Cover Story: NASCAR's drive for diversity

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's been a long time in the making, but Tuesday the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened to the public.

If ever there was an event pulling the broadest group of NASCAR fans together, opening day would be it.  But from looking at the crowd outside the Hall of Fame you get a glimpse of why it's perceived as a white, male sport.

NASCAR wants to change that perception, so it's putting a lot of resources into broadening its fan base.

In a crowd of people.. it's one of the things you can't help but notice.  They don't mean to stand out.. but they do.

"Do you consider yourselves race fans? Yes, yes, yes I do."

The Wallace family of Charlotte couldn't wait to tour the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday.

"Meeting Richard Petty.. Oh my God.. it was amazing.. it really was," said Pamela Wallace.

"My son.. I constantly buy him cars," said mom Courtney Wallace.  "And I just thought it'd be interesting to come check it out."

They come for the cars.  But looking around the Hall.. they won't find many drivers who look like them.

The exhibit labeled "Diversity" features one driver Wendell Scott, the only black driver to win a race in what's now the Sprint Cup Series.

"It has not been part of their culture."

Humpy Wheeler who arguably knows more about the sport than anyone and author of the new book, "Growing Up NASCAR" says racing.. which got its start out running revenuers wasn't something young African-American children would aspire to.

Even today.. at the dirt tracks where young kids cut their teeth.. it's hard to break in.

"You just see very very few minorities at those tracks," he said.  "So it's tough to go in as the only black person when there's 5,000 white people watching you."

Recognizing there is a perception problem.. six years ago NASCAR started its "Drive for Diversity" program.

Under the moniker "Revolution Racing" the program actively recruits minorities and women.  And operates just like a traditional race team.. fielding six cars in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and four cars in the NASCAR K & N Pro Series East.

Ramsey Poston is with NASCAR Inc.  He said, "So the more and more we can get competitors and drivers started out earlier.. the better chance just like in any other sport you're going to have to be able to compete at the highest level."

The sport has made some in-roads.  Danica Patrick who became the first woman to win an Indy car race and will race in NASCAR's Nationwide Series this fall.

And Juan Pablo Montoya made the "Race for the Chase" last year and is competing in the sport's Cup Series again this year.

Humpy Wheeler says bringing more into the fold.. will bring more into the stands.  "The fans are diverse now.. and they've got to have somebody to pull for."

Wheeler told us he has no doubt that in the next decade (maybe sooner) we'll see a significant black race driver on the big circuit.. maybe there will be a woman as well.

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