Is Bubba Wallace a sign of success or struggle in NASCAR’S Drive for Diversity?
The first African-American at the sport’s top level in 40 years joins two other minority recruits at this weekend’s Coca Cola 600
The Coca Cola 600, one of the top races in NASCAR’s season, will set a record even before the event begins Sunday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For the first time, the Memorial Day race will feature three alumni of NASCAR’s years-long effort to diversify the sport.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will be driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Daniel Suarez for Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Larson for Chip Ganassi Racing. Wallace, 24, joined NASCAR’s top series full-time earlier this year, becoming the first African-American to regularly race at that level since Wendell Scott in 1971. (Suarez, 26, who is Hispanic, started driving in the Monster Energy Cup Series last year. Larson, 25, whose mother is Japanese-American, reached the top level in 2013.)
But NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has been around for 14 years. So it seems fair to ask: Is this weekend’s roster evidence of success? Or does it show how much the sport still struggles to integrate its ranks?
The Undefeated compiled a list of all 62 drivers who participated in the program from its inception in 2004 through 2018. In that time, only Wallace, Larson and Suarez secured a full-time spot in the top series. Just 10 drivers have raced at least once on one of NASCAR’s three highest levels.
A little more than a third of the drivers admitted to the training program have been white women. While NASCAR does not identify participants by race or ethnicity, at least 18 Hispanics and at least 13 African-Americans have gone through the program.
But the data shows that only a few are able to hang on much past their participation in the program. Indeed, there are currently nine drivers affiliated with the program racing on any NASCAR circuit and six of them are in the 2018 class. (A total of 158 drivers currently compete in the sport’s top three series.)
The drivers in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program
More than 60 drivers have gone through the development program since 2004, but only 10 have raced at least once on one of NASCAR’s three highest levels.
|Devon Amos||Black/White||Still involved in racing, no NASCAR circuit|
|Jorge Arteaga||Hispanic||No longer in NASCAR circuit, struggled for sponsor|
|Jairo Avila||Hispanic (Latino)||Last recorded races date back to 2016 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Enrique Baca||Hispanic||Raced in NASCAR’s Peak Mexico Series last year. Most recently began racing in a Grand Prix karting series|
|Annabeth Barnes||White||Last raced in 2017 for KHM Racing in CARS Late Model Stock Tour|
|Jay Beasley||Black||Last raced in 2017 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East; is now actively seeking sponsorship|
|Mackena Bell||White||Last raced in 2014 for Toyota Racing in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Chris Bristol||Black||Last raced in 2007 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West|
|Jessica Brunelli||White||Last raced in 2014 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Morty Buckles||Black||Last raced in 2006 for ST2 Motorsports in the ARCA races|
|Kristin Bumbera||White||Began dirt racing in 2016 (last documented race)|
|Chase Cabre||Hispanic (Latino)||Currently racing in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Collin Cabre||Hispanic (Latino)||Last raced in 2017 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Macy Causey||White||Last raced for Rev Racing in 2017 in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series (Late Model Division)|
|Michael Cherry||Black||Last raced in 2011 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Madeline Crane||White||Last raced for Rev Racing in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series|
|Brianne Cronrath||White||Currently dirt track racing; seeking sponsorship|
|Marc Davis||Black||Last raced in 2011 in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series; Currently works at Hendrick BMW in North Carolina|
|Natalie Decker||White||Currently racing in the ARCA Racing Series|
|Paige Decker||White||Last raced in 2016 in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series|
|Bruce Driver||Black||Last raced for Score Motorsports in the Late Model Division in 2004|
|Juan Garcia Duarte||Hispanic (Latino)||Last raced in 2016 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Allison Duncan||White||Last raced from Richard Childress Racing in 2006|
|Ernie Francis Jr.||N/A||Currently racing in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Sarah Fisher||White||Retired from IndyCar in 2010|
|Michael Gallegos||Hispanic||Last raced in 2008 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West|
