Tom Bowles
Thursday July 29th, 2010

In a world where LeBron James, Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb make national headlines, NASCAR remains behind the curve as a multicultural sport. There are currently no African-American drivers running the Sprint Cup Series full-time, and just one, Wendell Scott, has scored a victory in the 60+ years of Cup competition. Danica Patrick is holding up the torch for women, but there's no guarantee she'll make the switch, let alone move up to the majors, where no woman has even attempted a race since Shawna Robinson in 2002.

That's where NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program comes in. Now in its seventh year, the program is designed to give opportunities to female, African-American, and other minority drivers who might not otherwise get that chance to succeed. The first six years have brought marginal success, with only Marc Davis and Aric Almirola rising to the Truck, Nationwide and Cup levels. But this year, success has been heightened under the guiding hand of former DEI Vice President Max Siegel. Housing all the diversity drivers under one roof, the new "Revolution Racing" program has resulted in an uptick in overall performance. Sixteen-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., an African-American, won his first K&N Pro Series East race (the equivalent of A-level baseball this March), racking up a handful of top-5 finishes with teammate Ryan Gifford. Michael Cherry won his first career late model race at Tri-County Motor Speedway in June, one of several drivers who'll be featured in Changing Lanes this fall on BET that documents his experiences behind the wheel. It's the latest maneuver in a long-term publicity push to give these drivers attention as they move up, hoping to connect with a group of fans who have never given NASCAR a second look in the process.

Can their success provide the spark their sagging sport has been looking for? Is it fair for them to be giftwrapped good equipment in an era when money makes or breaks a racing career? And can Danica's success -- or lack thereof -- affect their future plans to move up the ranks? SI.com sat down with four of the top diversity drivers: Gifford, Cherry, Jessica Brunelli and Katie Hagar to gauge their opinions on the state of the sport.

What's the best thing about the Drive For Diversity Program?

Ryan Gifford: It gives people that might not normally have the money to go out and make a race the opportunity to go do it. A kid that has a whole lot of talent, it gives him a chance to get in the seat and show what he's got, basically. Putting his talents in front of people like RCR, Gibbs and Hendrick.

Jessica Brunelli: I'd agree with that. A lot of us come from families who've supported us up to this point, along with help from sponsors. But we could no longer afford to run on our own, and this program opens up perfect opportunities for us to continue our careers.

Katie Hagar: I agree. It's been something we've really had to work hard for. There's a lot of tears and sweat we've had to get to this point. It's not just the financial backing, it's being able to back up your talent.

Do you guys feel like there's people that don't understand the hard work part of it -- that feel like you've been handed this because you're a woman, minority, etc.?

Michael Cherry: Yeah. We hear that all the time. "Just because you're diversity ... because of your skin color, just because you're a girl you're in the series." But you got to let that stuff blow over, move on, say, "I'm here. I'm going to do what I can while I'm here."

Ever have a guy finish behind you and complain you've been handed equipment by NASCAR you shouldn't have?

MC: Yeah, definitely. We've had that this year. We've been told we've been cheating from the get go. We finally won our first race, and the first thing they did, they checked the wheel base, and said we were cheating on traction control and everything else. It's a non-stop problem.

But again, you gotta let that stuff blow over your head. You're going to be called a cheater. People are going to say what they're going to say. You just have to keep moving on and just keep moving forward.

JB: That happens no matter where you are, what kind of racing you're doing. People will always accuse you if you're doing better than them and they don't like what they see. And a lot of people don't want to see diversity get into NASCAR. That's just too bad, because we're here, and we're going to keep trying to make it there.

KH: Also, I think we get some of the accusations just because this is a new program. We're showing up, we're really talented drivers that maybe weren't there in previous years. So we're under a microscope. They're going to be very judgmental towards us. So, you gotta take it all with a grain of salt. They got to look at you as another driver on the track, because all-in-all, it doesn't matter whether it's success or not -- it's new. People talk badly about this because it's new. And we're all OK with that, because we just want to win races.

Do you think when you have a bad day, it's magnified because of what people are saying?

MC: When you do well, they don't like it. No matter when you do well, when you do bad, you're always going to have that person that's gonna criticize you. You're going to fight those battles ... it's racing. It's a competitive sport. Everybody wants to win, and if they don't win, they don't want you to win. It's so competitive, you just never know.

KH: I think we're learning what it truly takes to make it. To be in this sport. All of us together, this is the minor leagues of NASCAR. You've got 10 of us working with 20 someodd employees and management. We're getting the real deal.

JB: And we all had to sacrifice a lot to get here in the first place. I know I came here from California at 16, moved across the country. I had to give up everything I had, my life I had before, and so did everyone else. And that's just something that shows the dedication. People think we got something handed to us. We had to give up so much to get that and keep going. But it's all worth it.

Now to play Devil's Advocate for a second. You've got a lot of people not a part of the program. And with the economy, NASCAR struggling to attract sponsorship, you have a lot of good, veteran drivers without opportunities. Do you feel like this provides an advantage for you over those drivers in a way they can't get?

