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Privilege of Play: Will Michael Jordan's involvement actually improve NASCAR's race problems?

Nick Bromberg
·15-min read

“The Privilege of Play” is a Yahoo Sports series examining the barriers minority groups face in reaching elite levels of competition in swimming, soccer, racecar driving, and hockey.

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(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

The addition of Michael Jordan to NASCAR’s stable of team owners is a huge boost for a series looking to regain the mainstream appeal it had in the mid-2000s. And Jordan’s presence brings something that NASCAR hasn’t had for nearly 50 years.

When Jordan and current Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin field a team for Bubba Wallace in 2021, the NBA icon will be the first Black person to have a majority ownership stake in a Cup Series team since 1973.

“It’s absolutely huge,” Jordan told NBC and Fox. “To me, you’re basically diving into a situation where very few Black people have been present in the NASCAR arena. In essence, you’re going in with the opportunity to expand that and to give a different lens to NASCAR as a whole. For so long, it’s been viewed from a negative aspect with the Confederate flag and all these other things that occurred.”

Previous efforts to make NASCAR more appealing to women and people of color have made some inroads. But NASCAR — and American auto racing as a whole — has still been dominated by white men. Especially as the Confederate flag still lurked at NASCAR tracks.

As of this summer, that flag is no longer allowed. Can its absence coupled with Jordan’s arrival and Wallace’s emerging star be that catalyst for real demographic change?

Wendell Scott’s impact in NASCAR

When Wallace takes the green flag in the 2021 Daytona 500, Jordan will join Brad Daugherty as the only two Black owners of NASCAR Cup Series teams. And Jordan will be the first Black majority owner of a Cup team since Wendell Scott made his final start in 1973.

Scott was NASCAR’s Jackie Robinson, believed to be the first Black driver ever licensed by NASCAR.

The Danville, Virginia, native started racing at local short tracks in the 1950s in front of crowds and even race officials who were openly hostile toward him because of the color of his skin.

After excelling at the local levels, Scott moved to NASCAR’s top level. He made his first start in what’s now the Cup Series in 1961, scoring five top-10s in 23 starts in his own equipment.

The future Hall of Famer became a mainstay over the next decade and even finished sixth in the points standings in 1966. Two years earlier, he became the first and only Black man to win a NASCAR race when he won at Jacksonville Speedway.

But not without controversy.

A scoring error led to Buck Baker being declared the winner. Baker got the trophy and the chance to pose for pictures with the white trophy girl in victory lane. Scott protested the scoring decision.

Two hours after the race was official, Scott was awarded the victory after officials determined the race had run an extra two laps. By that time, the trophy had either gone home with Baker or been taken somewhere else. There were no pictures or chances to pose with the trophy girl to celebrate the win. Scott, who died in 1990, never got that trophy either. His family is still looking for the original.

Unlike after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, there was no influx of Black drivers into NASCAR after Scott started racing in the Cup Series. While drivers like Willy T. Ribbs — the first Black person to test a Formula 1 car — and Bill Lester made a handful of starts racing part-time in the Cup Series, Wallace is just the second Black driver to race full-time at NASCAR’s top level.

At the moment, it’s unclear who the third will be.

Bubba Wallace: Exposure to NASCAR is key

As Jordan noted, NASCAR’s southern Confederate-flag waving culture has played a role in its white identity. The prominence of the flag at races and on NASCAR-themed imagery has long made people believe that the series wasn’t welcoming to non-white people.

While NASCAR hasn’t used or endorsed the official use of the Confederate flag in any capacity for years, the flags haven’t been hard to spot at tracks. Will its absence going forward help more Black families give NASCAR and auto racing any consideration?

“I just think we have to get people exposed to it,” Wallace told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of people have messaged me about how they can get started and where can they go. And they need to do some research. They need to figure out where a close racetrack is, local racetrack for them is. It’s all about exposure. That’s how I got my start. I went to go watch a family friend race and the next weekend we went out and bought a go-kart.”

While kids in cities and towns across the country can mimic nearly any other sport with a patch of land or blacktop outside, it’s impossible to go out and have a pickup car race. Legally, anyway. And especially if you’re under 16.

And even if you are of legal driving age, where is that motorized vehicle coming from in the first place? Where are you racing it? Racing’s startup costs dwarf that of other sports. You can’t buy a go-kart for anywhere near the price of a football or a baseball glove. There are also no school-based racing teams or leagues.

(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

Even simply racing in a karting league without your own equipment is expensive. A 10-event junior league at K1 Karting — a company that has 35 locations primarily located in suburbs across America — costs $400.

The costs only go up from there. Speed costs money. And so does travel. Short tracks in the U.S. aren’t typically located in the middle of cities. After all, they can be really loud.

