Before this year, I had never watched a NASCAR race from start to finish and never even caught portions of one unless I was channel surfing or if ESPN showed highlights. I certainly never tuned in for pre-race shows on the weekend or racing news shows during the week. Football and basketball drew the lion's share of attention -- personally and professionally -- though three decades as a sportswriter including a long stint covering baseball for a national publication.
But everything changed in February with the Daytona 500.
I was attracted to a black-and-gold car that honored Grambling State University, royalty among Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I was impressed by the unprecedented number of Black owners (four) with cars in the race. And I was reminded that Bubba Wallace remains the one and only Black driver in the Cup Series. Daytona led to deeper interest and increased knowledge, eventually overpowering any disbelief: I had become a Black NASCAR fan.
That's great news for the industry, and it's not by accident.
Well before the flashpoint of George Floyd's murder in May 2020 -- and NASCAR two weeks later banning the Confederate flag at its racetracks -- officials realized the necessity of expanding geographically and demographically. That meant putting new tracks in major markets outside the traditional Southeast base and increasing the number of minorities who engage with racing, whether as fans, owners, drivers, or employees.
Having watched multiple races this year (Cup, Xfinity, Truck, and ARCA!), I was pumped to visit a track for the first time. Fans told me TV doesn't convey the true sense of speed, power, and energy. You have to see it and hear it in order to feel it. The trip to Richmond Raceway would be a welcome new experience. That's all I wanted from the second weekend of August, a Truck race and a Cup race, up close and personal.
But a pleasant surprise came first.
Bubba's Block Party
As Bubba Wallace stood atop a hauler and answered questions from reporters, attendees beneath lined up to take laps on iRacing simulators. Other youngsters were kneeling at another station, playing with toy cars that zipped around small ovals. Elsewhere, Rev Racing crew members conducted pit stop demonstrations and folks lined up for meals from local food trucks.
Wallace and NASCAR were hosting "Bubba's Block Party," a free community event designed to engage new fans and bring them to the racetrack. Eighty-four percent of residents in the track's neighborhood are Black, but many zip by without stopping by.
"I've lived in Richmond for 27 years, and I've never been here before," said Aaron Burt, watching as the Virginia State University Marching Band strutted into sight. "But I've been watching on and off for maybe a year now because of her." He nodded toward Sherry Vaughn, a city resident who has followed the sport for 30 years and used to bring her son to the races.
"He loved it," Vaughn said. "We came for several years when he was 6-to-8 years old, then we stopped. His friends at school knew nothing about NASCAR, so he kind of didn't want to do it anymore. But as he's gotten older, he's beginning to appreciate it more and bring his friends into it. Now he can tell you anything you need to know about NASCAR."
Prior to the concert by hip-hop artist Wale, Wallace took the stage during a Q&A session led by Brandon Thompson, NASCAR's vice president of diversity and inclusion. Wallace is a strong advocate for bringing more fans of color to racing and making sure they feel welcome. He was touched by the turnout; tickets were capped at 3,500.
"I'm proud to say we've made huge, huge strides -- we got a lot of y'all out to the racetrack, how about that?," he told the audience. "To see this group of people here is very humbling...I don't know if I'm supposed to be a racecar driver for the next 15 years. (Michael Jordan) pays pretty well so I'd like to. But it's not about that. It's more of how can I help change the culture in this sport."
Others within the culture want change too, or at least want to see reality overtake perception.
"Most of our fans do a really good job of making people feel welcome," Thompson told me. "They want people to experience the sport the same way they do. They want to share it. A lot of times there's an unfair stigma attached to our fan base."
Widening the Circle
Wallace and 23XI Racing co-owner Jordan are NASCAR's most visible Black faces, but they're far from alone. Top executives include Thompson, Eric Ryan, John Ferguson, and Amanda Oliver. There's Max Siegal, who spent two years as president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc., and currently owns Rev Racing, the competition arm of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program that began in 2004.
There's also Jusan Hamilton, who started as an intern in 2011, and this year became the Daytona 500's first Black race director, and Erik Moses, a longtime sports executive who in 2020 became NASCAR's first Black track president. "I knew NASCAR was a big-time league and that was attractive to me," said Moses, formerly with the XFL and Events DC before heading Nashville Superspeedway.
"I knew it had lots of sponsor involvement, and if companies think it's important, then it's likely important. The thing that really made me feel comfortable was a 45-minute conversation with Steve Phelps, president of NASCAR. We had a real candid conversation about the need to expand the audience base and fan base."
Someone else told Moses of a track president who received death threats and required several weeks of security when NASCAR first tried to ban the Confederate flag in 2015. "But I haven't had one bad encounter, not one," he said. Phelps made the ban official a couple of months before Moses started. "That was a big step," he said. "I'm not certain I would've taken the job if that hadn't been done."
Whether the move had a negative impact on any white fans, it apparently signaled a welcome to others. According to Adweek, "while 45% of Black fans considered themselves 'extremely interested' in NASCAR in 2020, that figure rose to 57% last year. Latinix interest has gone from 53% to 60% over the same period." And according to a February 2021 study among fans who said they became NASCAR fans in the past three years, Fox reports that 22% were Hispanic, 19% were Black, and 9% were Asian, which is half of all new fans in that survey.
