The NAACP formally recognized the Dr Pepper Co. yesterday for its sponsorship of the only wholly owned black race team in NASCAR.
The team, owned by former Baltimore Colt Joe Washington and Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving, ran the entire NASCAR Busch Grand National Series during the 1998 season. It was the first team wholly owned by African-Americans to finish a season since the late Wendell Scott did it 25 years ago.
"We look at Dr Pepper as the Branch Rickey of NASCAR," Washington said, referring to the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947. "They were the only company willing to step up and take a chance. We had to dig deep and long to find someone willing to go into an endeavor such as this. Hopefully, others in Corporate America will see the success Dr Pepper is having from this and will be willing to jump in and give other minorities a chance."
Washington played for the Colts from 1978 to 1980 and went on to play for the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons before retiring in 1985. He said he and Erving started out looking for sponsorship for a Winston Cup team, which requires a minimum investment of $4 million to $5 million. When that failed, they found Dr Pepper willing to take a chance on a new team in the Grand National Series, the racing circuit a tier below the Winston Cup Series, which costs up to $3 million less.
"It was a long, hard season," Washington said of the team's past year. "We missed our first three races right off the bat by not qualifying. We were so green, we didn't even know that could happen. But it did. But we completed the season, and no one expected us to do that."
Of 112 teams competing on the circuit, the Washington-Erving team finished 38th in the final points standings, despite going through 12 drivers and failing to qualify for seven races.
"We had no background," said Washington. "We didn't know we needed a general manager to help organize our team. But with all the stuff we didn't know, we still had top-15 finishes and even had top-10 qualifying performances. Now, we have knowledge and experience -- not that we're experts now -- but we have a better understanding."
Cindi Clark, senior vice president of marketing for Dr Pepper, said the company entered its rookie year with apprehension, but came out of it thrilled.
"We were undertaking something that hadn't been done in 25 years," Clark said. "But Dr Pepper had ties to the racing community and with Washington-Erving, it tied us to outstanding role models for youth."
Yesterday, Dr Pepper also announced it has agreed to a multi-year extension of its contract with the Washington-Erving team. It has four major promotions planned around the race team in 1999.
Pub Date: 12/16/98