|Rubén García Jr||Hispanic||Currently racing in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Trey Gibson||N/A||Currently racing late-model stock cars|
|Ryan Gifford||Black/White||Currently racing late-model stock cars|
|Jonathon Gomez||Hispanic||Last raced in 2012 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West|
|Katie Hagar||White||Appears to be out of racing|
|Paulie Harraka||Middle Eastern||Last raced in 2014 in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series|
|Laura Hayes||White||Currently races in the Sports Car Club of America’s Formula Vee division|
|Jessica Helberg||White||Last raced in 2007 in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series|
|Joe Henderson III||Black||Last raced for Akon Motorsports in 2013|
|Jesus Hernandez||Hispanic||Last raced in 2008 in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series|
|Rebecca Kasten||White||Appears to be out of racing|
|Ali Kern||White||Last raced in 2016 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East; Currently seeking sponsorship|
|Lindsey King||White||Last raced in 2008 in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series|
|Tommy Lane||Black||Last raced for Evernham Motorsports in 2005|
|Kyle Larson||Asian/White||Currently racing in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series|
|Lloyd Mack||Black||Last raced in 2008 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West|
|Jack Madrid||Hispanic||Last raced in 2015 in the Lucas Oil Modified Series|
|Tayla Orleans||White||Appears to be out of racing|
|Bryan Ortiz||Hispanic (Latino)||Currently racing in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and Global MX-5 Cup Series|
|Sergio Pena||Hispanic||Last raced in 2016 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Megan Reitenour||White||Currently seeking sponsorship|
|Isabella Robusto||N/A||Currently racing the Legend car for Rev Racing|
|Jason Romero||Hispanic||Last participated in the Pacific Challenge Series (Late Model Racing) in 2017|
|Kenzie Ruston||White||Last raced in 2015 in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East; last competed at other short tracks in 2016|
|Nick Sanchez||Hispanic||Currently racing in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series|
|Natalie Sather||White||Last raced in 2012 in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series; works as a digital coordinator for JR Motorsports|
|Daniel Suarez||Hispanic||Currently racing in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series|
|Dylan Smith||Black||Dirt track racing; currently seeking sponsorship|
|Jonathan Smith||Black||Last raced in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Series|
|Emily Sue Steck||White||Last raced in 2009 in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series|
|Ryan Vargas||Hispanic||Currently racing in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East|
|Darrell Wallace Jr.||Black/White||Currently racing in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series|
Sources: Racing Reference, NASCAR, Rev Racing, personal websites and Facebook pages.
Some drivers remain close to the sport by working as mechanics for racing teams or spending weekends dirt-track racing with borrowed equipment. But others have distanced themselves from the sport altogether. The evidence: websites that have been abandoned for years, many leaving one last plea for sponsorship to help get them back on someone’s track.
Some graduates of the Drive for Diversity program said they faced several obstacles, including their equipment, a lack of transitional support for drivers who complete the program and want to catch on with a team, and difficulties in finding sponsorships.
Putting a car on a track at any level can be jaw-droppingly expensive. Racing teams don’t usually disclose their expenses, but a full season in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) series can run around $1 million, according to one driver. Moving to NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series may cost around $3 million. The Xfinity Series, a tier lower than the Monster Energy Cup Series, can cost $6 million for the season. With better equipment, the price bumps up anywhere from $15 million to $20 million. For the Cup series, a solid team and top-of-the-line equipment can come with a $30 million price for a full season.
The Drive for Diversity
Here’s a look at the gender, race and ethnicity of drivers participating in NASCAR’s minority development program.
All the drivers in NASCAR’s program compete for Rev Racing, a team owned by longtime sports executive Max Siegel and based in Concord, North Carolina. Where many graduates of the program suffer is when the program ends. Assuming they’re ready to graduate into a ride outside the development program, there is no pipeline to another team or to sponsors. It’s up to the drivers to find teams, rides, sponsors to survive in the multimillion-dollar sport on the lowest level, if they’re lucky.
