Spend some time at Phoenix International Raceway this week and you will see what long has been the face of NASCAR. White. Male. A beer in one hand, the keys to his Ford truck in the other.
NASCAR need not apologize for its southern roots. To forget where it came from would be to lose a piece of its soul.
But the "fastest growing sport in America," as dubbed by Fortune magazine, is branching out. The Checker Auto Parts 500 at PIR Sunday is one of several races now held outside NASCAR’s birthplace.
As it expands geographically, NASCAR also is trying to diversify its fan base. Under its "Drive for Diversity" banner, the sport has initiated several grass-roots programs in an effort to attract minority fans and drivers.
The Urban Youth Racing School, a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, gives inner-city youths (ages 8-18) a chance to learn about motorsports. The NASCAR College Tour builds awareness about motorsports among historically black colleges and universities. NASCAR also has provided scholarship money to the United Negro College Fund and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. "It’s about opportunities," said Tish Sheets, NASCAR’s director of diversity. "We see this as an opportunity to grow awareness of the sport and let everybody in America know they have a chance to participate."
Not only America. Mexico is the most fertile ground for NASCAR these days. The 200-mile Telcel-Motorola Busch Series race in Mexico City in March drew more than 80,000 fans, and in March 2006 NASCAR will launch the 14-race Desafio Corona series throughout the country.
"Mexico is a very important part of our long-term commitment to attract new participants," Sheets said. The poster boy for that effort is 40-year-old Paradise Valley resident Adrian Fernandez, a longtime IRL driver and team owner who has a six-race Busch Series deal this year with Hendrick Motorsports. Fernandez is the Michael Jordan of motorsports in his native Mexico, and his jump to NASCAR has revved up interest in stock cars.
"NASCAR is growing very quickly," Fernandez said. "Open-wheel racing is not doing what it should be doing to help kids. All the drivers are trying to get here (NASCAR) because all the opportunities are here."
NASCAR’s efforts, which intensified when Brian France was named chairman in September 2003, have paid off.
An ESPN sports poll conducted in 2002 found that black and Hispanic fan interest in the sport has grown 25 to 40 percent since 1995.
"The race fan in general has changed a lot," said NASCAR driver Greg Biffle. "We’re appealing to a lot of different fans, a lot younger fans. But we still have the fans we’ve had forever."
Said Sheets: "I’ll be in an airport, and I’ll hear diverse groups talking about Tony Stewart. I’ll sit there very quietly and grin."
Where change has been slower to come is on the track. Bill Lester, competing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, is the only minority — Lester is black — to have a full-time ride in one of NASCAR’s three main series: The Nextel Cup, the Busch Series and the truck series.
"Everybody has been asking me when we’re going to have a minority driver in the Nextel Cup," Sheets said. "I wish I knew the answer."
Biffle believes the declining number of short tracks around the country — such as Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix — is restricting minority involvement.
"Short-track racing is dying, and that’s where the guys need to get their Friday and Saturday night experience to even have a chance to be selected for the gong show," he said.
Change might come more quickly from the top down. Joe Gibbs Racing started a program to identify and assist minority drivers. Victory Motorsports, a minorityowned team led by former NFL wide receiver Terance Mathis, says on its Web site one of its major goals is to "bring the sport of NASCAR to the minority community, and in turn bring that same community to NASCAR."
"On all fronts there’s more drivers coming along," said NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson. "It doesn’t matter the race or the gender."
NASCAR never will lose all of its southern accent. But a sport that once proudly flew the Confederate flag is opening its arms to the world around it. "It’s changing," Fernandez said. "I wouldn’t say it’s completely different yet, but it’s changing."