A sport dominated by white men for decades, stock car racing is seeing a surge in talented minority racers, including a new crop of women. This is attracting new sponsors to shake up the sport — and to bring it more in line with the changes in U.S. demographics, helped by the organizers’ push to diversify the race, pit crews and the actual ranks of their companies.
In a stock car race two years ago, Daniel Suárez suffered an early speeding penalty during a pit stop, forcing him to the back of the pack. He then lost his clutch, souring his chances of winning the 125-lap top-ranked race in Michigan.
Despite these odds, Daniel Suárez, of Mexican descent, started pushing ahead with 13 laps to go and finally caught the leader, Kyle Busch, one of the sport’s most successful racers. In a thrilling last lap, Suárez edged past Busch to win his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
The result was big for Suárez — and for minorities in the sport. He became the first Mexican to win a NASCAR national series race, building on his recognition as Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year in 2015. He went on to win the series championship in 2016, helping to earn him a spot on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR’s premier series, where the 26-year-old now races against the likes of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Suárez’s rise is a sign of change in American stock car racing, a sport long dominated by white men, in part because of its roots in the South. Over the past few years, more minorities and women have been coming up through the ranks to get sponsorship deals and into the big races, including the most prestigious of them all: the Daytona 500.
This hasn’t come by chance. Two Daytona Beach-based companies — NASCAR, which operates the races, and International Speedway Corp. (ISC), which hosts and promotes races at 13 tracks across the country, are taking steps to diversify the sport.
Josh Avila, senior director of consumer marketing at the ISC’s Auto Club Speedway, a track in Fontana, Calif., said diversification is a must for the sport, if for nothing else than the fact that the country is getting more heterogeneous. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, racial and ethnic minorities are increasing faster than non-Hispanic whites.
This poses a big challenge: How can the sport maintain television viewership and ticket sales?
For Avila, the answer is simple. The sport must diversify its driver and fan base for future growth.
It’s doing this. “Just like the demographic is changing for the country, so is our business as a whole,” Avila said.
Finding New Racers
One step in diversifying the sport is to help minorities break into the auto racing industry through programs designed to find new talent in minority communities.
Suárez is a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity, a program that helps minorities and women develop and showcase their talents in an otherwise hard and expensive sport to enter. They race in minor-league and regional races, gaining exposure and opportunities to network and to be recruited by teams to race in NASCAR’s three national series.
Other graduates now racing against Suárez in the Monster Energy Series are Japanese-American Kyle Larson, who placed ninth and eighth overall in 2016 and 2017, and Darrell Wallace Jr., who may very well become the sport’s first African-American star. Wallace, who goes by the nickname Bubba finished second in this year’s Daytona 500, his best showing yet.
The program also seeks to bring minorities to the pit crews, and one of the graduates, Derrel Edwards, helped Austin Dillon win the latest Daytona 500. Edwards is believed to be the first African-American Daytona 500 winning pit crew member. Last year, Brehanna Daniels became the first African-American female pit crew member in a NASCAR national series race.
Building a Wider Fan Base
The young racers are not just minorities, they are doing what it takes to get fans: excelling on the track.
“The Hispanic community doesn’t just want to follow someone because they happen to be of Mexican descent. They also want to follow someone who is competing for a win,” Avila said.
Suarez’s success has helped attract more Hispanics to Auto Club Speedway, now comprising 20 percent of total spectators, up from 6 percent in 2007, according to Avila.
The second prong of the diversification strategy has helped this growth: make the race-day experience appealing to a wider audience.
“We have a little something for everyone,” Avila said. For example, Bush, an English rock band, recently performed at a race, a draw for the wider public. The Mexican-American Singer Chiquis Rivera also played — and this “spoke volumes to our Hispanic demographic,” Avila said.
The diversification also is luring new advertisers to the sport, including King Taco, a Los Angeles-based fast food chain, and O’Reilly Auto Parts, based in Springfield, Missouri.
