Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images
Darrell Wallace Jr., a graduate of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity Program, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 200 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 26 in Martinsville, Va.
Darrell Wallace Jr., a graduate of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity Program, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 200 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 26 in Martinsville, Va. Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images
On Sunday, the K&N Pro Series East begins down in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. And if the track and pit look a little more diverse than they have in the past, that's in part because of a NASCAR program designed to entice different communities to try out the sport.
Market research says NASCAR's bread-and-butter fan base is about 60 percent male and 80 percent white, mostly from the Southern and Midwestern states. But as the country continues to become even more diverse, the sport is working to make sure its fan base is, too.
That's a challenge.
Last year, Arsenio Hall captured NASCAR's dilemma while making it his punch line with references to racial profiling and NASCAR's traditional homogeneity. He joked that Darrell Wallace, the first black NASCAR driver to win a series in 50 years, "actually would've won by a wider margin, except the police pulled him over three times."
And in the past, NASCAR hasn't always been considered welcoming for ethnic folks, especially black ones. An incident from two years ago, when first lady Michelle Obama was booed by some in the crowd during her visit to a Florida track, still remains a sore spot for many black folks.
Max Siegel is a former sports and entertainment attorney who saw an untapped opportunity in NASCAR. He came to the organization from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s race shop where he'd been head of global operations.
Siegel saw a chance to increase the sport's fan base by getting women and people of color interested in racing through a NASCAR program called Drive for Diversity. And he quickly identified where he needed to focus his efforts.
"What we found is the biggest barrier in diversifying the audience is the perception," says Siegel.
So Siegel went on the road, speaking to church, school and civic groups to tell them about Drive for Diversity. And, drawing on his entertainment experience, he built another potent weapon:
"I created a reality show with BET called Changing Lanes, and we were trying to find the next woman or minority driver," says Siegel. "And that was one effort to start to educate a broad community about what goes into racing and the sport."
Think Survivor meets Big Brother at dangerously high speeds with plenty of high-octane fuel.
Courtesy of NASCAR
Drive for Diversity's newly selected 2014 class at Daytona Beach, Fla., on Jan. 30.
A few years ago, Siegel left NASCAR to found his own shop, Revolution Racing, in Concord, N.C. That made him the first and only African-American president of a NASCAR franchise. His mission: to find new drivers and fans.
Down the hall from Siegel's office at Rev Racing, two of his drivers are getting ready for the season. Daniel Suarez, 22, joined Drive for Diversity's Class of 2013, after having raced for years in Mexico. He's excited that corporate sponsors are excited about them, since corporate underwriting is essential.
"This year, 2014 , we've got 16 races, and we've got three or four sponsors for every race," says Suarez.
Devon Amos is also 22 and part of the Class of '13. The young African-American grew up in Rio Rancho, N.M., and first became intrigued with NASCAR because of a cartoon.
"I remember — I think I was 9 or 10 — the show that really got my interest in NASCAR was NASCAR Racers," says Amos. "And it was not realistic or anything — I mean, they were going upside down, doing loops with jet boosters — and I thought, 'Man, that's so cool, I want to do it some day.' "
And like Suarez, he started with go carts and worked his way up.
Siegel says he's proud of Drive for Diversity's record so far, and Rev Racing's role in it.
"We've been able to place about 26 women and people of color throughout the NASCAR ranks in the pit crew side of things," he says.
So the track and the pit crew are both diversifying. But as for spectators, that's taking longer.
Introducing the 2014 Drive for Diversity class, NASCAR spokesman Marcus Jadotte said the drivers have their eye on the ultimate prize.
"The multi-ethnic, diverse group of drivers we introduced today as part of the Drive for Diversity Program, we believe represents the face of what NASCAR can become," he said.
And that more diverse face, Jadotte says, will be the key to growing and broadening NASCAR's fan base.