Driver Dylan Smith, who was in the 2015 class, is occasionally racing on dirt tracks now. He has struggled to keep up with the cost of racing without sponsors. When he does scrape up enough money to get back to a track, Smith is responsible for his own equipment and fixing his own car.
“The way that Wendell [Scott] raced, that’s literally how I’ve had to race my entire life,” Smith said. “I have to work on the cars. I have to keep my budget in mind. I got to figure out how to get into the racetrack. I’ve had to do all those things, even though he did it at a time that was entirely different.”
A first-generation Haitian-American who began his racing career in Vermont, Smith was admitted into the Drive for Diversity program after seven years of trying. He appreciated the opportunity, but says the program labors under constraints that make it difficult to succeed.
“The race team doesn’t have the equipment that everyone else has,” said Smith, who worked as a mechanic at Rev Racing for two years. “They don’t have as good of equipment as what they’re racing against. So [drivers] go into it with one hand tied behind the back.
“The team itself doesn’t have enough people to do what they’re trying to do at the highest level compared to compared to who they’re racing against,” he said. During his time in the program, Smith said, only two crew members worked full time on each car, which cuts into preparation and may affect race results. Larger teams racing every weekend have at least five crew members assigned full time to one car.
“You win these races from the shop, with your preparation and setup from the shop,” Smith said. “If you’re not on it when you unload at the racetrack, you can’t make up that kind of speed in that short of time because you only get one or two practices. The team is doing the best that they can with the situation that they’re given. Because they’re given a budget to the program and they got to work that budget with five or six kids. It gets pretty tough. By me working over there, I lived through that toughness with them and I understand why it is the way it is. But they just need more help really to get to where it needs to be.”
Siegel says resources are not an issue and points to his team’s successes as proof. “Our equipment was never bad,” he said. “There are teams that have been involved in NASCAR for years that have never put anybody in the top. Every single year since we have been involved for the last 10 years under my leadership, we have had drivers in the top 10.”
Not all drivers are equally talented, Siegel notes, and Smith agrees that their success can depend on how badly they want to race in the first place.
“There’s only a couple of us that have been through that program that are still working in the sport,” Smith said. “Now, that also is a testament to how much you really care about just being a driver and how much you cared about wanting to be a part of the sport. Not everybody wants to be a part of the sport. Some people just want to be a driver in the sport. If they can’t do that, then they’re not going to stick around. Whereas for me, this is all I wanted to be a part of my entire life.
“The program is all what you put into it. They give you an opportunity to race and they give you opportunity to be in front of cameras and in front of people and travel a lot. But if you don’t work those things to your biggest benefit like a lot of those kids don’t, then once it’s done, it’s done and you don’t have anything else. It’s really on you to turn what they give you into gold.”
Ryan Gifford, who participated in the program from 2010 to 2014, was happy with his experience, but wasn’t able to make the transition from regional races to a national series.
Gifford, 29, raced go-karts from ages 8 to 15 before transitioning to late-model cars. He was admitted to the Drive for Diversity program on his first try.
“I’m thankful for the program because I moved to North Carolina without a dollar to my name and was able to race in the K&N Series, which costs upwards of three-quarters of a million dollars a year or more to race,” he said. “I got to do it all with no money out of my pocket.”
The program started off promising, with fast cars and opportunities to win, but the hardest part remained trying to find money.
“It doesn’t matter in this sport how good you are,” Gifford said. “If you don’t have the best equipment and the best technology, it makes it really, really hard to overcome that. In our situation, it wasn’t intentional, but our team was trying hard to get money for better cars and to make them go faster — the things you need to do in racing to make your team a winning team.”
If Gifford had one critique of his experience, it was the general lack of support for drivers trying to move from the lower level to a national series.
“The only way to ever get the exposure that you need to ever go farther in the sport is to race in a national series,” Gifford said. “I ran one race in the Xfinity Series and never really got another chance. NASCAR can’t foot the whole bill. Without people, businesses — whether it be minority-owned businesses or any business — without them wanting to support the cause or the team, then it doesn’t work.”
