NASCAR appears to have embraced inclusivity but still has so far to go
Side-eyes. Slurs, whispered or snarled. Monkey noises. Disrespect and disregard. Throughout NASCAR’s history, minorities in the sport have endured all this racial bigotry and more, at track after track, even in their own garages.
They’ve heard the story of Marc Davis, a Black driver who left the sport shortly after an opposing crew chief allegedly used a racial slur. They heard Kyle Larson earlier this year drop a clear n-word while racing online. Just this past Sunday, they saw the procession of pickup trucks and an airplane openly, defiantly displaying the Confederate flag — a symbol that, for the Black community, is indisputably one of hate rather than heritage.
So when NASCAR reported that a noose had been found in the garage of the 43 car belonging to Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only current Black Cup-level driver, many of those old wounds reopened.
“A lot of the Black guys on our team, they were rattled by it to be honest,” said Mike Metcalf, fuel man for Matt Kenseth and the co-head coach for the Chip Ganassi team’s pit crew. “That symbol is a really dark one. When you go to work, you want to think about putting gas in the car, changing tires and driving. You shouldn’t have to think about, is my life in danger?”
Following a federal investigation, the noose turned out not to be an instrument of a hate crime. Social media lit up with claims of hoaxes and conspiracy theories, but the people who knew the reality of life in a NASCAR garage as a minority don’t see this as an exoneration of NASCAR’s culture.
“It was definitely a relief knowing that it wasn’t a hate crime directed toward Bubba, but at the same time I still have questions,” said Brehanna Daniels, who in 2017 became the first Black woman to be part of a NASCAR pit crew. “Why was that pull rope fashioned like a noose? Why was it there? I saw it. I was like, why did it have to look like that? And then we’re in Alabama, so it’s like uh, OK.”
The scars still remain in the memories of Black drivers, crew members and team officials. For them, it’s not just about one incident. It’s about coming to terms with a sport they love that doesn’t always love them back, a sport that’s made so much racial progress but still has so far to go.
Before Bubba, there was Wendell, Willy and Bill
If NASCAR has been synonymous with anything besides speed since its inception, it’s the South. The sport’s earliest drivers were former moonshine runners racing the same souped-up cars they once used to evade police while smuggling home-brewed liquor on back roads of Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas.
Wendell Scott, the first Black man to make a lasting impact at stock-car racing’s highest level, overcame meager funding, death threats and pervasive discrimination. Some speedways wouldn’t even allow Scott to race. Those that did often permitted fans to shower him with obscenities, and turned a blind eye to other drivers purposely trying to wreck him.
When Scott won his only Grand National series race in Jacksonville in 1964, he didn’t get to experience a waving checkered flag or a trophy presentation. NASCAR at first awarded another driver the victory before acknowledging a scoring error two hours later, an honest mistake according to race officials, a racially motivated snub according to others.
“There were a lot of detractors, but he didn't let them make him less determined at what he wanted to do,” son Franklin Scott said at his father’s NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2015. “Death threats, he was poisoned, he went through all kinds of stuff, but he came back.”
Scott retired in 1973 after nearly 500 races but just the one victory. No other Black man has won a race at NASCAR’s top level, let alone come close to matching Scott’s longevity.
The driver who appeared to have the best shot was a cocky Californian with world-class talent. Willy T. Ribbs moved to London at age 21 and won six of 11 races in the 1977 English Formula Ford Series aptly called the “Star of Tomorrow.”
As a result of Ribbs’ success in England, the general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway invited him for a tryout. H.A. Wheeler’s plan was to enter Ribbs in the 1978 World 600 in hopes that the presence of a charismatic young Black driver would generate media attention and draw Black fans.
Ribbs displayed promise during his tryout and charmed reporters at his press conference, but things began to unravel soon after that. Charlotte police arrested him late one night for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. He also rubbed other drivers the wrong way with his unwavering confidence when Wheeler sent him to Talladega to witness his first stock car race.
“I was walking through the pits and people were actually spitting at my feet,” Ribbs said. “I was getting pissed.”
Wheeler ultimately abandoned his plan to have Ribbs make his NASCAR debut in Charlotte. A Black man who stood his ground and spoke his mind simply inspired too much hostility.
“I thought the death threats were fun to read,” Ribbs said with a wry chuckle. “The misspellings were so bad but they could always spell the n-word. That was spelled consistently right.”
Ribbs made one more foray into NASCAR in 1986, a three-race stint doomed by substandard equipment. He insists he could have been “Tiger Woods before there was a Tiger Woods,” but NASCAR blew it by never giving him a real chance.
