NASCAR's Next and More Diverse Generation Continues to Change the Guard

Recently, TSFJ's very own Jason Clinkscales "shocked the world" by spending a few days in Daytona, Florida for a full immersion in to all things NASCAR, including witnessing the historic Daytona 500 up close. Beyond his social media posts, this is a two-part series of observations of an incredible five days in central Florida.

In an era where underrepresented communities are still making ‘first’ and other historical markers in the world in varied aspects of society, there are still some spaces where those trailblazers haven’t been followed by a wave of more.

NASCAR, however, has been trying to change that.

The sanctioning body of America’s premier stock car racing circuit has been pushing its ‘Drive for Diversity’ for the past thirteen years in response to growing criticisms over its historically white Southern male culture. NASCAR has some documented history of hostility towards ethnic minorities such as Wendell Scott, its first African-American driver. (He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.) There’s also been a mixed history with women; only a select few of the 105 women who have qualified at any level of racing have won a race, and only Danica Patrick has ever made more than 100 starts in the Cup Series.

The efforts, believe it or not, are having a tangible impact at all levels of racing, including with who you saw at Sunday’s Daytona 500. Of the field of forty drivers, three of them are alums of the D4D – Americans Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. (more on him tomorrow) and Kyle Larson, and Mexico-born Daniel Suarez. Separately, Aric Almirola is a Cuban-American who came up in the Joe Gibbs Racing’s diversity program, a predecessor to NASCAR’s current campaign, and nearly won the race before Austin Dillon took the checkered flag. Plenty more are on the rise as NASCAR’s much-hyped ‘next generation’ comes into a fuller view; both in the driver’s seat and on Pit Road.

The drivers themselves are the faces of the sport, but they are also the public faces of multifaceted, multimillion dollar organizations where, not unlike stick-and-ball sports, the best teams are the sum of many parts. A strong car comes from a strong team, and that’s where the development of pit crews is as critical as development of drivers. It’s where Kevin Richardson and Richie Williams come into play.

A pit crew member since 2009, Richardson graduated from the Drive for Diversity program in 2010, and has worked with several top Cup Series teams, including being part of two winning teams for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and one with Chris Buescher. As the recipient of the Diverse Crew Member award, Richardson was honored for his competitive performance and community outreach. The Elizabethtown, North Carolina native probably sounds familiar to you for another reason, though. Think Michigan vs. Appalachian State.

As the tire carrier and occasional jackman, “you have to translate the pressure (of football) onto Pit Road,” Richardson explained in how his former career helped in his transition to the race track. “The one thing about NASCAR is that there are no time outs. You have to get it done and get it done right. So you have to bring your strength from football, your physical ability, your agility. There’s one big difference: in football, you have someone trying to stop you, but in NASCAR, the car is just sitting there, so you’re basically playing defense the whole time and you’re trying not to make a mistake.”

When a former football coach approached him about the diversity program, Richardson had a completely open mind, especially because he wasn’t looking towards working a traditional 9-5 job at the time. “Why not? I’d still be considered a professional athlete, I’d still get to contribute my God-given abilities for something different,” said the former running back. Certainly, Richardson had his doubters while pursuing to make it in a world where there were far fewer black and brown faces than he saw playing football. Yet having made an impact in the field over the years, he is looking for more. “I didn’t really let anyone judge or discriminate me for what I wanted to do. Hopefully, one day I’ll be in a role in the business side of (NASCAR), potentially marketing or management, and continue to grow.”

Richardson is far from the only former football player to work on Pit Road. Heck, he’s not the only player from his old football team. Williams, who played quarterback at App State, grew up a race fan in Darlington, South Carolina – home to egg-shaped Darlington Raceway and the famed Southern 500. Both he and Richardson gave football one last shot in Canada before coming back to the States and training for the pit life. As the jackman for the No.1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Team, Williams is tasked with changing the tires of the car, which may be one of the most stressful positions in all of sports when you think how quickly it has to be done. While every crew member has to perform their tasks in very specific ways, there are plenty of athletic considerations when it comes to said tasks. “I’m probably one of the smaller jack men on Pit Road. I’m only about 210 (pounds) where most of those guys are pushing 250 and they played offensive and defensive line. So I gotta use my length and leverage to help me to do what they do with brute strength.”