KH: I don't think it's an advantage. I think we've all worked really hard to be where we're at, and I think that was recognized at the annual combine that NASCAR and Drive For Diversity holds every year [to admit us into the program]. We see these guys, we want to race against these people, we want to compare ourselves to the ones that are struggling out there, that don't have that opportunity.

There's not one of us that aren't thankful or blessed we're [a part of this].

JB: I think this program is supposed to make sure that because there are teams that won't pick us because we aren't the "norm" for racing, this program is for us to make sure we get an equal opportunity. Because there are teams that won't pick us because of our color or our gender. This program looks at talented drivers, and says, "It shouldn't matter. Here's a spot, and we're going to try and help you get there, because we think you're talented."

RG: And I think that people would say more if we were getting a good opportunity in good cars, but we weren't running good. But we are in good cars and we're proving that we can run up there with Ryan Truex in the East Series, and the Gibbs cars. And we're up front every week. So I think it would be cheating somebody if we were in good equipment, and not running good. People would be able to say we didn't deserve it. But to be running up front, and running good -- Darrell won a race, and we're running top 5 -- that justifies it better.

Without this program, where do you think you all would be?

KH: Would not be racing. This is my only opportunity.

JB: I wouldn't, either. I might have the ability to race every 5-6 weeks, but I would not be having the continual experience of every weekend at the race track, every weekend in the shop, or every weekend learning something. I wouldn't have that opportunity without this program.

Why is this program necessary?

MC: The biggest thing is, with the economy and the way sponsorships are, there's no way that we would be able to get sponsorship. They're hard to get, and it takes money to race, plain and simple. We're just thankful to have this opportunity, and for NASCAR to be backing it up.

Well so much has changed equipment-wise the last 10 years. Where are we now with that -- what do you need more? Even at a track like Hickory, does equipment trump talent at this point?

KH: I think it takes both. I think it takes a little bit of both. Starting out the year, we struggled, every one of us. But at the same time, we work in the shop, we know what's in our cars, and now we're running better. We've got people up front and winning races, and we've had to make those cars better -- along with everybody at Revolution Racing. Nobody can just buy a car knowing that this thing's going to win races no matter what. It takes driver ability, and it takes hard work, and it takes equipment and the people surrounding you to make it all happen.

I work on my car every day.

JB: And I have to say, I came into this program knowing not much about race cars. I knew how to drive, but I did not know how to work on a car. And I can say, I can set up a car all by myself after one year of this kind of help. I can say that this program not only gives you the opportunity to race but an opportunity to learn all aspects of racing.

Jessica and Katie touched on it a bit, but what's the biggest thing you've learned being in this program so far?

MC: Being in the shop. Just as a race car driver, you know what kind of springs you got. What kind of shocks you got. What this does, how that helps you in your race car. Because when you're in that car, and the car don't feel good in this corner, a little funky here ... you know what to say to your crew chief. You can say hey, let me take a spring out of this thing and make that adjustment. So being in the shop and being hands on helps a ton.

JB: I never understood the value of understanding the technical side of racing until this year.

OK, let's talk about Danica Patrick, ladies. She's struggled so far in the Nationwide Series ... does that help you or hurt you to have her there ahead of you?

KH: I think she's doing a great job. She comes from IndyCar. She's stepping into a whole different series. It's just like us trying to go over; if we don't have that experience in Indy Cars, open-wheel, road course, it's going to be different. I think that she's doing a great job. And I think we look up to her knowing she can put down a yellow brick road and pave the path for some of us other females that can potentially make it. Of course, there's going to be pros and cons, you have that with everything.

But with her, it's because she's a female, that's why they're criticizing the good and the bad. And that's fine, because it doesn't matter what level you're at; we still get criticized, the good and the bad. And we're not even in Nationwide. So you just have to take it with a grain of salt. She's doing a good job, and we admire her, knowing we want to be in her place someday.

How do you deal with all the extra scrutiny?

KH: Do I think it's fair? No. Is it still going to happen? Yes. We can't control that. We can only control the things that we can. And that's our driving ability. If we can prove to them we can do it, actions are going to speak more than words.

I'm rooting for myself. But would I like to see females in an up-and-coming NASCAR series? Yes, of course. I think it's going to be great for the drivers, and great for everybody else.

JB: I definitely sympathize with Danica, and how she's struggled to make this transition. It's hard to be under the microscope. This Danica-mania, that she was just supposed to go and blow everyone away... it's not realistic. I think she needs the time to learn how to drive these cars. They are absolutely different. I came from Formula II circle racing. I have made that transition. It was a little easier at my level because I wasn't driving the cars she was driving, I wasn't in this crazy, good-handling downforce stuff. I came from Skip Barber, Formula BMW and then moved to a modified. So my transition ... no one was watching me make it. No one was expecting it. And she came with the future of women [in this sport] on her shoulders. If she does it, it's great for women. If she doesn't ... it sucks for women.

