NASCAR’s slow drive toward diversity

Brett Friedlander
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

DARLINGTON, S.C. — In the Darlington Raceway infield, between turns 3 and 4, Petric Green and his family enjoyed a few minutes of cool and quiet beneath a large tent before the start of Saturday’s Dodge Challenger 500.

Immediately behind them was another group of race fans doing the same thing.

Only their oasis from the late afternoon sun was provided by an oversized Confederate flag stretched between a pair of recreational vehicles.

It was one of 23 such banners flying prominently around NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway last weekend. But if Green, who is black, was either intimidated or offended by the traditional symbols of Southern heritage, he wasn’t showing it.

“You see what you want to see,” he said. “And all I see are race fans, just like me.”

It should be noted that those fans are among the most accommodating in sports. A few years ago a crew from “Dateline NBC” brought a group of Arabs to Martinsville Speedway to see if they would get harassed.

But nobody uttered a harsh word to them.

That’s not to say Green hasn’t taken his share of abuse during his many visits to his hometown track.

Most of it, though, is directed at the Jeff Gordon shirt and hat he wears in support of his favorite driver, not the color of his skin.

Green is among the growing number of black fans who have been bitten by the racing bug over the past decade.

Their interest is a testament to NASCAR’s ongoing effort to break from the lily white, good old boy image it has held since its inception in 1948.

Though still predominantly a white sport both in the stands and on the track — where the only current drivers of color are from Latin America — Sprint Cup racing has become more mainstream with the recent addition of events in the Northeast and Midwest.

The only pigment that really matters, people such as NASCAR CEO Brian France will argue, is the color of money.

And yet, as admirable as his efforts have been, the sport will never be looked upon as truly colorblind as long as the stars and bars continue to be a race day fixture at tracks from California to Carolina.

“It’s not a flag I look at with anything favorable, that’s for sure,” France said in a 2005 interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes. “(But) … these are massive facilities. I can’t tell people what flag to fly.”

For the most part, that’s true.

As ESPN analyst and former North Carolina basketball star Brad Daugherty points out, we as Americans “have the freedom to express ourselves any way we choose.”

But that having been said, try walking into any restaurant without shoes or a shirt and asked to be served.

It just won’t happen, as the sign on the door warns.

So why doesn’t France ban the Confederate flag from all of his tracks?

Because while many members of the black community consider it a racist reminder of the past, getting rid of it just doesn’t make good business sense.

NASCAR has already ruffled enough feathers among its core fan base by taking dates away from traditional venues such as Rockingham, North Wilkesboro and even Darlington and moving them to places such as Chicago, Kansas City and California.

Why risk further alienation by making any other drastic changes?

It’s much more cost effective to establish diversity programs aimed at recruiting more minority drivers and crew members. “That will be the ultimate success,” said Daugherty, who grew up around race tracks watching his father and uncle drive.

As for the fans, NASCAR has increased its marketing effort to blacks by advertising on hip hop radio stations and BET — as Darlington did in the days leading up to last week’s race.

The hope is that once at the track, the new fans will get bitten by the racing bug. And when they do, it’s the competition in front of them that they’ll “choose to see,” rather than the flags being flown by those behind them.

Copyright 2008 – The Fayetteville Observer

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