NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity has often times looked like a rubber-necking logjam along the interstate:
A slow ride.
But thankfully, the pace to make NASCAR more inclusive for fans of all shapes, sizes and ethnic origins is picking up briskly in 2014.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. is eighth in the Camping World Truck Series Standings, including a victory at Madison, Illinois, in June.
And Aric Almirola is the latest driver to tackle and tame the wild beast known as Daytona International Speedway, winning the rain-shortened crash-fest otherwise known as the Coke Zero 400 Sunday afternoon.
A black kid and a guy of Cuban descent? Who knew?
NASCAR will never be a melting pot of diversity. The sport is too deeply entrenched in Southern roots and, most importantly, entrenched in the deep-pockets reality of the huge investment it takes to rise to the top.
But like all businesses, NASCAR continues to evolve. Its Drive for Diversity program, established in 2004, now includes Wallace, a 2010 grad, and Almirola, who did his thing for a similar program established by Joe Gibbs Racing, along with former athletes Reggie White and Magic Johnson.
Kyle Larson, a graduate of the 2012 class whose mother is Japanese-American, is also among the rising mix of stars.
Their success is critical to NASCAR. Nielsen’s 2013 Year in Sports Media Report lists NASCAR as having the highest share of white people (94 percent) among its average TV audience.
That won’t work moving forward.
So whether they like doing this pioneer stuff or not, congrats to Almirola, Wallace and Larson.
Tag, you’re it.
“I’m extremely proud of my past to get to where I’m at,” Almirola said by phone Tuesday during a break from testing at Richmond. “The neat thing for me is to sit here today and look back at my career when I was 8 years old racing go-karts. My grandfather would take me to Daytona to go racing for a week. I used to dream of what it would be like to race on the big track.
“I was doing what normal kids do and dreaming really big.”
Now 30, Almirola has grown up to enjoy the spoils of all that hard work, including a ride with Richard Petty Motorsports and a likely spot in the Chase for the Championship.
But the diversity thing is still a work in progress for him.
The ability to speak Spanish fluently remains on his to-do list, despite having a tutor come to his house for two hours on Tuesdays last year. The tutor got another job and has not been able to come back this season, stunting Almirola’s progress.
“To be honest, to take time to learn Spanish is like taking on a second job,” said Almirola, who speaks with a touch of a Southern drawl. “All this racing is literally nonstop, all year long. Last month I was home for only six days. It’s really hard to focus on anything
“I would love to learn Spanish. I am extremely proud of my roots. My family is very fluent. But at the end of the day what pays my bills is driving race cars and winning races.”
Check. Muy bueno, Senor Almirola.
WINDS OF CHANGE AMONG OWNERS
Whether you want to call it a union or not, the Race Team Alliance formed by the most influential teams in the sport is all about power and leverage.
With a new TV contract in place and the push from NASCAR officials to tweak the engines next season, all you need to do is follow the $$$.
NASCAR signed an $8.2-billion 10-year deal with NBC and Fox in 2013, an impressive number because NASCAR’s TV ratings have dropped about 47 percent since the last TV deal was negotiated in 2005.
Although teams currently get a portion of that TV money, the announcement of the nine-team alliance raised speculation that owners may be trying to put the squeeze on NASCAR for a bigger cut.
Not so, said Rob Kauffman, the elected chairman of the group and a co-owner with Michael Waltrip Racing.
“We’re going to focus on things we can do ourselves and doesn’t require a lot of outside help,” Kauffman said. “Some of those topics are beyond our control. If some of those stakeholders want to have conversations, we’d be happy to do that.”
NASCAR officials are considering reducing horsepower in 2015, a move that would cost owners millions of dollars because engines will have to be rebuilt.
So while the alliance can say one of its primary intent is saving a few bucks on hotel bills, there seems to be a bigger play here.
They are trying to use their collective power to avoid getting caught in a numbers crunch.
CRIST CAMPAIGN CRASH
Charlie Crist and NASCAR never seemed to be a good match. The mostly conservative fan base wasn’t his target audience. And his co-pilot, driver Josh Wise, didn’t have the type of ride that seemed likely to win the Coke Zero 400.
And he has the wrecked car to prove it.
Wise got caught up in the usual Speedway shenanigans when his No. 98 Ford of Phil Parsons Racing was among 26 bumper cars in one of the biggest wrecks in Daytona International Speedway history. Wise finished 23rd among 43 drivers.
At least the Crist brand was nowhere to be found anywhere on the car — thanks for the first snafu.
Phil Parsons Racing had agreed to an in-kind sponsorship that would have placed six decals on the car, stumping for Crist in his gubernatorial push in Florida against incumbent Rick Scott. But the decals were stripped away on Friday after a protest by the Republican Party of Florida and the ensuing controversial political yada-yada.
Parsons said he pulled the plug out of respect for team co-owner Mike Curb, a Republican former California lieutenant governor and long-time friend of Crist.
The GOP filed an ethics complaint with the elections commission, arguing that putting Crist’s name on the hood was a violation of the $3,000 limit on campaign contributions.
The sponsorship package that would have included “Charlie Crist for Florida” featured prominently across the hood of the car was said to have been worth an estimated $50,000. But campaign spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said it was in-kind donation.
Whatever. Sorry, Charlie. Despite the controversy and the crash, Crist got tons of free publicity out of the deal, so the weekend wasn’t a total waste.