Those costs are a reason why many NASCAR drivers over the past decade have risen through the ranks of the series via family funding. Sons and grandsons of the leaders of Albertsons, Allegiant Airlines, Zaxby’s and Rheem have raced in NASCAR’s top three levels in recent years.

Racing is the only sport in the country where you need both talent and millions of dollars in sponsorship to make it to the top no matter who you are or where you come from.

“It comes down to so much financial support and other support,” Wallace said. “That makes it an even tougher challenge for even certain individuals trying to come into it. I think that once you become a part of the sport starting out at the grassroots level you recognize pretty quick of what it’s going to take to be successful. To set yourself up you’ve got to be able to drive but you’ve also got to have the financial backing too.”

Making NASCAR and racing more accessible to everyone

Wallace became part of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity nine years ago, a program started in 2004 by ex-CEO Brian France, who recognized that NASCAR was in dire need of more diversity.

In the last 15 years, dozens of drivers have gotten opportunities to race at NASCAR’s lower levels for teams like REV Racing, a minor league NASCAR team owned by Black executive Max Siegel. Without the program, it’s very likely that many of its participants wouldn’t get a shot to become a NASCAR Cup Series driver.

“You get to see early on who has the potential and who doesn’t. It comes down to skill level and giving people a platform who may not necessarily have it if they were doing their own thing” Wallace said.

Programs like the Wendell Scott Foundation and the Urban Youth Racing School are also working to provide STEM opportunities in racing and elsewhere for underprivileged kids. The UYRS says it’s served over 7,500 students while Scott’s foundation says it’s served nearly 2,000 kids through its programs.

Warrick Scott, the CEO of the foundation, said he wanted to continue to use his grandfather’s legacy to highlight other Black people who had been involved in NASCAR in various capacities while continuing to provide opportunities for kids to get involved in racing.

“The only problem I’ll have with Bubba Wallace’s legacy is if in 10-20 years from now he’s still the only one racing,” Scott told Yahoo Sports. “Then I’ll look back and say ‘Damn, we did something wrong.’ ”

Scott did note NASCAR’s efforts in addressing its lack of diversity.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Scott said. “But I’d be less than sincere if I didn’t acknowledge, at least in my opinion, that I believe that NASCAR has made great strides and big steps in rectifying those things. You can’t fix 50 years in one year in the middle of a pandemic.”

In addition to providing opportunities for drivers, the Drive for Diversity program has given former college athletes and others an opportunity to become pit crew members for NASCAR teams. The program boasts that over 50 participants are working for teams at NASCAR’s top three levels and over 30 of those have jobs on Cup teams.

But those crew member numbers dwarf the number of crew chiefs and drivers that have come from the program. Those are the two most prominent positions in NASCAR. Not one current crew chief at the Cup Series level is Black or was part of NASCAR’s diversity program.

Just three drivers from the program have earned full-time Cup Series rides. And Wallace is currently the only one of the three with a ride in 2021. Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion, has raced for three Cup Series teams in the past three seasons and doesn’t have a spot in the field set for 2021. Kyle Larson, the program’s most successful alum, is currently racing sprint cars at dirt tracks across the country.

Larson was fired from his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in April and suspended indefinitely by NASCAR after he publicly used the N-word. He could be reinstated as soon as 2021.

Larson’s usage of the racial slur came over a live microphone while he was racing in a virtual race broadcast on NASCAR’s website. With real-life racing shut down in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR heavily promoted computer-based simulated racing to provide content and in an attempt to attract a bigger and younger audience.

Can iRacing broaden NASCAR’s appeal?

NASCAR is betting big on iRacing, an internet-based racing service that offers realistic scans of cars and tracks for users to race on via their home computers.

Billed as the most realistic sports simulation around, those claims may be correct. Using a wheel and pedals on a computer is more transferable to racing than pushing buttons is to a stick-and-ball sport, and you can hardly hear or see Cup Series driver William Byron mentioned without a reference to how he got his start in sim racing.

Can Byron’s path to racing real cars and eventually into NASCAR become a viable one?

Rajah Caruth was named part of NASCAR’s 2020 Drive for Diversity class. The 18-year-old grew up loving NASCAR and fast cars and got into a race car for the first time in 2017. Since then, most of Caruth’s racing experience has come via iRacing. In November, he became the first member of NASCAR’s diversity program to be chosen because of his iRacing background.

Being selected for the program gave Caruth the chance to run a late model car for the first time this year. He won his first race on Saturday night. And as you can imagine, there’s still a big difference between racing a real car and racing a car on a computer. Caruth noted that many of the tricks he’s learned to go fast online don’t necessarily translate over to actual racing.