Siegel largely agrees: “Being a race car driver in NASCAR is very, very difficult,” he said. “Selling sponsorship is close to impossible. So, the problem with the industry in general and not just our young minority drivers and women is that people aren’t spending money.
“We need people in corporate America to step up and make a commitment to invest in young and unproven people. I believe right now that they are missing a huge opportunity by not supporting someone like Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace. … If we don’t get people to recognize that their customers and consumers look very different than they did 10, 20 years ago, we’re behind the eight ball.”
NASCAR’s efforts to diversify the ranks of its drivers began nearly two decades ago. In 2002, African-Americans and Hispanics over the age of 18 each accounted for between 8 and 9 percent of NASCAR’s fan base. During that time, only one African-American driver, Bill Lester, raced a full-time schedule in the NASCAR Truck Series — the lowest of NASCAR’s top three series. NASCAR sought change to bring a more diverse group of drivers and fans to the predominantly white and male sport.
Two years later, NASCAR chief executive officer Brian France established a developmental program for minority and women drivers. A marketing and communications firm was hired to operate the program and run a combine for drivers to showcase their abilities for team owners. Drive for Diversity’s inaugural class featured four African-American men and a white woman.
But problems began to surface almost immediately. Teams working with new drivers were scattered across the country, so some drivers had to travel longer distances to race. NASCAR provided financial assistance to teams, but it was less – a lot less according to some reports – than was needed to be competitive. Some places weren’t well organized. In one instance, a participating team’s crew chief quit just before the season started, leaving the team and drivers to find replacements.
After four years, NASCAR brought in Siegel, the former president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., to run the program.
“I don’t know that every team had the sophistication to supplement the resources,” said Siegel. “There was no real consistency with the quality of the race cars or the training that the participants were getting. It was really fragmented and difficult for NASCAR, in my opinion, to evaluate a driver’s development or whether the program was successful.”
Siegel is an attorney and businessman who has been involved in the sports and entertainment industries for decades. Before becoming the first African-American executive in NASCAR, Siegel was a senior vice president at both Sony and BMG before becoming CEO of USA Track & Field. Siegel’s attention is now focused on Rev Racing, which operates four teams in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East, and two in the Whelen All-American Series.
Growing up in Indianapolis, Siegel always had an interest in NASCAR, but his desire to be involved in the sport grew in the early 2000s. His friend, NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White had retired to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the two were friendly with former Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, who established Joe Gibbs Racing in 1991. Together, White and Siegel searched for ways to create opportunities for minorities and women in racing.
At one point, Siegel, White, former NFL player Ronnie Lott, and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., were thinking of purchasing a ride in the then-Sprint Cup Series.
“We did this with the intention of being the first majority minority-owned race team,” Siegel said.
The four were in discussions with senior management from Hendrick Motorsports, but tragedy intervened. In October 2004, a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed on its way to a NASCAR race, killing eight passengers, including members of the management team, and two pilots. Two months later, White died at age 43 due to complications from a respiratory disease.
In 2007, Siegel became president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. “That offer came from Teresa Earnhardt, who had always been really progressive,” he said. “I think that she was thinking pretty out of the box because she kind of wanted to grow the brand and I was in the entertainment business, so we connected on sports and entertainment. She was a female owner committed to participating and growing the diversity program.”
Shortly afterward, France, vice chairman Mike Helton and chief operating officer Steve Phelps asked Siegel if he would take a look at the program and recommend ways that they could achieve their mission of driver and pit crew diversity.
“I went to NASCAR and suggested that we come up with the current structure, which is a race team and an academy-style training and putting everything under one roof,” Siegel said. He left Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2009 to found Rev Racing and focus on the Drive for Diversity program. Rev Racing debuted in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series the following year.