I think people put that pressure on her, and that wasn't necessary, because every female driver, every male driver is different. And just because one person struggles, or one person succeeds doesn't mean everyone will. And I think what this program does -- everyone says, "Aren't you pro-female because you're a female?" No ... I'm equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of their race or gender. I don't think that because she's a female, I'm going to root for her, because he's male, I'm going to root for him, because he's African-American, I'm going to root for him ... I want people who deserve to be in the sport to be given the opportunity to be in the sport. If they love it, and they want it, and they're willing to work for it, it should not matter where they come from, what color they are, or what gender they are.

Mike and Ryan, what about Marc Davis? He's been able to move up to the Nationwide Series, have some limited success. As the most successful active African-American driver, does his situation give you hope or hurt you if he fails?

MC: Well, to me he has opened up doors for us. He's been somewhere me and Ryan haven't been yet. He's been there, he's succeeded, he's had his opportunities. I was sorry to hear about what happened to his dad and everything, but he has opened up doors for us, just like Wendell Scott did. It's sad it's taken this long to do it, but we all want to be there. It's just what Jessica said ... it doesn't matter what skin color you are. African-American, female, it doesn't matter. At the end of the day, you can't see the color of my skin in that car. Plain and simple. I'm running around that race track, and you see a race car driver. You don't see a black race car driver, or a female race car driver. You can't tell from the grandstands inside that race car.

RG: Marc, he was one of the first diversity drivers of our generation. He kind of went out there and started it with Gibbs. I know Aric Almirola was before him, but Marc was one of the first black drivers to really get a shot in good equipment. I have a lot of respect for him because he ran good. I hate that he didn't get to be in some of the same equipment that he was in the East Series in Nationwide, because I really think he's a talented driver, and I really wish he would have gotten to. But hopefully, I can carry on where he left off and get in good equipment in a truck, or in a Nationwide car, and just take it that next step further.

One thing with this program ... there's always been a stopping point. There's been success at the level you guys are at now, but when we talk Trucks, when we talk Nationwide, that's when the support tends to stop, and the sponsorship stops. What do we need from this program, or do we need anything more from this program to get you guys over the hump. What's it going to take?

KH: Financial backing. We need people that really see us as talented drivers, and who would like to be involved, and invest, help us move to the next step.

JB: I think drivers need to keep moving forward, and like she said, you do need the financial backing to keep that progression. But if you take the time, as a driver, go to the track, talk to the teams, set things up for yourself. Make the effort to continue progressing ... don't just expect the program to push you out the door to have a ride set up for you. They're giving you the opportunity and the tools to make your career happen, but it's up to you to make it happen in the long run.

Is it scary to know at the end of the year, the plug could get pulled and you're in a tough spot?

KH: Yeah. Of course it is. Racing's all I know; it's my passion, it's my life. The minute somebody pulls that plug, what do you do? Right now, it motivates me. It drives me. It makes me know that I need to make this happen. Hard work is going to pay off. I hope it does, and it is. Look how well we're learning, and how we're doing.

MC: I think the way they restructured the program this year, to put everything in one house -- to put all the cards on one table is great. With Andy Santerre coming over to the East Series, and giving us really good cars to run with, where we can win races and put ourselves out there even more, helps to gain attention for us for years to come. Get our name out there for people who want to see and think, "This kid's running with Indy stuff, and there's four cars, and they're still running up front with those guys." I think that draws a lot of attention, and I think it's going to help a lot this year.

Final question. With NASCAR struggling so much right now, what's one thing you think the sport can change in terms of turning this sport around as you move up through the ranks?

MC: To me, bringing Danica in as a female, just her coming into the sport -- look at the fan base they gained with just her. If we get Ryan, Jessica Brunelli, we get more of us in there, to me it'll help out the sport more. And it'll just make us all want to succeed that much more.

KH: Just the awareness. When you go to the race track, you see all ages -- females or not -- they're attracted to what's new in NASCAR. Who is that? It's Danica Patrick, at least as of right now. Look at that merchandise trailer; people are surrounded by it, even if she's not racing that weekend! It's new, it brings awareness [to the future]. So it's definitely helpful, and we're going to bring in a new fan base as we move up. I think it's going to be good for the sport.

JB: I think this is where our show [the documentary Changing Lanes] ties into what we did. We spent the last year doing Changing Lanes and we want people to realize racing is diverse. It just hasn't gotten all the way to the top. They don't see that racing has females, and Latin Americans, and African-Americans in it. And even though that will be a change, NASCAR still has to make the times these [minor league] races play consistent, and make people realize that racing is out there. You can watch it at any level, and it's exciting. I think more people are starting to see that, in all different walks of life, and I think that this show will appeal to a whole new crowd that will also bring awareness to a group of people that may not realize it's there yet - or know that it's there, but they don't see how interested they might be in it.

KH: They're going to relate to it.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.