There was still a lot of transferability from online to real life though.

“You really have to save your tires and save stuff to the end and run smart races,” Caruth told Yahoo Sports of his late model races. “iRacing has helped me with that because running [NASCAR Ignite Series] or longer races just learning how to not put yourself in bad spots. Give and take and even learn how to work on some of the strategy myself so I can understand stuff and then over here in the real life stuff I can be like, ‘Oh, this is not too unfamiliar because I did something similar’ in an online Richmond race or an online Martinsville race.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: NASCAR Drive For Diversity Driver, Rajah Caruth checks his live-broadcast Twitch stream as he competes in the eTruck Series Night in America Powered by FilterTime, a live-online NASCAR Truck Series race on the iRacing platform, from his bedroom of his parent's home on March 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. The online race was organized by NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ryan Vargas in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic - benefited multiple charities and included other professional ARCA and NASCAR drivers. Caruth, 17, who is currently racing in the NASCAR Late Model series and was set to make his debut, is back home due to the pause in action due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to a NASCAR release, they have suspended the season through the first weekend in May, following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to not hold mass gatherings over the next eight weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Caruth, who represents Rev Racing, is one of the first drivers with an iRacing background to be selected for the aforementioned NASCAR program. He previously came out of the eNASCAR IGNITE Series. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
NASCAR Drive For Diversity driver Rajah Caruth became part of the program last November. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

But the digital divide hampers the ability for lower-income kids to take advantage of the potential racing opportunities that iRacing provides. According to a recent Pew Research study, nearly 60 percent of parents with lower incomes said their children would face “at least one digital obstacle” during the school year because of the pandemic. And iRacing runs best with a fast computer that has a fancy graphics card and a solid high-speed internet connection.

The same obstacles that hamper classwork and homework preclude being able to play internet-based games at a high level.

“You never want to put all your eggs into one basket,” Caruth said. “I think that if I’m NASCAR, I don’t want to put all my efforts into making everything go all digital. The digital and the sim racing stuff is extremely important. I wouldn’t necessarily want to have that take precedence over the real-life side of things. But I think certainly can be done and it is being done to elevate both and promote both.”

How the flag ban has catapulted Wallace’s career

The course of Wallace’s career has changed seismically over the last four months.

After speaking out against racial injustice and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, Wallace wore a shirt that read “I can’t breathe” ahead of the June 7 Cup Series race at Atlanta; a race where NASCAR president Steve Phelps made a public admission that NASCAR needed to do better when it came to addressing systemic racism.

Its first tangible action came days later. Hours before Wallace hopped into a car that said “Black Lives Matter” on it, NASCAR said that fans could no longer display the Confederate flag at its racetracks. It was a sudden hardline stance after NASCAR simply asked fans to “refrain” from flying the flag at tracks after a white supremacist shot and killed nine Black people at a South Carolina church five years earlier.

Wallace had advocated for that ban in a cable news interview two days before. That advocacy put NASCAR on high alert when a crew member discovered that Wallace’s garage door rope was tied into a noose knot at Talladega. An investigation involving FBI agents discovered that the rope had been tied like that since the fall of 2019.

Over the summer, Wallace’s advocacy for social and racial change also caught the eye of numerous companies without any previous NASCAR ties. Like most drivers, Wallace has been forced to search for sponsorship throughout his entire career. Money helps make a car go fast.

In the weeks after the flag ban, Wallace and his Richard Petty Motorsports team got sponsorships from CashApp, Columbia Sportswear and DoorDash. Wallace even scored an endorsement deal with Beats by Dre.

“I would say it has a lot to do with it really,” Wallace said of the flag ban. “What companies wanted to be associated with that? Not many. NASCAR took a hard stance to get it out of here and companies were like, ‘Alright, we’re seeing real change within the sport.’ ”

The flurry of in-season sponsorship deals was a welcome sign for both Wallace and NASCAR. Companies were clearly taking notice of his rising stature and his ability to appeal to a national audience.

“For me, I’d never looked at NASCAR as ‘I don’t know if I want to join this because I don’t see anyone that looks like me.’ I just did it because it seemed fun,” Wallace said. “So it’s tough for me to look at it from that viewpoint but I do believe that happens. You look at the impact LeBron James has. You look at the impact Odell Beckham has. People want to join the sport because of them and now I think that’s kind of translating over to NASCAR. That’s pretty cool.”

Thanks to Jordan’s financial might and that increased corporate backing, Wallace should now have a real chance to become the first Black Cup Series driver to win a race in 60 years. He’s already become a star thanks to his activism.

A win could be unlike anything else the sport has experienced in the last 50 years — and inspire kids who look like him to catch the racing bug.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)