Diversity has always been part of drag racing - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Diversity has always been part of drag racing

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Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2008 12:32 am | Updated: 10:30 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Diversity is entwined in NHRA's heritage, with more successful minority and women racers than any other motorsport.Yet it does not have a formal diversity program.

Diversity is "part of the fabric of our sport. We haven't had to implement a formal diversity program to reach this level," said Gary Darcy, senior vice president of NHRA sales and marketing. "In motorsports we have a very unique position. It's something we're very proud of."

So successful is its diversity record that the NHRA in January won the Urban Wheel's 2008 Diversity in Motorsports Award honoring diversity and excellence in the automotive industry.

Diversity springs from the NHRA's fan base and amateur drag racers in Sportsman classes across the country. Its diversity is visible in the throngs eyeing the cars in the pits and sitting in the grandstands.

Shirley Muldowney was one of the first threads in this fabric when she broke barriers as the first woman to earn an NHRA license to pilot a Top Fuel dragster more than 30 years ago. A number of women have followed her, including Melanie Troxel, who this year graduated to Funny Cars.

"There have been a lot of women since Shirley who have been involved in drag racing," Troxel said. "Drag racing is a little head of the curve."

Hispanic and black drivers also have made inroads in the quarter-mile.

African-American Tom Hammonds, a 12-year NBA power forward with 3,000 career points to his credit, retired from the sport in 2001 and took up his other love behind the wheel of a Pro Stock racer, a class full of able competitors all trying to make their mark.

"I think NHRA does a good job (encouraging minorities)," Hammonds said, but "I would like to see more opportunities for minority competitors."

Hammonds, who started drag racing at age 16, has a personal goal of developing his own programs to help inner-city kids find a way into NHRA racing.

On race days, he watches the amateur racers, looking for those who show promise both on the track and as crew members in the pits. The technical side of the sport also can be the gateway for success in drag racing and an escape, he said.

A technical success story is Hawaiian Todd Okuhara, the crew chief for Gary Scelzi's Funny Car team.

African-American Antron Brown, who made a name for himself in Pro Stock Motorcycles after starting as a team mechanic, moved this year to Top Fuel dragsters with his second outing coming this weekend at Firebird International Raceway. He also started young in racing. His father and grandfather raced in the Sportsman class and he started by wiping down the car and changing tires.

"The reason why there is so much diversity is because people can relate," he said. "All parts of the country have drag strips, everybody can relate to drag racing. That's the first kind of racing you learn.

"You can be in any kind of income bracket," Brown said. "That's why the sport is so diverse. I think we have the most diversity without a diversity program. I think the NHRA is doing fine. NASCAR needed a diversity program."

The Hispanic Pedregon brothers, Tony and Cruz, also are examples and role models for aspiring drag racers, and they, too, grew up in the sport.

That's a common thread in the NHRA's fabric. Minority competitors, and a lot of others, grew up around drag racing watching and helping fathers and family members compete in amateur, semipro and professional racing.

Minority and women racers make news, but they face the same challenges as all teams do in attracting sponsors. Without his earnings from the NBA and starting his own team, Hammonds said he would have been hard-pressed to find a ride. He is still looking for a major sponsor.

There are other women, Top Fuel's Hillary Will and Funny Car's Ashley Force for example, and Top Fuel's J.R. Todd and other minorities are coming up in NHRA's amateur classes.

With so much opportunity for minorities and women in NHRA, success boils down to personal commitment.

"No matter what you do in life," Hammonds said, "you work hard for what you believe in."

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