Friday, April 27, 2007

Essay 2056

From USA Today…


NASCAR Seeks Diversity but Finds It Slow

By Seth Livingstone

As much as any sport in America, NASCAR has roots tied to a certain culture: white Southerners. During the last 10 years, that fan base has helped propel NASCAR to become the unquestioned king of American motor sports.

Now, TV ratings are down for a second consecutive season, and NASCAR officials are talking with urgency about the need to diversify their sport with more minority drivers and team members — and conquer the idea that the sport does not welcome non-white fans.

“If we don’t get diversity right, this sport will not achieve what it needs to achieve from a popularity standpoint,” NASCAR CEO Brian France said in February.

NASCAR is making some progress in diversifying team executives and crewmembers — Max Siegel, hired in December by Dale Earnhardt Inc., is the first black president of a major team — and has several initiatives to attract and train more.

But four years after NASCAR launched a program called Drive for Diversity to produce elite minority and female drivers, it has no blacks or women competing regularly in either of its top circuits, the Nextel Cup and Busch series. Bill Lester, a 46-year-old African-American who is not part of the diversity program, is the only such driver to race regularly in NASCAR’s third level of competition, the Craftsman Truck Series. (Lester did compete in two Nextel Cup races last year, becoming the first black driver in a Cup event since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986.)

The defection last year of 2000 Indianapolis 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya to NASCAR from open-wheel racing has given NASCAR a coveted entrée to potential Latino fans in the USA and Mexico. It’s less clear when, or whether, such an African-American driver will emerge.

In fact, NASCAR's dreams of expanding its fan base among minorities could hinge more on its ability to attract Latinos — who make up 14.4% of the U.S. population — than blacks, who represent 12.8%.

“One of the things that can help us is getting better (TV) ratings in New York, L.A. and Chicago,” says Humpy Wheeler, president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. “To do that, we’ve got to have a reason for Hispanics to like (the sport). I think this is what a successful Montoya would do for us. (But) he can’t sit back there and finish 15th every race and get people excited.”

[Click on the essay title to catch the full story.]

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