WASHINGTON - Don't expect to spot any black drivers when this weekend's Daytona 500 kicks off the 2004 NASCAR season. While NASCAR's logo contains a rainbow of colors, the diversity of hues doesn't translate to the track. Auto racing continues to be a sport of mostly white competitors and fans.
In 2003, Bill Shack of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition called auto racing "the last bastion of white supremacy" in professional sports. That's not the case. NASCAR officials want minority drivers, crew and fans, but there's not a whole lot they can do about drivers. The fundamental problem is that it's hard for drivers to break into the sport.
Unlike basketball or football, raw talent isn't enough to get an aspiring driver to the checkered flag first. There are no walk-ons in auto racing. To compete in the Nextel Cup Series, the major league of NASCAR, a driver literally needs to be the "Six Million-Dollar Man." That's the estimated minimum cost for maintaining a car and crew of a dozen for a season.
For a new driver, it's a daunting obstacle. It's little wonder that the sport is dominated by family names such as Earnhardt, Petty, Marlin and Waltrip.
Contrary to Mr. Shack's assertion, however, racing is not devoid of, or averse to, minorities. In 1963, Wendell Scott, who had been involved in NASCAR since the early days, became the first and so far only black driver to win a major-league race. Bill Lester currently drives in the Craftsman Truck Series, and there are many more black drivers champing at the bit to compete.
NASCAR has responded to Rainbow/PUSH's criticism with a "Drive for Diversity" program to create four minority drivers and crews for regional Dodge Weekly Series races. Former NFL superstar Reggie White also plans to field a minority driver backed by a veteran crew in the Carolinas.
But this still won't ensure Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace will face a black competitor in the future. The "Tiger Woods of NASCAR" won't get anywhere near the track at Watkins Glen or Daytona without proper funding.
Corporate America can effectively break auto racing's color barrier by sponsoring minority drivers and crews. NASCAR sponsorships, which give drivers money to compete, are a lucrative prospect for savvy businesses. The sport boasts 75 million fans and experienced a 19 percent boost between 2000 and 2002 alone.
Fifty-eight percent of NASCAR fans are between the ages of 18 and 44, and 40 percent are women. More than 40 percent earn $50,000 a year or more. They also usually own their homes and have children.
NASCAR fans also are intensely loyal to the sport and their favorite drivers. A 2002 Performance Research survey found product sponsorship of NASCAR "almost always" or "frequently" factored into the shopping habits of 71 percent of fans. This is compared with only 47 percent in professional golf. Forty percent say they would switch their brand allegiance due to a company's racing sponsorship.
There's no shortage of willing minority drivers in need of corporate sponsorship, and no lack of interest in them among NASCAR officials. Finding them the sponsorship support they must have to field a competent team is the key to integrating the sport and for them to bring home the titles. NASCAR officials can't help drivers for the same reason the NFL commissioner cannot bend the rules to help the Detroit Lions field a better team.
Minority interest in auto racing is already growing, with the black fan base reportedly growing by 29 percent between 1999 and 2003. The presence of more black drivers can only bring more minority fans to the sport and the products they endorse.
It's time to end the perception that NASCAR is a white sport. It's not about white, but about green. Money. That's the key to getting any driver on the track. If America's businesses were to sponsor good black drivers, it would be a win-win scenario for everyone.
David W. Almasi is the executive director of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune