‘Yes, we exist’: Black fans watch NASCAR’s work to diversify

Kevin Johnson fell in love with NASCAR as a child through clips on “Wide World of Sports“Decades before the billion dollar broadcast deals when auto racing shared valuable airtime with the barrel and demolition derby.

Raised in the South Bronx, Johnson considered himself “a NASCAR fan” without a friend or family member who really shared his interest in the last race.

“As you can imagine,” Johnson said, “there just weren’t many people receptive to the sport given its history.”

Johnson recalled staying at his Temple University residence during the massive snowstorm that ravaged the East Coast. in 1979 to see the Daytona 500, broadcast live in its entirety for the first time. His roommate was trapped elsewhere due to the weather, leaving Johnson alone with television.

“No one knew,” Johnson said, laughing. “As a black person in an urban area, it was not acceptable. It really wasn’t out there. But that love continued to this day. “

The 61-year-old Johnson, who retired to Miami, shares his passion for the sport with a group of Black NASCAR fans on Facebook. The group’s biography says, “Yes, we exist.”

Fans share favorite mementos from the race, photos of their collectibles, and, yes, stories of NASCAR’s historically awkward relationship with the black community.

Johnson has been called racist slurs on the track, he felt dizzy at the sight of the Confederate flag, and he often wondered if the good boy’s southern attitudes seeping into the sport would ever fade away.

The catalyst for change has come to the United States with the death of George Floyd. under the custody of the Minneapolis police. Not long after that, driver Bubba Wallace pushed NASCAR into the backlog of banning the Confederate flag.For decades, a billowing nylon symbol for blacks that they were not welcome at NASCAR Nation.

The idea of ​​facing the flag and the potential of the alcohol-fueled anger of its staunchest supporters has kept many black fans away and made those who came see their way. Johnson said banning the flag will make NASCAR “more attractive.”

“We need to attract more people, encourage more people of color to come and enjoy what is happening around the race weekend,” added Brad Daugherty, the sole owner of the black team in NASCAR.

According to NASCAR, the latest demographics show an overwhelmingly white fan base (75%), but the multicultural share of 25% has increased from 20% in 2011. Black fans account for 9% of the total.

The sight of black fans lined up against the Talladega fence to cheer Wallace on the day after a rope was found at his post It was an encouraging time for NASCAR. But gaining the trust of a new generation of fans extends beyond “if you forbid it, they will come.” NASCAR and its tracks need bolder attempts at tickets and community outreach programs, largely as baseball, NHL, and NBA celebrate pride or ethnic-themed nights.

Minorities may not necessarily become the dominant demographic for serial car series, but they certainly can get a bigger share of the market.

“I think the challenge for NASCAR is this: They spent a lot of time and money over the years to build a specific brand that focused on Confederate Southern whites waving flags as their target market, and aligned themselves with business partners and politicians who also found symmetry with this demographic, “said Joshua Newman, Florida State Professor and author of “Sports, Entertainment and the NASCAR Nation: Consumption and the Cultural Policy of Neoliberalism”.

“This worked well to create a very specific NASCAR culture, a show of famous politicians, military flybys, conservative symbolism, an all-white lineup of drivers, for many years, but not always, and grandstands full of predominantly white consumer fans,” he said. Newman: “He was unique in the sports landscape of North America because of his racial homogeneity and his pronounced affiliations with a political party.”

But cultural policy may change, and NASCAR’s boom has faded. For Newman, that means NASCAR limited its growth potential and must now find a solution.

Could Wallace, who finished second in the 2018 Daytona 500?Attract new fans if you won a checkered flag or two driving for an underfunded team? Would a diversity program that places more drivers in the Cup Series, where Wallace is the only black driver, expand the exposure and create fans of all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds?

NASCAR has worked to raise awareness among the multicultural public for years, including Latino-focused efforts at Auto Club Speedway in California. Last year NASCAR and the Las Vegas Urban Chamber of Commerce teamed up with a local youth group to take a group of black kids on the run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Drive for Diversity program dates back to 2004 and a separate effort to work with key minority businesses and community leaders began three years later.

“If people watch the sport and see that the sports stars are representative of different groups, I think it’s just one more step to make the sport feel more open to a wider audience,” director of Drive for Diversity, Jusan Hamilton. said. “If people look at the sport and feel it is open, that in turn will help more people be interested in coming to the sport.”

The few black drivers who came before Wallace have heard that hope before they just wind up discouraged by the frayed bond between NASCAR and minorities.

“It’s time to realize it’s a new day,” said Bill Lester, who had 145 races in NASCAR from 1999 to 2006. “Not all race drivers are white. There are people of color. There are women out there who want to compete. “

Lester said he believes NASCAR President Steve Phelps, who tearfully told Wallace about the rope in the garage, and veteran executive Brandon Thompson, can spark a tangible cultural shift within the sport.

“There is a willingness to listen and participate that NASCAR has that I don’t think have been sincere before,” said Lester.

Still, Wallace is one of the few non-white drivers. Daniel Suárez is Mexican and Aric Almirola is of Cuban descent. Kyle Larson, who is half Asian, was fired in April for using a racial slur.

NASCAR met with the Rev. Greg Drumwright this month., who organized members of his ministry to make the trip to Talladega to support Wallace. Drumwright said he and his group planned to attend other races as well, and posted a series of encouraging interactions. on his Twitter account of the All-Star race in Bristol on Wednesday.

“We don’t want a showcase,” said Drumwright. “This is a national dialogue.”

Toni Addison, her husband, and their three children from Newark, Delaware, have never attended a NASCAR race. They drive down Dover International Speedway on race weekends and catch a glimpse of the carnival-like atmosphere on the track and wonder if they would feel welcome.

“It looks like something we would be interested in,” Addison said. “But I guess I couldn’t use my Black Live Matter shirt or my Barack Obama shirt for that. I’m a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. It is as if a Cowboys fan did not enter Eagles Stadium, at least not with the entire Cowboys team on.

She has become one of Wallace’s new fans (“I didn’t even know there was a black NASCAR driver”) and saw him slap fans’ hands at Talladega, but acknowledged “fear can drive me away from it.”

“My impression is that they are mostly Trump supporters, supporters of the Confederate flag,” said Addison, 51. “I don’t know how comfortable I would feel to fit in.”

She could talk to fans like Johnson, who, despite being hurt by insults, generally have a lot of fun on race day and want all fans to enjoy the same enjoyment of the sport that he has for over 40 years.

One memory rises above the rest: Johnson and his wife, Julie, attended a meeting at Atlanta Motor Speedway with Hall of Fame driver Tony Stewart in the mid-2000s. The couple were an ardent supporter of Smoke, who asked a group of fans in a suite if they had any questions for him.

Julie stepped back and said to Stewart, “Since I’m probably her only black fan, I really don’t have a question, I just want a hug.”

Stewart smiled and invited her into a tight hug and then sent her several autographed photos.

It’s the kind of moment that can make a fan forever, from any aspect of life.


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