NASCAR's heroes typically have been white males: Richard Petty was the inspiration for much of the previous generation and the late Dale Earnhardt is for many of today's stars.
There's plenty of admiration in the sport for Wendell Scott, the African-American who achieved his lone Sprint Cup victory in the early 1960s, a time when Southern governors stood in school-house doors or led massive resistance to limit minority access to equal opportunity.
But Scott is only beginning to emerge as a racing role-model for young drivers like Dylan Smith, a 20-year-old Vermont native of Haitian descent. Smith and 16 black, female and other minority drivers ages 15-26 will be at Langley Speedway Tuesday-Thursday for NASCAR's Drive for Diversity (D4D) Combine.
They will go through a battery of physical, mental and on-track testing to land one of two or three available driving positions for Rev Racing's Late Model or K&N Series East teams. Rev Racing, formerly Revolution Racing, is funded by NASCAR as part of its effort to add diversity to a sport still dominated by white males.
"I talked to Wendell Scott's daughter, Sybill, when I was in Richmond," said Smith, who has driven Legends Cars and served as a mechanic for Rev this year, despite not making the cut at last year's D4D combine. "She said that she believed good things were ahead for me.
"Shortly after that, I asked if I could display the number 34 (Scott's number) on my Legends Car, and she gave her blessing. That means a lot, because he did what he did in a way rougher time than I'm driving in."
Which is not to say it's been easy recently for a female or minority to break into NASCAR, particularly on the track. But, thanks in large part to NASCAR's commitment via Rev Racing, formed in October 2009, progress is beginning to accelerate following an unfocused and inauspicious start to D4D eight years ago.
Darrell Wallace Jr., 19, won two K&N races in 2010 for Rev, making him the first African-American in the series to reach victory lane, and three more the next season. Wallace drives now for Joe Gibbs Racing, where he notched top 10s in his first three Nationwide Series starts this season, and won the pole last month at Dover.
Another Rev grad, Sergio Pena, 19, the 2011 K&N winner at Langley Speedway, landed a spot with Hattori Racing, owned by the former IndyCar Series driver and was featured recently on CNN. Rev driver Kyle Larson, 19, is the current points leader in K&N East, considered an increasingly important feeder series into NASCAR's upper echelons.
"You've got to have driving talent and we'll try to identify that talent at Langley," Rev Racing general manager Derik Crotts said. "Then we'll bring them in (to the shop in Concord, N.C.) and develop their driving ability, and their communications and leadership skills."
Rev competition director Jefferson Hodges, a New Kent native whose late father King Hodges served as vice president and general manager Langley Speedway, is in large measure responsible for that development. Hodges says Rev's new drivers will be selected by a panel of judges including NASCAR series directors and Rev management.
"The D4D combine is based off of the NFL combine," Hodges said. "We give them our version of the Wonderlic test, which is a third IQ, a third American history and a third racing history.
"But ultimately it's about driving ability and Langley is a great place to test them. It's got to be one of the toughest short tracks in America."
D4D Combine hopefuls this year include Daniel Suarez, a 20-year-old who's been winning often in Mexico. Hannah Newhouse, a Late Model state champ in Idaho, who, though only 15, was sixth in her first K&N start.
And there's Smith, who hopes to follow his hero Wendell Scott, into NASCAR. Smith began to learn the racing ropes this season as a shop mechanic at Rev, while also finishing eighth in the Legends Outlaws standings at the prestigious Summer Shootout in Charlotte.
"Driving is only a part of what I'm learning," Smith said. "There are initiatives throughout NASCAR to bring in minorities in public relations, marketing and engineering.
"It can be bigger and better, and I want to help make it better, but it's a good deal."
DRIVE FOR DIVERSITY COMBINE SCHEDULE
Tuesday: 2:30-5:30 p.m., Physical fitness and iRacing assessment at Hampton University.
Wednesday: 8:30 a.m.-noon and 1:30-5:30 p.m., track and car familiarity assessments at Langley Speedway.
Thursday: Selected driver assessment and situational on-track exercises at Langley Speedway.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun