NASCAR drives closer to diversity goal

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Recently on the NFL Network, Bryant Gumbel and a panel of analysts, including Deion Sanders and Steve Mariucci, discussed diversity in the league. With Dennis Green's dismissal from the Arizona Cardinals and Art Shell's departure from the Oakland Raiders, there were only five African-American coaches for the 32 NFL teams until the Pittsburgh Steelers hired Mike Tomlin.

The panel's point was it's not very many, and they said one reason was there are only six black head coaches of the 119 college football teams. If you're going to learn the trade and hone your skills as a coach, they said you need to be able to do it at the college level so you have experience when you get to the NFL. As one of my favorite coaches, Jerry Glanville, said, "NFL stood for 'Not For Long.'" The panel said part of the problem is most football players don't retire and become coaches. It's a lot like our sport. Not a lot of drivers retire and become owners. There are a few, but not many.

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  • If you're a football player, and you're making millions, why do you want to become a coach and make a few million? If you're a race car driver, and you're making millions, why do you want to become an owner and make a few million? Money follows money. That's probably one of the reasons why there aren't more owner/drivers. It's difficult to do, and the NFL is in the same situation. There aren't enough African-American coaches in the college ranks to move up to the NFL. Diversity in motor sports had a pretty good year if you think about how people have followed Danica Patrick and her successes. She had two top-five finishes this past year, and she's moving up to the best team in Indy Car, Andretti Green Racing, so that's a big step. Melanie Troxel had the best season overall for all women in motor sports. She won two events and led the standings, finishing fourth overall in the NHRA's Top Fuel division so it was a great season by her. Along with Troxel in drag racing, Erica Enders in pro stock had a pretty impressive year, making it to a few final rounds. Katherine Legge had a pretty solid season in Champ Car. She had four top-10s and led a race in Champ Car, something no woman had ever done.

    In NASCAR, Juan Pablo Montoya came over from Formula One with a strong following and reputation. It's a huge accomplishment for NASCAR's diversity program to lure someone like that away from F1. He's looked pretty good in the few races he's been in. He's not lost on the track, and he's got a pretty good feel for the cars, which ought to give him a good jump-start for the '07 season. Montoya is a huge asset as far as diversity goes. At Atlanta, Bill Lester became the first African-American driver to qualify for a Cup race in 20 years. He started 19th at Atlanta last March, and he also made the race at Michigan in June. Diversity isn't going to happen overnight. It's a slow process. NASCAR is working very hard at all levels, but in order to have diversity in our sport, we've got to start at the very grass roots, just like you develop any other product. You've got to get young kids interested in the sport so there will be diversity and a good balance down the road. If you think about the programs that NASCAR has started, you could say, "Well, they haven't had that much success." But I see the fruits of their labors starting to pay off. Erin Crocker has made some inroads, and Lester has been impressive. A friend of mine in Franklin, Tenn., Joe Henderson, had a chance with the organization formerly known as MB2 Motorsports.

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    In 2005, Allison Duncan was the first Drive for Diversity participant to win a race with Bill McAnally and Richard Childress Racing. She posted 14 top-five finishes and 17 top 10s in 18 races and had two victories at Stockton 99 Speedway in California. She has shown promise. Aric Almirola has had some pretty good success in the Busch Series and the Craftsman Truck Series. Jesus Hernandez will be in the truck series in 2007. Not too terribly long ago, there was no diversity program, and there were no opportunities for young women, hispanics or African-Americans. Now, the program improves and grows every year, and the participants show that they have what it takes. All professional sports today are certainly struggling with diversity. But NASCAR has really taken the bull by the horns and will see the fruits of its labor in the very near future. NASCAR should stop developing cars and work on developing drivers. Let the teams build the cars, and NASCAR can provide money and resources to develop drivers. That's my recommendation for the future.

    Tagged: Bill Lester, Juan Pablo Montoya, Aric Almirola

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