“I look at it as a lost opportunity for NASCAR,” Ribbs said. “I could have been the first African American who came down there and was a front runner consistently, but NASCAR didn’t want it. There was no way they were going to let that happen.”
Bill Lester, a Black driver from the Bay Area, took a different approach. He joined Ribbs in Dodge’s diversity program for what’s now the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. He did his best to fit in, and that included biting his tongue about the ever-present Confederate flag. “I wanted not to be a prima donna,” he said. “I did my level best to have [NASCAR fans] feel comfortable … I just felt if they weren’t waving it in front of my face, I could put up with it. Far be it for me to upset the apple cart.”
An anomaly in the sport, Lester found himself the target of constant pigeonholing questions. “I was trying to be accepted as just a driver, but I’d get all these questions, like, ‘What’s it like to be a Black driver?’ I don’t know, I’ve been Black all my life,” he said. “‘What does it feel like being in this environment?’ I’ve heard those questions a thousand times.”
After a decade in NASCAR that included just two Cup series starts in 2006, Lester got out of the car and began working for the sport in a more administrative role, serving on NASCAR’s appeals panel.
“Even to this day, as long as I’ve been out of NASCAR, I still get recognized,” Lester said. “The NASCAR fan base is loyal. Even though I was booed on a number of driver intros, a number of NASCAR fans appreciated me being there for my talent and respected me.”
How pit crews have become increasingly diverse
It’s still unusual to find a minority or female face behind the wheel at all levels of NASCAR. Wallace, Mexico’s Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola, the son of Cuban immigrants, are the only minority drivers at the Cup level. Other areas of the sport no longer skew so white and male. Pit crews have become increasingly diverse over the past decade thanks to an emphasis on recruiting ex-college athletes seeking a new competitive outlet.
Mike Metcalf was still trying to play minor league football 15 years ago when his strength coach made a life-changing suggestion. The coach told the former Appalachian State running back that his strength, quickness and knack for performing under pressure made him an ideal fit for a NASCAR pit crew.
For Metcalf, the idea was alluring in some ways and intimidating in others. NASCAR was more appealing than beating up his body for scant pay in the Arena League, but all that Metcalf knew about stock-car racing at that time was that there wouldn’t be many people in the garage who looked like him.
Black friends told Metcalf, “Black people don’t do racing. You’re not going to be welcome there.” White friends told Metcalf, “Man, you need to be careful.” Ultimately, Metcalf took the gamble and accepted a job with Evernham Motorsports as a developmental pit crew member who also helped out in the parts room.
“Having not ever watched racing before, I honestly underestimated the amount of opposition there would be for someone who looks like me,” Metcalf said. “I was like, ‘It’s 2005. It can’t be that bad.’ Well, I found a new low.”
The racism that Metcalf encountered made his transition to a new sport more difficult than it should have been. It was all too common for Metcalf to overhear slurs or monkey noises in the NASCAR garage. Members of his own team refused when he asked for help learning a new concept or gave him busy work to hinder his development.
“There were people that were very supportive of me,” Metcalf said, “but there were definitely people who were trying to make it harder for me too.
“At one point, I remember going to another team for help learning a new way to put the tire in. I’m on one team, and they’re supposed to be in charge of my development, and I had to go to another team to try to learn as much as I could.”
Metcalf eventually overcame those early setbacks and climbed the ranks. He’s now the co-head coach for the Chip Ganassi Racing pit crew and a fuel man for Matt Kenseth’s No. 42 car.
Whereas Metcalf was one of only a handful of minority pit crew members when he first started, there are dozens today. Each year, NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity pit crew program identifies and develops a new crop of prospects, many of whom are ex-college athletes.
Among those is Brehanna Daniels, a former Norfolk State point guard who in 2017 became the first Black woman to be part of a NASCAR pit crew. The double takes Daniels received when she first started have become less frequent as she has worked her way into NASCAR’s Cup Series and even become the face of an Advil TV ad.
“I still get stares to this day, but it was much, much worse at the beginning,” Daniels said. “People were breaking their necks because there was nobody on pit road that looked like me.”
Why NASCAR struggles to produce minority drivers
Ask people in NASCAR circles why the sport’s recent emphasis on diversity hasn’t produced more minority drivers, and the sport’s economics are often the first thing they’ll mention.
It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy and maintain the equipment needed to climb the ranks at the sport’s youth levels. Without wealthy parents or deep-pocketed sponsors to fund a young driver’s pursuit of a career in racing, he or she is unlikely to ascend high enough to catch the attention of a NASCAR owner.
