SBJ/August 13 - 19, 2001/Opinion

NASCAR's drive for broader appeal

The 1965 Anthony Newley musical, "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd," parodied what Kenny Kane, publicity director for Phoenix International Raceway, identifies as the main attractions — noise, colors and personalities — of auto racing today.

It is one of the most popular and profitable sports. It is estimated that PIR contributes over $300 million a year to the Arizona economy. Dale Earnhardt's death demonstrated the huge emotional appeal of the sport and its drivers. But racing, especially NASCAR, periodically is criticized for its lack of color behind the wheel.

With its history tied to the old rural South, auto racing carried many of the negative traditions of that area, including racial segregation.

The bad news: As late as 2000, black driver Bobby Norfleet said racism denied him the opportunity to qualify for a Craftsman Truck series; NASCAR had no black drivers in its top two circuits — the Winston Cup and the Grand Busch National Series. The good news: NASCAR hired Joe Washington, a consultant, to help develop strategies to bring racial diversity to the sport.

The bad news: In 1999, two white crew members pulled "a prank" on a black crew member by appearing at his trailer at a racetrack with a white pillowcase over one member's head. The good news: They were fired immediately.

While auto racing still has problems, its reactions to equal opportunity are changing. There are several ways it can continue to change:

 Hiring diverse consultants to help nationally and locally. NASCAR, local tracks, car manufacturers, advertisers and media need education about the economic value of integrating all areas of the sport — from drivers and crew to concessionaires to audience — and how to attract and retain new customers. As the years go by and the nation's demographics continue to change, auto racing will need to supplement its traditional audience.

  Hiring more drivers, owners and crew members of color. There now are several minority drivers. Preston Tutt, a black from Georgia, is in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series, joining two other exciting drivers on the schedule this year: Willy T. Ribbs, who in 1991 was the first black to drive in the Indianapolis 500, and Carlos Contreras, a Hispanic.

  Attracting young people. For years, youth have enjoyed everything from miniature auto race tracks to video race car games. NASCAR and local tracks can create events and activities that expose youth to live tracks and minority drivers, who are role models.

My fondest memory of my late friend, Gary Bauer, was the broad smile on his face when he climbed out of the race car at the Richard Petty Track in Orlando. He was living out a dream that is unique to auto racing. Kane said it is just about the only sport in which spectators can fantasize themselves taking part. Almost everyone can drive a car; not many can kick a field goal.

Auto racing could be very enjoyable to many people of color (a family of four could enjoy a whole day on the hillside watching the Winston Cup at Phoenix International Raceway for what it cost for a few hours watching baseball at Bank One Ballpark). As Kane said, "If people come once, they will return."

If NASCAR and the tracks campaign to invite everyone and make them feel welcome, they will come.

Denise Meridith is CEO of Southwest Dimensions Inc. of Phoenix.

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