Grant paints picture of 'ignorant' NASCAR culture
Mauricia "Mo" Grant spent nearly three years as a race official in the Nationwide Series, working for NASCAR as the only African-American female in such a role. Now she's at the center of a $225 million lawsuit filed against the organization, in which she alleges sexual and racial discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination. She claims she was called demeaning names, subjected to sexual advances -- including two male co-workers allegedly exposing themselves to her -- and made the brunt of graphic and lewd jokes.
In her first face-to-face and most extensive interview since the lawsuit became public, Grant, 32, spoke to SI.com this week about some of the background of the suit. During the two-hour, sometimes emotional interview (including an animated discussion about last week's NASCAR race at Michigan), her passion for the sport was evident.
Some have said you "set NASCAR up" while employed there in order to file this lawsuit. What is your response to that?
"I can't believe people would say that. I worked really hard to get where I was. I studied hard, I passed exams, I did a good job. I was a good official."
How did you first become involved in NASCAR and the racing scene in general?
"I moved to Los Angeles after college and worked as a temp at different studios. I did some advertising, but I would always be staring out the window and wanting to be outdoors, outside, out of the corporate office environment. I wanted to do something with my hands, and I knew I wanted to peel off the work suit and do something cool. So I decided to go and get training at the Urban League Automotive Training Center [in L.A.]. I knew that I didn't want to start at the bottom, in any type of oil changing capacity -- I wanted to start at the top. So, I aimed to work in a major league motorsports environment. And NASCAR was it.
"I was already interning at Irwindale Speedway [in the Fall of 2004]. They ran me ragged, but it was fun, it was Saturday racing. Saturday night racing. We got there before the sun rose, and worked all day on inspecting the cars, qualifying practice, all in one day. It was a one day show. The head inspector there taught me everything. And all the guys there were very happy to have some young, ambitious intern who wanted to learn everything and who worked hard. It was hard to leave."
You joined NASCAR in January 2005. When did you feel like you first experienced discrimination?
"It was a couple of months in, after the honeymoon period wore off. People started to get a little loose with their language; I can't think back to specific charges, but it was a pretty loose environment. I've been talking to some of my friends since the [lawsuit] story hit, and a lot have called and said, 'Remember the time you told me this? Remember the time you told me that?' And I'll say, 'Oh, wow, I forgot about that. And these are instances from 2005, and I didn't start documenting until 2006. There's a lot more that happened we don't have in the lawsuit, simply because I didn't start documenting it."
What made you start documenting things?
"My sisters came to Daytona [in January 2006], and I was showing them around the facilities. We were in the locker room, and a [NASCAR official] and her mom were there at this time. Another official walks in, and I say, 'Hey, these are my sisters. Do you think we look alike?' And he looked at me and he was like, 'Well, you both have the same color.' And then he just blushed, he got bright red, and the other official and her mom started laughing all hard -- and my sisters were shocked. The official said something really stupid and embarrassed my sisters, and they were like, 'What the hell is going on around here?'
"So I remember when we got home from Daytona, one of my sisters started this Excel document. It has all these tiers and different levels and pullouts, and she said, 'I need you to sit down right now, and you're going to come home, and you're going to write some stuff down.' And I would come home and tell her these crazy stories, and she would be like, 'Go! Write it on the computer right now! Stop ... just while it's fresh in your mind, go write it down.' She felt like when I first got in trouble, she just knew that it wasn't right. She just felt like their language was way too loose ... that I needed to protect myself."
In the lawsuit you state that "Nappy Headed Mo" was a nickname that one person used for you. Did you get the sense that the people you accused in the lawsuit were above reproach?
"I felt that everybody was so loose, the culture in the garage was loose. It was nothing like any type of office environment I had ever worked at. Nothing that was politically correct about the environment. So, anything goes ... it wasn't controlled. I definitely felt that I had no one to complain to. What could I have possibly said -- when I finally complained to [Nationwide Series Director] Joe Balash about two officials' use of the words "colored people's time" -- where we would have arguments on the way to the track about me being inconsiderate, I went to Joe and told him this is not acceptable anymore, it has to stop. But he told me that he's known these guys for years and years, that they raced these cars together, they're military guys and this is how they operate. You need to get down with their program."
(A NASCAR spokesman told SI.com said that neither Balash nor any other employee named in the lawsuit would be available for comment. In an Associated Press story that ran on June 11, former NASCAR official Mike Wilford told the AP that he was present for many of the incidents Grant lists in her suit, said she was a willing participant in much of the behavior and had "twisted" the versions to her benefit. Grant denied in that same AP story Wilford's version of the events.)
What do you say to those who might say, 'You're entering a sports environment, so you should have expected some of this?'
"As humans, it's unacceptable to lower your standard of expectation to meet someone's ignorant approach to understanding cultures or diversity or race. It's not OK. So whether I should have expected it or not, it still doesn't make it OK that it happened. And it didn't happen at Irwindale."
Quoting from the lawsuit, "White Official Dennis Wodzewoda instructed plaintiff to 'duck' when she was riding in the backseat of his carpool past the white tail-gating racing fans. Dennis Wodzewoda further commented to the effect: 'I don't want to start a riot when these fans see a Black woman in my car!'" You also mention in the lawsuit that at Darlington, fans were shocked to see a black female official. What was the fan reaction like throughout your employment?
"Well, I got a lot of 'You go, girl!' or 'Look! There's a black official!' or high fives on the way to pit road [from the fans]. I never heard anybody say the "N" word or anything like that, but I definitely -- I piqued curiosity in the fans, and I saw that a lot of people twisted their necks to look at me. To see, oh my gosh, look!
