Driver’s seat elusive for black racers

By Viv Bernstein (NY TIMES, May 19, 2012).

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Darrell Wallace Jr. was playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball at 8 and perhaps on a path to college ball when his father bought him a go-kart after a trip to a local track.

“He was good right off the bat,” Darrell Wallace Sr. said. “But at 8 years old, do you think your son’s going to be the next Dale Earnhardt, or the next Joe Montana or Brett Favre?”

How about the next Wendell Scott?

Scott competed in 495 races in Nascar’s premier series — now Sprint Cup — in the 1960s and ‘70s and was the only black driver to win a race. Only five other blacks have started a handful of races in the 64-year history of Nascar and only one did so since 1986 — Bill Lester, who entered two Cup events in 2006.

Nearly every major American sport has black stars, including Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Serena Williams, but the top three Nascar national series have none. It is a glaring absence in a sport desperate to attract new fans and diversify its audience.

Wallace, 18, who is scheduled to make his debut in the lower-level Nationwide Series on Sunday at Iowa Speedway, just might be the one to finally break through.

“We really feel that Darrell is a guy that has a gift behind the wheel,” said J. D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the top teams in Nascar.

Gibbs has been searching for Nascar’s first black star for nearly a decade, beginning with a collaboration with Reggie White before he died in 2004, and signed Wallace in 2009, when he was 15.

“I think it’s a real value to this sport if you can kind of have that piece fit in,” Gibbs said. “Other sports, it kind of happens naturally. This sport’s hard because of the barriers to entry because of the cost standpoint.”

Darrell Wallace Sr., who owns an industrial cleaning business, has spent nearly $1 million to support his son’s racing. Now Gibbs has taken over. The plan is to have Wallace race in four Nationwide events this year, with the possibility of a full schedule in 2013.

Nascar officials will be among those watching closely on Sunday.

“What he potentially could do for the sport, it is an extremely important debut,” said Steve Phelps, Nascar’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

Wallace, known to all as Bubba, qualified to start eighth among 43 drivers in the Iowa field on Sunday, one spot better than Nascar’s other much followed diversity driver: Danica Patrick. Even Brian France, chairman and chief executive of Nascar, is watching.

“He’s somebody with the most promising talent who is an African-American come through our diversity program,” France said Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Look, that’s a breakthrough if it materializes, and if not him, there’ll be somebody who’s going to walk in the door and be a star and it’s going to be good for us.”

Indeed, Nascar needs that breakthrough.

According to Nielsen research, the median age of Nascar fans is 51.6, older than fans of every other major sport in the United States. So Nascar has created an “industry action plan” to attract a multicultural audience, youths under 18 and the 18-to-34 demographic.

“Darrell can help us with all three,” Phelps said.

A few years ago, Marc Davis was the great black hope. He won in the lower levels of the sport and was signed by Gibbs. But Davis raced in only 10 Nationwide Series events from 2008 to ‘11. The opportunities were few and the results less than needed to prove himself.

Wallace says he knows Davis and makes no assumptions.

“I don’t look ahead and think, man, I could be in a full-time Nationwide ride next year and hopefully Cup the next year,” Wallace said. “That could happen. This could be my first and only race. Who knows?”

Much will depend on finding a company to sponsor Wallace. Nascar has helped the Gibbs team make contact with potential sponsors in a tough economy that has made it hard for even the best drivers to find backing. Fuel Sports Management Group, a company that matches sponsors with drivers, has also signed on to the Wallace effort. And Fuel has enlisted KWL Enterprises, run by Kevin Liles, the former Island/Def Jam Music Group president, to find black-focused companies to connect to Wallace.

It is a monumental effort for a driver who has never run a national-level Nascar race. But insiders have known about Wallace’s potential for years.

Marcus Jadotte, Nascar’s vice president for public affairs and multicultural development, met Wallace when he was 14. Jadotte encouraged him to apply for the Drive for Diversity program, Nascar’s effort to develop minority and female drivers. In nine years, the program never delivered a driver to the top three national series until now.

“He certainly has been on the radar in racing for it seems like half his life,” Jadotte said of Wallace.

At 16, Wallace won his first race in the Nascar K&N Pro East regional development series in 2010, He was the first black driver and the youngest to triumph in that series. Wallace has continued to win often enough to earn a shot.

But if Wallace’s racing has set him apart, so has his race. He said he had been subjected to years of abuse from fans, even track officials, in the sport’s lower levels. It eased, his father said, when he stepped up to the K&N series.

“I’ve experienced that since Day 1 of racing,” the younger Wallace said. “It doesn’t hurt me. It bothers my parents more than anything. For me, it’s just something I hear through one ear and it goes right through the other and just keep moving along and don’t even dwell on it. Because the more you dwell on it, the more it affects you.”

Wallace’s parents have had to deal with racial issues as well. Darrell Wallace Sr. is white and his wife, Desiree, who ran track at the University of Tennessee in the 1980s, is African-American.

“I went to school 80 percent black, so I don’t see color, I just see people and personalities,” Wallace Sr. said. “That’s probably where he gets it from. His mom’s the same way. Just brush it off and turn it on them.”

In a sport with a long history of racism — Scott’s victory in 1963 was not acknowledged by Nascar until after the event — and whose sponsors have not embraced minority drivers, Darrell Wallace Sr. says he believes his son will attract sponsorship precisely because he is black.

“If he does do good and he makes it, the media coverage is going to be overwhelming,” he said, “and that’s what large corporations, they want to spend their money on advertising. If you’re the only African-American driver in the field, he’ll hopefully get a lot of exposure and a lot of media coverage. The branding will be there from corporate America.”

Nascar can only hope.

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