Thanks to BET, push for diversity in NASCAR to be televised

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Max Siegel nearly bought himself a NASCAR team five years ago. Along with partners Reggie White, Ronnie Lott and Eddie DeBartolo, he was within two weeks and a few pen strokes of completing a deal to purchase what was then MB2 Motorsports. But White's death in December of 2004 scuttled the deal. "Reggie was my best friend, man. He married my wife and I," Siegel said. "It was amazing to see him the last few days of his life so excited about something."

Even though the deal didn't happen, Siegel remained excited by NASCAR. His growing interest in the stock car phenomenon and its use as a marketing tool were eventually satisfied when he accepted the high-profile, highly thankless job of president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007.

His status: one of the most powerful African-American executives in NASCAR history, an organic diversity initiative in a sport institutionally craving them.

His reality: trying to re-sign NASCAR's most popular driver and namesake of the team, whose personal and professional relationship with the team eroded.

Earnhardt Jr. eventually left the team for Hendrick Motorsports, despite expressing an affinity for Siegel, and the vestiges of MB2, bought eventually by Bobby Ginn, who ironically enough, came to DEI in a merger in 2008. Siegel left DEI after two years amid another merger with Chip Ganassi's race team.

Today, Siegel finally has his own team, Revolution Racing. He's in a far better position to further both his ambitions about the sport and NASCAR's diversity initiative as his 909 Group takes over the management of the sport's sixth-year Drive For Diversity program.

Siegel and partner John Story, another former DEI executive, purchased the assets of two independent race teams that have in the past fielded entries for D4D prospects, bringing them on as employees, and consolidating the program under one roof and marketing umbrella. With the 10-driver field set following a two-day combine at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., on Tuesday, the travails of the group will be documented for the first time in a 10-episode reality show set for initial broadcast on BET.

"I've always been fascinated by the platform the sponsors have invested [in NASCAR], but I've never felt like the sport has completely maximized its ability to reach out to a broad audience and leverage that platform," Siegel said. "So the balance we've had to strike, being at a place like Dale Earnhardt Inc. and going through all of that is really about maintaining the integrity of the racing program and winning, but also generating the funding that will fuel your racing operation.

"One of the things, by consolidating the program, it allows us to, at the development level, to go out and sell an entire program instead of one Late Model car, one Camping World car, which gives a sponsor a broader spin."

The program will field four drivers in the Camping World East Series, six in Late Model programs and add a "youth component," Siegel said, that could include karts, Bandoleros or Legends cars in conjunction with 600 Racing in the Charlotte area. The entire operation will be housed inside the NASCAR expertise perimeter in Mooresville, N.C., which should abet the flow of talent and information into and out of the organization. And not just for hopeful drivers.

"The concept is you bring someone in young and even if they don't have the talent to progress [as a driver], you introduce them to the sport and other jobs in the sport," Siegel said. "But if you find someone in a kart and you want to move them up, you can move them up. It allows you some continuity and some time to really develop them. NASCAR has been great. We're working closely with the Gibbs organization as well as [Richard Childress Racing] and Hendrick [Motorsports] has been really gracious and helpful."

A national television audience and sponsors are another challenge, but may go largely together. Siegel, a former player agent and music industry executive devised Changing Lanes hoping to create "American Idol meets The Apprentice" show that chronicles the daily lives of the D4D hopefuls. Siegel hopes the seemingly unending appetite for voyeuristic television programming can not only support a show about minority racers but also tap into a potential new market on BET. NASCAR consulted on the initial culling of candidates -- which eventually yielded four previous D4D participants in the final 10 -- and Siegel brought on veteran television executive Ken Mok, who produced America's Next Top Model and created Making the Band.

"We have a collaborative approach to it and we sat down to figure out how to entertain the public and make it really interesting," Siegel said. "It's a media buy for the sponsor and it's also putting these young and relatively unknown drivers in front of pop culture."

Prospects will be paced through challenges each week and judged by a panel including Siegel, NASCAR public affairs executive Marcus Jadotte and a guest germane to that week's storyline.

"If it's pit crews, maybe it's Chad Knaus," Siegel said. "Maybe some driver. We'll go from 30 at the combine down to about 10 and then highlight the four Camping World East drivers and the other drivers in the program."

NASCAR maintains oversight and marketing ties to the team as in previous years, Siegel said, an acceptable condition considering the series' name is attached to the initiative and its reputation will be impacted by the outcome. Siegel and Story run the daily business.

"I think the one thing we really evaluated really closely was, NASCAR is in a really delicate position," Siegel said. "They want to see the sport grow, but they don't own teams. They are the sanctioning body and they govern it. But they can't put someone in the car."

NASCAR diversity affairs director Dawn Harris said the one-team concept at Revolution Racing will enable better evaluations of the talent pool.

"Before it was an apples-to-oranges situation," she said of seeding the diversity candidates to disparate teams around the country. "There are so many different kinds of tracks, a lot of variables with equipment. Now with this academy style there is a lot more consistency."

There is a palpable impatience to field a diversity program product in a Sprint Cup car. Or a Nationwide car. Or a truck. And soon. It hasn't happened yet. Something to show tangible progress.

"The thing people lose sight of is they expect the program to graduate someone pretty quickly and you've got to remember Carl Edwards spent many years driving racing cars before anyone ever knew who Carl Edwards was," said Paulie Harraka, a repeat D4D qualifier and the first member of the program to win a race in a NASCAR regional touring division. "And because of the increased exposure Drive for Diversity gets, with that comes higher expectations."

And scrutiny. NASCAR diversity drivers have at times encountered jealousy from older local drivers who were not afforded such opportunities or equipment at a young age.

"The notion of a silver spoon is largely false because it's very much an earned opportunity. Everybody has had opportunities," said Harraka, a sophomore engineering student who won two races and was named rookie of the year this season in the NASCAR Camping World West Series. "There is no one who has made it anywhere in this world without some sort of opportunity. For me, it was attending Duke University. It wasn't owed to me, but it's the opportunity I got. And every race car driver has had an opportunity that allowed them to move up in motorsports. Likewise, I got an opportunity at BMR and Drive for Diversity, and then it comes down to on-track results."

Colombian-born Juan Pablo Montoya's conversion from open wheel star to Sprint Cup title hopeful has injected diversity into the series from the outside. His on-track results in just three seasons might have also -- whether fairly needed or not -- dispelled images of stock car racing as a sport for white males. "I do think there is some residual impact from his participation," Harris said. "And he's been great in doing some joint ventures, out-reach programs at our venues. It helps with our message when people are aware of Juan Pablo. Hopefully, he will continue to do very well."

Siegel said there has been progress in the overall thrust of diversity within the sport. But he's had to be patient.

"I usually get in trouble trying to put a timeline on the track thing," he said. "Since I came in the sport -- and granted, there is a lot of work to be done in the entire sport -- I was actually pretty surprised at the significant progress that the sport has made in areas you don't see ...

"From that standpoint, I was encouraged by that and I've been a pretty big advocate at measuring diversity progress, not just by having a female or minority behind the wheel. That's critically important. I think it will impact the fan base, [as well as] front office, engineers, mechanics, pilots ... all those kind of positions in this sport."

But as everyone around racing knows, there's still a long way to go.