"And one of my fondest memories at the track was in Dover. During the Fall race there, there's a family that camps out in the infield on Saturdays, and they raise the red, black, and green flag of Ghana. They're camped out right next to a family that's hanging a confederate flag; and they're all hanging out there, sitting there, and I walked all the way into the infield to say, Hi, I love your flag. And they started a conversation, a friendship that lasted.
"Each year, I would go there, and they were happy to see me. And they said, 'Oh, you made it back for another season!' And I'm happy to see them ... happy they came to support a sport that they love, that they've demonstrated that there are other cultures that are interested in motorsports -- that they raised this flag that's a symbol of black solidarity in the middle of all the chaos. And that was a wonderful thing to see."
So you're not talking about culture of the people that follow the sport; you're talking about culture of the people that run the sport?
"Yes. I didn't have that much interaction with the fans. And if I wanted to, I would have quit. I had enough information to quit a long time ago. I could have quit when a female official got water thrown on her chest. There's a lot of things; but I don't want to bring other people who haven't come forward into my claim. But I would like to say to people I know [who] have had those same experiences, that they need to step forward now.
"What I expected when I went to work for this multibillion dollar company was a professional work environment, where the focus was on the cars, the drivers, and the competition; not of why is my hair different today than it was yesterday, or why I don't get sunburn or why the palms of my hands are white? That's not what I expected. I expected professionalism, and I expected people to rise to that type of professionalism.
Let's move to October 2007, your last weekend in NASCAR. What happened?
"Well, I never had an exit interview. I was called into the hauler. When I was called in, [human relations representative] Star George was already on the phone, and the first thing Joe Balash says to me is, 'We're terminating your employment.' I asked why, and [Star George] said, 'Due to poor work performance.' She was on speaker phone and she said we warned you that if you opened your mouth again and you stepped out of line, that you would be terminated, and you are being terminated... That was my exit interview, and that took less than five minutes. I didn't get any information about COBRA or anything like that until I called the next couple of days to find out what I do from there."
(A NASCAR spokesman firmly denied Grant's version of the story, stating that, "Was her dismissal in retaliation? I can tell you that the answer is no. It's 100% false.")
Did you say anything to all the officials on headsets after you got fired?
"On my way out of the track, I stopped to say goodbye to someone from Racing Radios. While I was there, I plugged in a radio and I said, 'Mo to the Busch garage. I was just fired. I'm out. I was just fired by Joe Balash.' Because I knew they would make it all mystical at the end of the evening, make it all mysterious, so I just wanted to put it out on the table, and not say that I quit or whatever they were going to say. I just wanted to be the one to put the message out there."
Did you mention on the headsets that you loved everybody (as one NASCAR official claims he heard)?
"I don't remember. I could have said that. I'm talking to the whole entire garage -- where I went on headsets -- and there were people that I did like. I was talking to the people that would miss me. The crews and the crew chiefs that would listen in. The PR people that were radioed up on the officials' channel. Anybody could be up on the officials' channel. Everybody, the fans in the stands could be on the officials' channel. It was not zoned specifically for officials, that was the garage channel."
What was your worst fear?
"That I would get hurt. Heading out every week felt like sometimes, especially on the long road trips with one official, our conversation always went back to the KKK with him. When we were in the car riding around with him, it was like KKK this or black this -- just really picking my brain about being black or the black experience.
"I used to have thoughts of, 'Is this official going to pull over -- you know, we used to have to travel from Atlanta to Tennessee through the Blue Mountains, through these remote places, and I felt like sometimes -- am I going to get a detour that I'm not aware of that's about to happen?' It's a scary feeling ... because it's real remote, and I was thinking, 'Is it going to happen now? Is it going to happen now?' I was real nervous a lot about that.
"There was one time in Bristol where a crew member came up to my ear and he said, 'You're going to love getting kidnapped.' And what do you say to that? It was such a weird, freaky thing to say where I started thinking, Is that a flirtation or is that a threat? So it was a lot of scary moments for me, where I felt like I'm going to end up missing. ... I remember sitting with some crew members in Kentucky in a restaurant in the hotel, and someone just started talking about his fishing trip with the real David Duke [of the KKK]. So my fear was getting hurt."
Having been on both sides of it -- Irwindale and the culture you claimed to have been in during your time in the Nationwide Series -- how do you think changes can be made?
"They need to stop hiring their ignorant brothers, cousins and uncles of theirs, and start hiring qualified, educated people to start running their multibillion dollar business. Stop giving 'Uncle Frank' a hookup knowing that he's ignorant."
Do you think that some type of diversity training could help fix it?
"That's not going to work. You can't sit people in a room and say, 'Now you're going to change.' You can't blow up a black blowup doll and say, 'Look at their eyes. This is their nose.' That's stupid. You need to hire people who are well-rounded, educated, capable of stepping into any type of environment and not making themselves look like a fool."
Obviously, this trial could be a long, painful experience. Are you prepared?
"I was prepared for the trials and tribulations the first day I stepped on the track at Irwindale, the first day I went to school at the automotive training center, when I was going to be the only woman amongst a whole bunch of men. So I've been preparing for this my whole life. I'm a trendsetter. So I'm not going to be afraid. I'm not going to back down, I'm not going to cower away from this. So they can bring it."
Where do you see this sport in five years?
"After me coming forward, their backs are against the wall and they're going to have to diversify their sport, whether they want to or not. If they're going to continue to approach the black community and other communities in the nation with advertisements and trying to lure them in, they're going to have to make it more open for black drivers, black crews -- I just think that in five years, there has to be more black drivers, more black crew members, more black crew chiefs, more women."