“This is a sport that costs a lot of money to participate in, so your financial status getting you up through the ranks is very important,” said Billy Venturini, co-owner of Venturini Motorsports, one of NASCAR’s top driver development teams. “If there are more white kids who have the money to do this, then the reality is they’re going to have more opportunity.”
Minority kids who have the means to pursue racing don’t have much reason to choose it over football, basketball or other stick and ball sports. NASCAR’s history of pervasive prejudice is an obvious deterrent, as is the lack of minority drivers at the sport’s highest level. There is also a perception that the fan base — more than similar sports like hockey — is not welcoming to people who don’t look like them.
Troy Adams is a former minor league NASCAR driver who now owns a California KART track and teaches driver development skills. His 9-year-old son is often the only African American participant in the Go-Kart and off-road races he runs.
“Because I’ve been in this sport so long, I was hoping he would do something else, but it’s just something that he loves,” Adams said. “When you love something and you have a gift from God, you just let the chips fall where they fall.”
The purpose of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program is to identify young minority prospects like Adams’ son and help groom them to reach the sport’s highest levels. While Wallace, Larson and a few other drivers have used the program as a springboard to reach the Cup Series, other promising prospects have had their careers stall out after not being able to find funding.
Critics of the 16-year-old program attest that it’s window dressing. It allows NASCAR to assure sponsors that it’s trying to diversify its pool of drivers without actually investing the resources necessary to address the problem.
Minority racers selected to participate in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program are typically in their late teens. In many cases, that’s too late for them to compete against the Chase Elliotts of the world who began go-karting at age 8.
Said one African-American who has been involved with NASCAR for more than a decade and has been critical of the Drive for Diversity program, “You can’t just make a good race car driver in 2-3 years. It doesn’t happen overnight.” Only one team, REV Racing, which competes at the regional level, is completely minority-owned. JTG Daugherty Racing, which features former NBA player Brad Daugherty as a partner, competes at the Cup level.
‘NASCAR has to change’
At a time when the nation is in the midst of a reckoning on race relations, NASCAR too appears to have at last embraced inclusivity. The drivers may still be almost exclusively white and male, but NASCAR is trying to make its sport more welcoming to all types of fans.
It started with the banning of the Confederate flag from all NASCAR events. Next came a video from NASCAR drivers condemning racial inequality. Then was the creation of a new position with the title of Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion.
The most striking imagery arrived Monday in Talladega the day after NASCAR’s announcement that a noose was found in Wallace’s garage.
The entire garage — drivers, pit crews and all — lined up behind the race’s lone Black driver on pit road before the race, demonstrating for the sport and the world that they had his back. Hours later, Wallace delayed a post-race TV interview to bump fists with a group of Black fans who had come from Atlanta to support him.
The scene was an entry point for fans like Malerie Thornton who previously felt no connection to NASCAR. The Black social media marketer from Atlanta found herself buying a Bubba Wallace T-shirt from NASCAR on Monday, something she could never have envisioned doing just a week earlier.
"The sport is changing ... Whoever it was, you're not gonna take away my smile."- @BubbaWallace
What a moment. #IStandWithBubba pic.twitter.com/Z3YajMuBBJ
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) June 23, 2020
“I wanted to support not only Bubba but also NASCAR,” Thornton said. “They are taking a stance that we’re not seeing other leagues make, so I wanted to reinforce that they have new fans and that we support the change they’re making. Of all leagues, I didn’t see this coming from NASCAR.”
If this is the start of meaningful change in NASCAR, Ribbs cautions not to give the sport’s governing body too much credit. He believes it’s overdue progress fueled by the country’s shifting stance on racial equality and NASCAR’s fear of its already dwindling national appeal eroding further.
“NASCAR has to [change],” Ribbs said. “It’s not what they want. It’s what they have to do. They know for NASCAR to survive and have continued corporate involvement and for there to be any growth in their audience, they know they have to change. It doesn’t matter what they want. They have to swallow this medicine.”
To many, though, what happened Monday in Talladega was a significant step forward. Lester called it “the dawning of a new day,” an act of unity and togetherness never seen before in a sport with a long history of racism.
“There’s going to be some resistance from fans saying NASCAR has turned its back on them, so they’re going to leave,” he said. “These same fans were saying they were going to leave when Dale Earnhardt died, when Toyota came into the sport, when NASCAR brought in stage racing, when NASCAR started the green-white-checker overtime rules. They’re always complaining. And if those diehard rednecks don’t come back after this, NASCAR’s better off without them.”
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