quo of its traditional fan base. This begs several questions: If there were a Tiger Woods of motor sports in the pipeline, would NASCAR be ready for him? Would he step into an environment that would cultivate and encourage success? Would African American spectators feel welcome in an organization where the flying of Confederate flags was once commonplace?

This is something NASCAR must address soon. According to an ESPN sports poll conducted in 2002, more than 6.6 million NASCAR fans are African American, representing 8.9% of the sport’s entire fan base, and an increase of 29% since 1999. The poll also indicates that African American fans are slightly more affluent than African Americans who are not fans. In light of this, diversity efforts are fiscally crucial for NASCAR’s continued growth.

From an African American perspective, NASCAR’s past is checkered at best. Images of good ol’ boys aside, there is the story of Wendell Scott, the first African American driver/owner who raced from 1961 to 1972 in the Grand National Division, the precursor to the Winston Cup Series. Scott won his only race in Jacksonville in 1964, but he wasn’t declared a winner or allowed to come into the winner’s circle to collect his award until hours after the