Drive For Diversity, NASCAR's Commitment To Race : Code Switch NASCAR's fan base is about 60 percent male and 80 percent white. In an effort to embrace the country's rapidly changing demographics, the sport is pushing hard to diversify its lineup of crews, drivers and fans.
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Drive For Diversity, NASCAR's Commitment To Race

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Drive For Diversity, NASCAR's Commitment To Race

Drive For Diversity, NASCAR's Commitment To Race

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

And on a different sports front, if it's almost spring, it's time for NASCAR. Tomorrow, the K&N Pro Series East begins in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. And if the track and pit look a little more diverse this season, that's because of a NASCAR program designed to entice different communities to the sport. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates explains.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Market research says NASCAR's bread-and-butter fan base is about 60 percent male and 80 percent white, largely from the Southern and Midwestern states. But as the country continues to become more diverse, the sport's working to make sure its fan base is, too, and that can be a challenge.

ARSENIO HALL: And finally, in sports news, congratulations to Darrell Wallace Jr. who became the first black NASCAR driver ever to win a national series race in, like, 50 years, I believe, the number was. And he actually would have won by a wider margin, but the police pulled him over three times during the race, unfortunately.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Last year, Arsenio Hall captured NASCAR's dilemma while making it his punch line. Black race car drivers are still awfully rare. And in the past, NASCAR hasn't always been considered user-friendly for ethnic folks, especially black ones. The reception Michelle Obama got two years ago when she visited a Florida track to support veterans remains a sore point for many black folks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden.

BATES: Max Siegel is a sports and entertainment attorney who saw an untapped opportunity in NASCAR. He came to the organization from Dale Earnhardt Junior's race shop where he'd been the head of global operations. Siegel, who's African-American, saw the chance to increase NASCAR's audiences by getting more women and people of color interested in the sport. He thought that could happen through a program NASCAR developed called Drive for Diversity.

MAX SIEGEL: What we found is the biggest barrier to diversifying the audience is the perception.

BATES: 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 did this.

SIEGEL: I created a TV show. It was a reality show with BET called "Changing Lanes," and we were trying to find the next woman or minority driver. And that was one effort to start to educate a broad community about what goes into racing and the sport.

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BATES: It's "Survivor" meets "Big Brother" at dangerously high speeds with plenty of high-octane fuel. A few years ago, Siegel left NASCAR to found his own shop, Revolution Racing, in Concord, North Carolina. That made him the first and only African-American president of a NASCAR franchise. His mission: to find new fans and drivers through Drive for Diversity.

Down the hall from Siegel's office at Rev Racing, two of his drivers are getting ready for the season. Twenty-two-year-old Daniel Suarez joined D for D's class of 2013 after having have raced for years in Mexico. He's excited that corporate sponsors are excited about them since corporate underwriting is essential.

DANIEL SUAREZ: This year, 2014, we've got 16 races, and we've got, like, three or four different sponsors for every race.

BATES: Devon Amos is also 22 and part of the class of '13. The young African-American grew up in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and first became intrigued with NASCAR as a cartoon.

DEVON AMOS: I remember - I think I was 9 or 10 - the show that really got my interest in NASCAR was the show called "NASCAR Racers."

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AMOS: And it was not realistic or anything. I mean, they were going upside down, these big loops and jet boosters and stuff like that, and I thought, man, that's so cool. I want to do it someday.

BATES: And like Daniel Suarez, he started with go-carts and worked his way up. Max Siegel is proud of Drive for Diversity's record so far and Rev Racing's role in it.

SIEGEL: We've been able to place about 26 women and people of color throughout the NASCAR ranks in the pit crew side of things.

BATES: So the track is diversifying and so is the pit crew. Spectators, that's taking longer. On the day he introduced the 2014 D for D class, NASCAR spokesman Marcus Jadotte says they have their eye on the ultimate prize.

MARCUS JADOTTE: The multi-ethnic, diverse group of drivers that we introduced today as a part of the Drive for Diversity program, we believe, represent the face of what NASCAR can become.

BATES: And that more diverse face, he says, will be key to growing NASCAR's ethnic fan base. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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