Between 70 and 80 people typically apply to the driving program each year. A dozen of those are invited to an annual three-day combine. There, drivers are given a physical fitness assessment and undergo two days of on-track evaluations. They also participate in mock interviews to test their readiness for the public relations aspect of the sport. This year, six drivers were selected for the Drive for Diversity class. (There is a parallel program for pit crew members. About 20 people are invited to the annual combine and half of them are chosen to join.)
“They do have to have some racing experience,” said Dawn Harris, NASCAR’s senior director for diversity affairs. “Believe it or not, we do get people who apply who’ve never driven a race car.”
Before Rev Racing took over the program in 2009, drivers were accepted well into their 30s. Now, applicants must be between the ages of 15 and 26. People may apply as many times as they want. But even those who were admitted in a previous year don’t have a guaranteed spot in the next year’s class.
“It’s a young person’s game,” Harris said. “Like many other sports where some of the athletes aren’t going to college and going straight to playing the NBA or what have you, we’ve seen a trend that our sport is skewing younger and younger. They’re getting behind some kind of a wheel when they’re 5, 6, 7, 8 years old. So, we’re finding that in order to be competitive and really excel, the earlier we can identify the talent and get them the training and coaching.”
It’s exactly what the program did with the program’s big three: Larson, Suarez and Wallace.
But their success didn’t come overnight. Once the program ended, Larson began racing in the Camping World Truck Series before moving into the Xfinity Series as a part-time driver in 2012, where he amassed 72 top 10 finishes and nine wins. By the time he was 21, Larson had worked his way up to the Monster Energy Cup Series, where he has raced full time for the last five years. He’s currently ranked 11th with four finishes in the Top 5.
Suarez took a different route to NASCAR’s top series.
The 26-year-old began racing go-karts with his father in his native Mexico and eventually began racing in the NASCAR Peak Mexico Series. When he was 19, his father pushed him to reach higher and he moved to North Carolina alone and knowing little English. In 2013, he was admitted into the Drive for Diversity program.
“At the time, I was just trying to survive in racing,” Suarez said. “I didn’t have a lot of expectations but I knew wanted to continue to race and this program was my last option. It was very important to me to make it to the next level.”
Suarez spent two years in the program before racing in both the K&N East and West Series. Similar to Larson, Suarez began racing in the Camping World Truck Series before moving to the Xfinity Series. Last season, Suarez raced his first full-time schedule in the Monster Energy Cup Series. He’s ranked 21st at the moment, with one Top 5 finish this season.
“I feel great about my progress, and I feel like the program is working well and making good drivers,” Suarez said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get opportunities. I know some other drivers from Mexico and other places are having a hard time. I feel like I was very lucky to get it, but I wish more drivers were able to get another shot. It’s tough coming from a different country and a different culture, but I’m very proud to get the opportunity and represent the program in the Cup series.”
Just like his fellow teammates, Wallace found a home in the program in 2010-11 and proceeded to climb the ranks. Wallace made a big impression in the Camping World Truck Series and made history in 2013 as the first African-American to win a national series race since 1963. He continued to be successful in the Xfinity Series with 35 top 10 finishes, but was forced to cut his last season short due to lack of sponsorship. He was sidelined until being called on by racing legend Richard Petty to substitute for injured racer Aric Almirola. Wallace performed well, and Petty brought him on board as a full-time driver this season. He impressed everyone with his second-place finish at Daytona in February, and currently sits at No. 22 in the Cup series driver standings.
Siegel believes that investing in young drivers is key to getting more minorities and women into the top series.
“I’m interested in getting more young people, and I mean younger people all the way down to elementary, middle school that are really aware of the sport and interested and whether they are participating online or on the track,” Siegel said. “That will grow the pipeline, that’ll grow the number of people that may be interested in becoming crew members or drivers.
“I think that we are on a good track. There’s a lot of work to be done. Everybody always would love to have more resources,” he said. “I put millions of dollars of my own personal money to start up a program and my team goes out and they supplement what’s going on … I do think we have a lot of work to do, and I do think that from all indications that I have, NASCAR continues to be committed to invest in diversity and growing the sport. We just have to stay this course.”