TIM FUNK
Posted on Thu, Feb. 09, 2006

WASHINGTON – Accelerating efforts to diversify what’s long been considered a white sport, NASCAR said Wednesday it will work with black colleges and members of Congress — including Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte — to attract more young minorities into the racing business.

At a Capitol Hill news conference that featured Watt and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., NASCAR announced a new consortium to train and hire more minorities to work behind the wheel, on Pit Road and in marketing offices.

A diverse work force, NASCAR hopes, will draw diverse fans, boosting the sport’s rooting section of 75 million.

But selling African Americans on a sport that includes fans who still wave Confederate flags on race day will take work, says NASCAR President Mike Helton.

"We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence," Helton told reporters. "But we also realize that there’s going to have to be an effort on our part to convince others to understand that."

The new consortium, which Congress is expected to salute in a Watt-sponsored resolution, is part of that effort. It will partner NASCAR with historically black universities and link those colleges to the Universal Technical Institute — a multi-campus program that teaches NASCAR’s technical curriculum.

Watt, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, said NASCAR is already working with two black schools in his district — N.C. A&T State University and Winston-Salem State University — to "open some exciting doors" to students in technical fields such as engineering.

"When you see an industry … start to grow," Watt said about NASCAR, "you want it to have the kind of diversity that reflects our nation." For most of its history, the only black you saw at a NASCAR race was on the checkered flag.

The first — and still only — black driver to win a major race was Virginia’s Wendell Scott. And that was in 1963.

"We consider him the Jackie Robinson of our sport" and have started a scholarship in his name, said NASCAR spokesman Josh Hamilton.

But in baseball, Robinson was the first of many black stars. NASCAR today has one black driver in its three major series: Bill Lester of Oakland, Calif., drives a Toyota in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Of nearly 40 NASCAR team owners, one is black and two Hispanic, including Charlotte’s Felix Sabates.

Other noted African Americans — former NFL receiver Tim Brown and the Wayans brothers of TV and movie comedy fame — are trying to put teams together.

In recent years, NASCAR has sought paid advice from ex-NBA star Magic Johnson and former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, a onetime Oklahoma quarterback who emceed Wednesday’s news conference.

While lauding NASCAR for its recent diversity moves, Watts added that "I think (racing officials) would admit that they were not as aggressive as they should have been in extending the hand of fellowship."

NASCAR could not say Wednesday what percentage of its workers are black or Hispanic. "The percentage now is not where it should be," Helton said. His goal? "Raise that as high as it can be."

In 2002, ESPN Sports Poll found that 8.9 percent of blacks and 8.6 percent of Hispanics identified themselves as NASCAR fans.

One way to boost that number: a superstar minority driver. It worked in golf, said Watt, where Tiger Woods changed what had been a mostly white sport.

NASCAR is trying, grooming upcoming drivers such as High Point’s Chris Bristol, 28, who graduated from N.C. A&T and raced last year at Hickory Motor Speedway. Bristol, on hand for the news conference, said he hopes to race full time next season.

As he spoke, he stood beside the car that NASCAR had used as a prop. Written on its side: "Drive for Diversity."

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