NASCAR can't race past image problems

It doesn't matter whether the allegations Mauricia Grant leveled against NASCAR in a $225 million racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit are true. Even if no one in NASCAR called her "Nappy Headed Mo" or no one ever told her she works on "colored people time," as she alleges, public perception is going to side with her, not NASCAR.

The sport has an image problem when it comes to race. For as hard as it has tried to distance itself from its southern roots, NASCAR is still widely viewed as a Confederate flag-waving sport, and Grant's accusations only help perpetuate this stigma.

The difficulty for NASCAR is in proving it isn't as lily white as it appears. But that's easier said than done when there isn't a single black driver currently competing full-time in any of its top three series.

In NASCAR's defense, a big reason for this is the numbers game. Go to any race track in the country and you'll see there are a lot more aspiring white racers than there are black racers, and with only 43 spots available on Sundays, the odds aren't in favor of a black driver making it to the big time.

Still, when the face of every driver and most crew members and officials lined up on pit road before a race is white, NASCAR is going to have a tough time defending itself in the court of public opinion when a former race official, who is black, levels accusations that involve racial and sexual harassment charges.

The allegations are alarming, both in the content and detail. (Read the full lawsuit – .pdf)

According to the lawsuit, Grant, 32, alleges that in her three-year tenure working as a technical inspector for NASCAR's Nationwide Series, that:

• She was referred to as "Queen Sheeba," "Al Qaeda" and "Black Sisters Revenge."

• Co-workers told her, "You can't possibly sunburn so you should work out in the sun!" and asked her, "How come the palms of your hands are white?"

• After explaining to a co-worker that she enjoys working out, Joe Balash, the director of the Nationwide Series, responded, "Does your workout include an urban obstacle course with a flat-screen TV on your back?"

• While driving to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, a white official told Grant to "duck" because, "I don't want to start a riot when these fans see a black woman in my car."

• At a dinner, an official joked that, "We ain't gonna get any service cuz Mo's black."

• While packing up a dark garage at Texas Motor Speedway, an official said to Grant, "Keep smiling and pop your eyes out 'cause we can't see you."

In all, Grant alleges 23 incidents of sexual harassment and 34 incidents of racial and gender discrimination.

"The disappointing thing is she makes a lot of claims, none of them reported," NASCAR chairman Brian France told the Associated Press. "The fact that it went on as she stated, for many months, but never bothered to tell anyone at management what was going on – which is what our policy says – is very disappointing.

"If those type (of) things were in fact going on, we would have loved to have done an investigation and a review of such an allegation."

Grant insists that she did tell Balash, but he dismissed them, saying she was dealing with former "military guys" and that she just had to "deal with it."

I don't know Mauricia Grant and I'm not about to level judgment on her. And I'd warn anyone against rushing to judgment in this or any case, as we've seen how that can unfairly tear down the lives of defendants who wind up being the victims.

Here's what I do know from having covered NASCAR for five years and from having attended races as a fan:

In the infield, you'll be handed a beer without asking for one and solicited to show your breasts without offering; you'll see American flags, Confederate flags and flags commemorating every driver on the track; you'll meet great people and you'll meet jerks, too; you'll have people invite you up on their roof deck to watch the race, while others will tell you to get lost.

In other words, you'll see just about everything America has to offer … except many blacks in the stands and in the garage.

This is NASCAR's real problem.

Through the formation of the "Diversity Council" and supporting programs such as the Urban Youth Racing School, NASCAR has made efforts to have the sport more accurately, in NASCAR's words, "reflect the fabric of America." Still, it doesn't.

Any company in America can be a party in a lawsuit like this. Racial and sexual discrimination are by no means exclusive to companies with southern roots. Usually, though, when something like this comes out, the defending party – if the allegations have merit – can call it an isolated incident and blame things on a few bad apples.

But when NASCAR is the party involved, people immediately are going to wonder whether there is a fundamental problem, one that's much deeper than a few bad apples.

Fair or not, accurate or not, NASCAR hasn't been successful enough in giving them reasons to think otherwise.