SBJ/20080623/Opinion

With good diversity programs, time for NASCAR to reveal numbers

NASCAR got a serious jolt earlier this month when it was hit with a $225 million lawsuit by former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant alleging racial and sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.

NASCAR has a long, rich history of racing excitement. Yet it has also carried a strong perception as being a world of white men racing in and running a sport followed by more white men and white women. Images of Confederate flags in the stands and parking lots continue to reinforce the perception that NASCAR officials have worked hard to change. NASCAR’s mantra has been that it is “committed to making our sport — on and off the racetrack — look more like America.” It has a decade or more of programs to show that it has tried.

Grant, a 32-year-old African-American, has made some serious charges. She worked for about 2 1/2 years with the responsibility of certifying cars as a technical inspector in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. Nicknamed “Mo,” she says she was called “Nappy Headed Mo” and was confronted by one official who made references to the Ku Klux Klan and two who exposed themselves to her. The lawsuit specifies 57 incidents of alleged sexual harassment and racial and gender discrimination during her employment.

NASCAR needs to conduct a serious internal investigation. If the allegations prove true, those responsible must be held accountable. Marcus Jadotte, managing director of public affairs for NASCAR, assured me that this was already under way. “We do not and will not tolerate harassment of any kind. We are fully affirmative-action employers,” he said.

Five days after the initiation of the lawsuit, two employees who were named in the lawsuit were suspended by NASCAR.

NASCAR’s focus on diversity seems more clear after the hiring of Jadotte, who had been deputy campaign manager for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign in 2004. He agreed to take the job because of what he saw at NASCAR on the issue of diversity. It is impressive.

I have had lengthy discussions with Jadotte about how to provide powerful diversity management techniques to NASCAR and to provide meaningful sexual harassment training to employees at headquarters and on the teams. We were ready to go ahead with these programs before the Grant lawsuit was initiated.

On the track, there are more women and people of color competing and in important positions, including owners and team presidents. Teresa Earnhardt owns Dale Earnhardt Inc. and its president is Max Siegel, an African-American.

However, there are no black or female drivers in NASCAR’s top level, the Sprint Cup Series. The Indy Racing League has Danica Patrick, and Formula One has Lewis Hamilton, the circuit’s first black driver. The young British superstar signed a new contract early this year with the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team that will pay him a total of $138 million over five years.

But there are good signs for NASCAR. Six of the top 16 drivers in the Camping World Series East in 2007 were minority or female drivers. This year eight women and minority-group drivers are competing in the NASCAR Camping World Series and the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.

Juan Pablo Montoya now drives for Chip Ganassi Racing after his years competing on the F1 circuit. Rogelio Lopez is the first Mexican-born driver to win at an oval track. He won the NASCAR Busch East Music City 150 on July 22, 2007, in Nashville.

NASCAR Mexico is a long-term strategic venture to support grassroots stock car racing and new drivers in Mexico.

Industrywide, NASCAR’s best-known initiative is its Drive for Diversity Program started in 2004, in which 25 drivers who are minority-group members or women have driven in NASCAR’s developmental series. It also now includes a program developing this demographic as pit crew members.

Off the track, 170 students have interned in the NASCAR industry solely through the Diversity Internship Program and many have gone on to full-time employment in the industry.

“NASCAR has acknowledged a need to grow and diversify the sport,” Siegel said. “It is incumbent upon us as team owners, sponsors and industry leaders to assist in this effort. NASCAR needs to continue to focus its resources on recruiting diverse executive talent, expanding the minority driver pool and facilitate ownership opportunities in all divisions of the sport.”

I am convinced that NASCAR is trying to break the stereotypes that the Grant lawsuit has already reinforced.

The slow progress on the track has not helped. While NASCAR’s leadership wants the sport to look like America, it started far behind other pro sports. But drivers such as Montoya, Lopez, Hamilton and Patrick give motorsports hope that the face of the most public racing positions will change.

I urge the motorsports industry and its teams, not just NASCAR, to make the demographics of their employee base public to give itself a baseline from which to work. I assume the industry has not done so for fear of embarrassment. I think the public and the media will be impressed by the honesty and then recognize better the commitment to change.

It is not just about drivers, as there are so many more opportunities on teams and at the headquarters of NASCAR to bring about change.

When everything is more transparent, then I believe the credibility of NASCAR’s commitment to diversity as a business imperative will become clear. Grant’s lawsuit will be placed in perspective. It is a sport that is working hard to look more like America.

Richard E. Lapchick (rlapchick@bus.ucf.edu) is the chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program and the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

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