“You’ll have sponsors that come in because they see the attraction of appealing to a broader fan base,” said Stephanie Harris, senior manager of content communications at NASCAR.
The third piece of the diversification strategy is to make the car-racing industry’s workforce more inclusive. A diverse workforce brings a broader perspective to developing fresh ideas, like entertainer choices, to reach a new public and improve business performance. “It is really about having your ear to the ground and making sure you have someone to perform who resonates with the community,” Avila said.
Like with Driver for Diversity, NASCAR and ISC have been finding minority talent for their corporate ranks through an internship program that’s been running for 18 years. The NASCAR Diversity Internship Program is a 10-week, paid summer internship for multicultural undergraduates and graduate college students with high grades. They work on projects throughout the companies and network with industry leaders.
“The experience is a benefit to them and it helps us identify and hire top talent across the motorsports industry to create a diverse talent work pool,” Avila said.
More than 350 interns have participated, and about 30 percent have gone on to work in motorsports and 45 percent in the sports industry as a whole, he said.
Jusan Hamilton, for example, graduated from the program to become the first black race director in NASCAR history, overseeing an Xfinity Series race. Other alumni are working for ISC and companies like Rev Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Toyota and Pocono Raceway.
Avila said there are keys to making diversification work in a company. One is to make it a company-wide goal — to weave it into the mission and values of the firm. If only one business unit is diversifying and not the rest, it won’t be successful because minorities won’t be able to move around between departments to sharpen their leadership skills, and they won’t feel “part of a cohesive unit,” he added.
At ISC, “It is not really about filling a quota, it is more about building a workforce that is as diverse as our fan base is, and using those differences to drive our business,” Avila said.
The second key is to create an environment of connection so that employees have a chance to sit on committees and attend conferences, helping them to build contacts and participate in talks and decision-making about company practices and initiatives.
Avila said the evidence of his company’s diversification can be seen on any given race day.
“When you walk onto the grounds during an event weekend, you see it, you feel it, you hear it, you smell it. Everything from the music to the food to the experience is diverse,” Avila said. “We try to create an environment that speaks to everyone and doesn’t alienate anyone, and that makes everyone feel welcome.”
Diversity is good for business. In a recent survey of 1,362 business professionals at multinational organizations, RW3 CultureWizard, a New York-based global training group, found that the companies that put a priority on promoting intercultural proficiency are more likely to achieve their business goals. Cloverpop, a San Francisco-based decision-making consultancy, recently published a study showing that companies with teams with a wide range of ages and origins make better business decisions up to 87 percent of the time — and twice as fast with half the number of meetings. The decisions of a diverse team yield 60 percent better results, the study found.
Avila compares the importance of diversity to the proper functioning of the human body. “It has different parts and it is only able to function at its highest level when those different parts work toward the same objective,” he said. “Having a variety of employees with broader skill sets, experiences and points of view definitely has helped us adapt to that ever-changing consumer demographic of the national landscape.”
Diversifying the workforce is a big help, but can the sport keep filling the pipeline with new minority racers?
That is a challenge facing women racers. A handful of upstarts are trying to repeat the success of Danica Patrick, who retired this year as the only woman in the Monster Energy Series — and in one of the most inclusive sports there is because men and women race together.
Natalie Decker, a 20-year-old from Wisconsin, is making her mark, finishing fifth in a recent race at the Daytona International Speedway. Another contender is Hailie Deegan, a 16-year-old from Southern California who came out of the Drive for Diversity program in 2016.
She’s cautiously optimistic. “I think there are a lot more barriers that need to be broken for another girl coming in and that can be broken,” Deegan said recently on the Sirius XM NASCAR radio show “Happy Hours.”
Will the barriers come down? If the sport continues to diversify and more talent like Deegan, Suárez and Wallace get the chance to emerge, there is little doubt that it will get easier to advance in the sport – further energizing motorsports and leading to continued growth.