Latino Competitor Underscores NASCAR's Drive For Diversity

If you’re a motor sport fan and haven't yet heard the name Sergio Pena, it may just be a matter of time. The 17-year-old Colombia native is a rising star in a sport with few Latino competitors: stock car racing. Host Allison Keyes speaks with the driver about his career and NASCAR's efforts to bring diversity to the sport.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

He's fast. He has a need for speed and he's been racing since he was a young boy. But Sergio Pena is also a rising star in a sport where he's one of the few Latino men racing. Despite being the second most watched sport on television -after football - NASCAR hasn't usually attracted diverse audiences or drivers.

In 2004 NASCAR began an initiative called for Drive for Diversity to draw diverse crew members and drivers into the sport. And that's where the 17-year-old Sergio spun onto the track - just like Speed Racer, but cooler and in real life. And he joins us now on the phone from his home in Shenandoah, Virginia. Welcome, Sergio, how are you doing?

Mr. SERGIO PENA (Race Car Driver): Oh, I'm great. Thanks for having me.

KEYES: You've been racing competitively since you were just eight years old. How did that happen? I heard it has something to do with a fancy Christmas present.

Mr. PENA: Yeah, it did. My dad actually got me a go-cart when I was seven years old, for Christmas, and I had no idea what it was. And I was really anxious to get it out and be able to drive it. And the first time I drove it was actually a couple weeks later in an ice-covered parking lot near my home.

KEYES: Well, that seems like a good idea.

Mr. PENA: Oh, I mean, I don't know. I guess we're a little bit crazy, but anytime that I could get the chance to drive, I'm going to take it and it was such an adrenaline rush for me. I didn't really know exactly what I was getting myself into. And I definitely had no idea that it was something that I was going to be doing so many years later down the road.

KEYES: So, tell me about your first race at eight years old, really?

Mr. PENA: Yeah. My first go-cart race was in Wisconsin. You know, I was really, really nervous. There was, like, I think 30 or 40 something go-carts that I was competing against, and I actually ended up doing pretty well. I think I ended up finishing seventh place. So, really excited about that. You know, that was kind of the deciding factor of how I wanted to make this my career.

KEYES: Your dad is originally from Colombia and he also had a passion for racing when he was younger. So this must've been just the best possible thing for him as well.

Mr. PENA: Yeah, absolutely. I know that, you know, when he got me that go-cart, he was really hoping that I would enjoy it and, you know, I think I enjoy it even more than he enjoys it himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: This isn't the cheapest of sports, though. How do you guys keep up with the cost?

Mr. PENA: NASCAR, you know, is probably one of the most expensive sports out there for sure. And that's probably been our toughest deal, just being able to fund our own team and being able to get myself into a car. I haven't had any sponsors throughout my career, so it's just basically been my dad supporting me the whole way.

And, you know, up until this past year when I was running for Revolution Racing, we were basically paying out of pocket. So I'm really fortunate enough to be in a car right now and, you know, have Revolution Racing backing me with full funding.

KEYES: Tell me a little bit about your team, Revolution Racing, did you start it?

Mr. PENA: No, I actually didn't start it. It was started a few years back and basically what it is, it's the Drive for Diversity program basically gives minorities and women, you know, an equal chance to drive race cars. And they've had great success throughout the years. They had the first African-American to win a race and qualify on pole. And, you know, I raced with him last year and I'll be racing with him again this year.

So I'm really excited about the whole deal. They've really opened up a lot of doors for me and they've also given me a lot of exposure and taught me things that, you know, I probably wouldn't have learned in years.

KEYES: And I know there are not that many drivers of color out there. So, do you have other role models to look up to?

Mr. PENA: I definitely have a lot of role models to look up to. I would definitely, though, if I were to make it to the Sprint Cup level, I would definitely want to, you know, be a role model for younger drivers that are coming up through their racing careers.

KEYES: What's the Sprint Cup level?

Mr. PENA: The Sprint Cup level is basically the highest level of NASCAR. And, you know, one of my role models that runs that is definitely Jimmy Johnson. After winning his fifth championship just this past Sunday, you know, he's made accomplishments that no one else has made and, you know, there's some footsteps to follow up into. And, you know, hopefully I'll be one of the people that will be able to do so.

I also look up, a lot, to Juan Pablo Montoya. He's the only Hispanic driver in the Sprint Cup level. And, you know, we have a good relationship with him. He actually invites me to his motor home during Sprint Cup races to go eat dinner with him, my dad and his dad, which is really nice to have.

KEYES: I need to ask you about a recent race you had at the Toyota All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, California, 'cause I hear it was pretty cool and everybody's raving about it. What happened?

Mr. PENA: I would say that's the biggest race that I took part in by far. Basically what happened is throughout the diversity combine, they selected four drivers to run for the series that year and then they sent all four of us that made it for the K and N Pro Series to Irwindale, California for a shootout, for a spot in the Toyota All-Star Showdown.

And fortunately enough, I was the one chosen to run the race and, you know, that was something that I dreamed I would be doing at 16 years old. So I was really excited, really nervous. And on race day, on Saturday, went out, ran first and second the whole race, dropped back to third at one point, but I ended up finishing second and, you know, that's where a lot of my publicity came from, was from that race.

And, I mean, I can't describe the feeling how, you know, finishing second at such a huge event, it was just - the feeling was undescribable.

KEYES: So you're going to turn 18 in February. What's next for you on the circuit?

Mr. PENA: Oh yeah. Hopefully, you know, the K and N Pro Series races, they come on Thursdays at 6 o'clock, I believe. And, you know, I'll be running the K and N Pro Series next year with Revolution Racing. You know, I've also had a few kind of informal talks with a couple teams. I have to wait until I turn 18, of course, to be eligible. But if we hold good relationships with them, you know, that might be something that could be possible.

KEYES: All righty. Sergio Pena is a 17-year-old NASCAR driver. He joined us on the phone from his home in Shenandoah, Virginia. Thanks, Sergio, and good luck.

Mr. PENA: Thank you so much.

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