NASCAR seeks Tiger Woods of racing

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The only black driver to win at NASCAR's highest level never got a proper celebration in Victory Lane. Wendell Scott beat the field in a 200-mile race in 1963, but as the story goes, NASCAR officials were worried about how the predominantly white crowd in Jacksonville might react to seeing a black man hoist the winner's trophy. Buck Baker was declared the winner, and only after two hours of review - with the crowd long gone - was a "scoring error" detected and Scott named the official winner.
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  • "It was a night my dad said was a very good feeling, but a frustrating feeling because he couldn't get the full enjoyment from his victory," says Sybil Scott, the daughter of the late NASCAR pioneer. Nearly four decades later, NASCAR still hasn't seen a black driver celebrate in Victory Lane, mostly because blacks remain a rarity in stock-car racing. Two years ago, NASCAR signed a $2.8 billion TV contract. In the past decade, it has moved up alongside football, baseball and basketball as one of the nation's most popular sports. With that growth, the lack of a black presence is no longer just a regional or cultural anomaly. It has become a costly business problem, as well. As a result, leaders of a sport where Confederate flags still often outnumber black fans in the infield are beginning to realize the pressure to bring blacks into the fold isn't all coming from the outside. There's money to be made by attracting black participants and more black fans. And out of a newly formed black fan base, NASCAR just might discover its first black superstar driver - the stock car version of Tiger Woods. "We understand it could be a win-win for everyone," says Dora Taylor of NASCAR. In the past few years, NASCAR has stepped up its efforts to diversify a sport that was born and raised in the South, and still often seems stuck there. Now, it's just a matter of figuring out how to keep moving forward. At the start of 2002, NASCAR hired Taylor to spearhead the NASCAR Diversity Initiative. Taylor previously worked for Denny's restaurants when they were faced with a series of discrimination lawsuits. When she came to NASCAR, she was confronted by an organization that was willing to change but didn't really know how. "We've got a diversity program working, but this is a very difficult sport," NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. said. "You don't play it in school. If you're a good athlete, a good basketball player, the basic equipment you need is a ball. That's not the case here." Through the years, a smattering of black drivers, owners and crewmen - driver Willy T. Ribbs, car owners Thee Dixon, Reggie Jackson and Dennis Green, Busch series crew chief Tim Shutt - have taken turns working in NASCAR garages or trying to own NASCAR teams, all with middling degrees of success, at best. Currently, the only driver participating in any of NASCAR's national-level circuits is truck driver Bill Lester. More notable are the names of those who have tried and not succeeded: Julius Erving and Joe Washington had a Busch team, but couldn't sustain momentum, and lost their sponsor. Three years ago, Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her husband, Bob, announced plans to form a team, but nothing ever materialized. Rainbow Sports, a division of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition, and NASCAR have tried to give blacks a bigger presence in the big leagues of stock-car racing. In NASCAR, the Rainbow Sports people have found a willing partner - one that understands the societal and economic impact a surge of black racers and fans could have - but one that is slow to move, maybe because of the Southern roots of the sport. "It's an intoxicating sport," says Rainbow Sports' Director Charles S. Farrell. "But when you look on TV and you still see the Confederate flag waving, and you see people almost embracing that good ol' boy image, of redneck American, it's not appealing to blacks." Yearning for a chance to start a team are black men like Herbie Bagwell of Bridgeport, Conn. Bagwell, who says he's a qualified driver, has been working the phones and soliciting on the Internet trying to find sponsors for a team that could eventually make it to Winston Cup. He says he's not looking for any handouts from NASCAR, but is surprised at the reluctance he encounters from sponsors. Headline sponsors pay up to $15 million a season to put their logo on cars in Winston Cup, but drivers can get in at the lower levels of racing for about $300,000. "NASCAR is not responsible for putting African Americans behind the wheel," Bagwell said. "We need to help ourselves. We have resources. I'm a qualified driver and a qualified businessman." But often that isn't enough. Bagwell thinks many possible sponsors look at the crowds at the tracks, don't see any blacks there and don't see what gains they would get by spending millions to advertise in the sport. Media buyer Tom DeCabia agrees. He says if he runs into a corporation looking to focus on young black males, he would steer them toward the NBA and NFL, or maybe even major league baseball. "NASCAR's not one that would come to anyone's head," DeCabia says. Racing fan Malcolm Wilson, who is black, says he has never felt like an outsider at the races he attends each year. But clearly he knows he is in the vast minority. Although no official statistics are kept, black fans are hard to spot at almost any track. Although NASCAR has done a great job in expanding beyond the South, the fan mixture doesn't change much, whether the race is in Florida, New Hampshire or Nevada. "We're very outnumbered," Wilson said in Daytona Beach. "But race fans are race fans. You come and root for your driver. Nobody's bothered me in all the years I've been coming here." NASCAR cites a recent ESPN poll that shows trends are changing in the sport. The poll says the black fan base rose 17.8 percent between 1995 and 2001, a remarkable shift considering the number of black drivers and owners hasn't really changed at all. That same poll says NASCAR has added about 2 million black fans since 1999. NASCAR doesn't keep track of the number of minorities it employs, a situation Taylor says she plans to change. In recent years, racing teams have done a better job bringing more blacks and minorities onto pit crews. Car owner Rick Hendrick has helped with the launch of BH Motorsports, a team to be run by Sam Belnavis and Tinsley Hughes, who are both black. They intend to run a full schedule next year. They know they're trying something that has never been successful before. "These teams that tried before us and failed, it's all a matter of funding," Belnavis said. "This is an expensive sport and sponsors are hesitant to spend money, especially on people they aren't sure know what they are doing." But he feels with Hendrick's expertise, BH Motorsports might overcome some of the obstacles. As proof of its commitment to diversity, NASCAR lists several programs it sponsors or runs: A 10-week summer internship program that gives minority youth a chance to explore careers in motorsports; the Philadelphia-based Urban Youth Racing School and the NASCAR Technical Institute, a place where both minorities and whites can receive scholarships to learn how to work on a pit crew. NASCAR, however, won't set a timetable for bringing a black driver into Winston Cup. "We know we're not going to reinvent the wheel," Taylor said. "We just hope to fill in some missing links in education and communication. We want minorities to know they're welcome for any and every opportunity we offer." Race fan Wilson would love to see blacks in the sport, as well. "It would be nice, but I don't want to see a black driver in there because he's a black driver," he said. "Come in on merit - not on anything else."

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