Williams was the only minority at Germain Racing, where he began his pit career a decade ago, but said that after some “awkward conversations” about the cultural differences between himself and the those of the predominantly white crew, the bonds between his teammates are inseparable. He also finds his love for football hard to break as he is in his third year of coaching high school football in Charlotte – “it’s my passion, I do it for free and NASCAR affords me the ability to do it” – so he balances both gigs enough where he’s exposing his young players to both worlds. “(Students) really hadn’t paid attention to (the sport) until I got in the school,” said Williams. “They want to come over to the shop, and if they want to come to the track, I’ll get them passes. There’s some interest, but I don’t want to push it on them.”

While the former App State Mountaineers have established themselves in circles within the Cup Series, Jesse Iwuji has emerged as one to watch behind the wheel in the minor circuits. A first generation Nigerian-American, a Dallas native and active Naval Academy officer, Iwuji was awarded with his second straight Diverse Driver Award with impressive showings during the K&N Pro Series West season and a 5th place showing at NAPA’s Big 5 Late Model Series in 2017. Yet, beyond that, he’s incredibly active away from the track from motivational speaking to support for military veterans to partnering with NASCAR’s Multicultural Development department.

When speaking with Jesse, he talked about making the transition from sports and the Navy to the driver’s seat while also navigating the tough tasks of recruiting sponsors and gaining funding.

And yet, not far behind Jesse is an even younger group of racers who are hoping to make an impact in the coming years. Some of them are so young that they don’t even have learner’s permits for commercial vehicles or know where to get a free vin check yet.

Rev Racing features NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Development Team, which fields six incredibly impressive young drivers – Florida natives Chase Cabre (aged 20), Ernie Francis, Jr. (19) and Nick Sanchez (16); California-born Ryan Vargas (17), Ruben Garcia Jr. of Mexico City (21) and South Carolina native Isabella Robusto (13). They are as confident away from the race track as they are on it, and their passion for racing is easy to get caught up in once you speak with them.

One specifically who stands out is the very young Robusto, who has been mixing it up with the boys since racing in go-karts at the age of five. With a win in the Bojangles’ Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway last year, plus five top five finishes and eight top ten positions in her career, she’s shown that she’s on par with her male opponents. “When I go out on the track, all the boys don’t want me to beat them because I’m a girl,” the South Carolina native said. But once she gets acclimated to a new racing group, everyone’s collective guard seems to come down. “Once I’m in my home life, they know I’m just like one of them and just want to win.”

The winner of the Drive for Diversity Young Driver Award has shined in the same way that female predecessors have, but with seemingly more organizational support than the ladies before her. Robusto matters much more because while it’s somewhat of an apples-and-oranges comparison, there’s a much greater chance that we’ll see more minority male drivers coming up to the Cup Series than we’ll see a woman, regardless of her race.

Now that Danica Patrick’s final NASCAR run is in the rearview mirror – she was taken out in a 13-car pile-up at Daytona – it’s become clearer that aren’t many women in the upper levels of the minors following behind her just yet. Few women have ever sustained themselves for a full season in any touring series, let alone win a race, but Patrick had been able to make it through because she made her name (and brand) in the open wheel IndyCar circuit before becoming a full-time NASCAR wheelwoman in 2010. When talking about Robusto and the hopes of new female trailblazers, Dawn Harris, NASCAR’s senior director of multicultural development is quick to remind observers that the D4D isn’t just about race and ethnicity as “there is a very intentional outreach to engage young girls as well.”

Of course, there are huge challenges to the organization’s push to diversify the sport. For starters, people still have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of driving a car for a few hours as a sport, despite the grossly overlooked athleticism and mental stamina that make it so. And it’s pretty hard to shake the perception of NASCAR being the sport of ‘rednecks’ who proudly wave the flag of the Lost Cause – or the divisive President of the United States. And while truly a deterrent for those looking to get involved in stock car driving these days, there was a stinging rebuke in 2009 from former development-level driver Chase Austin, who refused to be a part of D4D because he believed it had the same negative connotation as affirmative action.

Yet as in any other hypercompetitive field, progress may be slow, but the labor is clearly bearing fruit. Suarez and Larson have paid dividends for their teams, each having won races in 2016 and Larson himself winning Rookie of the Year that season. Wallace’s second-place finish at Daytona, however, has been an immediate boon for NASCAR in a different way. When you’re driving for Richard Petty and driving his iconic #43, you’re going to get attention. Even Austin Dillon – racing an iconic number himself – couldn’t help but to note what it meant to see Wallace right on his tail when he spoke at Victory Lane on Sunday.

NASCAR is still rooted from the same traditional base, but in drawing from once-shunned communities, it may ensure a prosperous future if it continues to encourage more minorities and women to participate. After all, the trailblazers are going to need some company in making their marks on the sport.

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