Hamilton was hooked at 4 and started at 7, dreaming of becoming a driver starting his career as an intern at Watkins Glen International track. He suspects Black fans traditionally have been undercounted, by their choice.
"There's always been African-American NASCAR fans," he said. "I've come to realize they didn't necessarily feel comfortable talking about it because of that negative perception or stereotype." An uncle never discussed the sport or attended any races. "But now he feels comfortable and wants to come check things out for the first time," he said. "The strides we've made over the last few years have really contributed to that."
Race Day at Richmond Raceway
When going to a NASCAR race for the first time, you must unlearn everything you know about attending a major sports event. Neither courtside seats nor sideline passes can top the access granted ticket holders with garage and pit passes.
You can lean over a rail and peer under the hood of your favorite drivers' cars while work is being done. You can walk along the long row of haulers behind the garage and chat up crew members. During the race, you can stand mere feet away as a driver slides in for gas and new tires.
Every track is different and Richard Raceway is among the most intimate, perfect for newbies. It's not as imposing as, say, Talladega Superspeedway, a vast venue that could contain 14 SEC football stadiums. Drivers and team members mingle with fans and friends, in the infield and on the track during pre-race ceremonies. The cars are lined up in starting order and you're close enough to touch them. There's a hustle and bustle as teams get ready for the Federated Auto Parts 400, with pit members doing stretches and engineers going over details. Everyone who warned me about sensory overload was telling the truth.
"This sport invigorates all the senses," Thompson said. "It's a spectacle. The colors are bright. There's an energy that bounces around the garage and the grandstand area."
Washington Commanders defensive end Chase Young, on hand as the honorary pace car driver, addresses a group of youngsters from the Richmond Boys & Girls Club. I tour the hauler of Hendrick Motorsports' No. 48 car. On either side of the narrow aisle, closets open like sleeper berths on Amtrak. One drawer contains an entire engine. Another seems to hold enough components to assemble one. Ascending some steps at the front puts you in the command center, where crew chief Greg Ives stares into monitors like Captain Kirk on the Enterprise.
Outside, drivers walk a red carpet through the fairgrounds crowd before being introduced on stage. Then they hop onto trucks to stand and wave while driving a lap around the track. An invocation is followed by the national anthem and a flyover. Just before donning their helmets and climbing through the window, drivers get in a final round of pictures and hugs with supporters beside the car.
There's an extra buzz because Michael Jordan is here today, fresh off 23XI Racing signing Wallace to a multiyear contract extension. MJ takes his seat atop Wallace's pit box, puts on a radio scanner headset, and watches from there for the entire three hours. "Michael's passion for racing is the No. 1 reason he shows up," team co-owner Denny Hamlin said. "He's a race fan. He loves it."
He couldn't have loved the final results as Kevin Harvick won for the second consecutive week. Wallace started 11th and finished 13th; fill-in teammate Ty Gibbs started 14th, but engine trouble ended his day after 180 laps.
Building a Pipeline
The night before, Rajah Caruth started 28th and finished 25th while competing in his second-ever Truck race. The 20-year-old is climbing the ladder in pioneering fashion, selected in 2018 as NASCAR's first Drive for Diversity participant whose primary racing background came through simulators instead of on track. He didn't compete in a real car until three ago; conversely, drivers who grow up around the sport (like 19-year-old Gibbs) turn laps in early childhood.
Not every family can afford the expense of racing. Cost is a high barrier to entry, leading Hamilton and Siegal to use iRacing in search of prospects with untraditional backgrounds.
His prowess on racing simulators earned Caruth a shot at the Drive for Diversity program (D4D). "We let him test the car, come out to our combine and try out," said Siegal, adding that 200 drivers might apply for the handful of slots in a given year. "He's a pretty spectacular young man. He works hard and lives it. But it's a huge jump to go from the computer to a real car. He started in youth racing and has worked his way up."
Caruth and Rev Racing teammate Nick Sanchez have led the ARCA Menard Series, a NASCAR feeder circuit, virtually all season. If all goes to plan over the next several years, they could be in the Cup, following D4D alums Wallace, Daniel Suarez, and Kyle Larson. Siegal warns against using that metric as the sole measure of success.
"Progress has been incredible because people don't understand there are only 43 drivers, at most, at the Cup level," he said. "It's not like there are so many out there talented enough to compete. But there were no drivers when we started this. And no pit crew members."
Siegel remembers when Dion "Rocko" Williams was pit row's only Black member. Now, Williams is national recruiter for the D4D pit crew program, which has more than 55 graduates -- men and women -- on race teams. The athletes are recruited from HBCUs and other institutions, and go through an academy-style development program. Alums Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O'Leary became the first female pit crew members over the wall for the same team in the 2019 Daytona 500.
Caruth is also a student at Winston-Salem State University, the only HBCU with a degree in motorsports management. Thompson said NASCAR is working on a diversity initiative with another Alabama A&M University, another HBCU, and continues to support robust internship programs; his career began as an intern at Nashville Superspeedway in 2003.
Hamilton said having diverse talent in all walks of the sport, from the track to the business side, is the ultimate goal, and it's essential in making NASCAR more welcoming and inclusive. "It's hard to reach audiences if you don't have representation talking about what is important to them," he said. "We're in a much better spot today."
I know this much for certain: they added at least one diverse fan this season.