Need For Speed: Native American Joins NASCAR

AJ Russell began racing when he got his first dirt bike at age five. He's now part of the first racing team to have both a Native American owner and driver. He recently debuted in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series. As part of Native American Heritage Month, host Michel Martin speaks with Russell about race car driving and embracing his ancestry.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, most of our regular listeners know that, here at TELL ME MORE, we don't wait for an official month to talk about the interesting ways race or ethnicity play out in American life today.

But since November is Native American Heritage Month, we thought we'd make an extra effort to highlight the contributions of Native Americans and to close out this year's Native American Heritage Month, we want to tell you about A.J. Russell. He's believed to be the first Native American driver to compete in one of NASCAR's top three series and he's certainly part of the first racing team to have both a Native American owner and driver.

And if things work out as hoped, A.J. hopes to someday have every single member of the team be of Native American heritage and he's with us now from Fresno, California.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us. Congratulations on everything.

A.J. RUSSELL: Thank you, Michel. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you don't come from a racing family, but you were bitten by the racing bug really early. How'd that happen?

RUSSELL: You know, my dad's a mechanic. My dad's a gear-head. You know, I'd always been around cars and motor sports and we were happening to watch a television program, a motocross event, and I wanted a motorcycle. So my parents, for my Christmas present, got me - at the age of five - got me a motorcycle.

I really, really enjoyed the dirt bike that I got and I rode it nonstop. And, one day, a guy walked into my dad's shop and said, you know, if your son enjoys motor sports so much, you should get him in a race car. And that opened the opportunity to start racing quarter-midgets at the age of seven.

MARTIN: So you were racing at the age of seven?

RUSSELL: Correct.

MARTIN: Motorbikes?

RUSSELL: I actually got a car. It's a small car. It does about 65 miles an hour, but the track is extremely small, so at the age of seven, doing - you know, 65 miles an hour on an extremely small track, it feels like 200.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I'm a mother, too. I'd like to call your mom and check with her on it because, to me, that feels like 500 miles an hour. But she wasn't scared for you?

RUSSELL: You know what? Actually, the motor sports - my dad, especially, was extremely adamant about motor sports. I wasn't allowed to play football in high school or junior high because he was always scared that I was going to get hurt playing football and I wasn't going to be able to race.

His whole thing was that, you know, he got me strapped into a race car with a five point seatbelt harness and a helmet and all the safety gear, that I was more safe in that race car than I was anywhere else in this world.

MARTIN: So now, you've moved your way up through the system, as we said. You started out with a motorbike and then you moved to a - what do they call them? Midgets?

RUSSELL: It was a quarter-midget.

MARTIN: Quarter-midgets. And then you did that. And now, you just started competing in a Camping World Truck series, so we're essentially talking about modified pickup trucks. Do I have that right?

RUSSELL: Yes, that's correct.

MARTIN: OK. What does it take to be great at your sport?

RUSSELL: Well, it takes a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work. The motor sports industry is an extremely expensive sport. That's what makes racing so much more difficult than any other sport because, not only do you still have to have the talent of racing, but you have to have the business mind to go after and talk to sponsors and the public because that's what ultimately brings in the money that allows you to race.

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting because that leads to a question that I had. And, by the way, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're speaking with A.J. Russell. He competes in the NASCAR Camping World Truck series. He's believed to be the first Native American driver to compete in one of NASCAR's top three series and he is certainly part of the first racing team to have both a Native American owner and driver.

And I do want to mention that we tried to confirm this with NASCAR, but they said they don't track driver ethnicity. To that point, I heard that you initially didn't really identify as Native American, even though you are a member of the Cherokee Nation, but that changed. Do you mind if I ask why you didn't particularly want to be seen as a Cherokee? And what changed your mind about that?

RUSSELL: You know what? I think the biggest thing was it was the stereotypes. I was so focused on the goal at hand and where I wanted to go with my life and my career and I was so scared of a stereotype holding me back. You know, I was so scared of, you know, just the stereotyping behind Native Americans, you know, drinking alcohol and lazy and, you know, all these stereotypes. I was really scared of them in the beginning.

And then, as I got older and a little bit more mature, I realized this isn't something that I should hide or I should hold back. I should embrace it and actually show people that the stereotype is wrong.

MARTIN: And, in part, though, is this part of what would help, perhaps, to build your team and your presence within the sport, to point out that you have a different profile than a lot of the folks who have been in NASCAR, which is seen as, you know, kind of a white guys' sport? I mean, is that part of it, that you are bringing something different to the table?

RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah. I think that definitely helps out and that's the same thing with women drivers at this point. I think it's a really neat sport and the sport is lacking a little bit of color. And when I say that, I don't mean, you know, just in personalities and people. I think the sport really needs to reach out to a broader audience and different ethnicities, and there's stereotyping there, as well. You know, that stereotype of NASCAR hillbilly. If you've never made it to a race, you would know that that is so much farther than the truth, that - you know, every race fan is this hillbilly redneck.

MARTIN: Well, it started out as, you know, bootleggers, right? Racing.

RUSSELL: Correct.

MARTIN: I mean, that is the history of the sport, is bootleggers kind of trying to, you know, stay literally a step ahead of the law and that, you know, it's evolved into this huge - it's one of the biggest sports, certainly, in the country today.

But, to that end, though, has your ethnicity changed the way you're viewed in this, now that you've decided to embrace your ethnicity, really, in a big way? And I should mention that the owner of your team is David Melton, who is with the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe in New Mexico. He owns Sacred Power Corporation, which happens to be the largest Native American-owned solar integration company in the country, too. So you're both, you know, really embracing, you know, your heritage and putting it, you know, front and center.

Now that that's kind of out there, has that changed the way people treat you?

RUSSELL: I wouldn't say that it's changed the way that people act towards me. I think it opened people's mind a little bit because of the fact that it wasn't something I was real open about before. And I think now that I'm very open about it, I think people see me as the same person and now they see that Native American heritage side to it and say, you know what? He's not much different than before, you know, we knew or before he said anything about it.

And, you know, I'm just trying to get away from that - you know, trying to fix that stereotype and I think that being Native American in this sport, NASCAR has been great to me and really tried to help me and the whole minority group. So I have seen a little bit of help on that end of the fence, but I mean, we still have a long ways to go.

MARTIN: So what's next for you?

RUSSELL: Well, next, you know, we're working on the 2012 season right now, which would mostly consist of Camping World Truck series. I love, love, love local racing, so I will still probably pop into local racetracks around the country now and again and I hope to move on to the Nationwide series in 2013. Maybe spend a year or maybe two in the Nationwide series and then, hopefully, it's Cup.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted. Good luck to you.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: A.J. Russell drives for Sacred Power Motor Sports and he joined us today from Fresno, California. A.J., thanks so much for joining us once again.

RUSSELL: Hey, thank you, Michel. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

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