NASCAR banks on minority drivers to broaden sport's exposure
By DAN GELSTON
(AP) -- Rajah Caruth liked the animated autos of "Cars" as a kid, got hooked on the race scene after a trip to the track and sharpened his driving skills as a teen via online racing.
Caruth might one day earn his shot at inspiring the next generation of drivers.
The 18-year-old Caruth is a NASCAR prospect, a young Black driver and one of a half-dozen youngsters participating in the Drive for Diversity program tasked with finding and developing drivers for a sport lean on women and minorities behind the wheel.
"Ideally, I'd want to be in the Cup Series in the next decade," Caruth said. "Hopefully, by then."
The program has developed few drivers for the elite Cup Series over nearly two decades in existence - Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez are among the former members and the only ones currently with rides - but a renewed push at scouting younger drivers and promoting them has NASCAR optimistic more recent classes will reverse the trend.
Wallace's extraordinary season and his emergence as a social activist, in fact, have put a bright light on the program, which wobbled for years between a public relations exercise and a meaningful avenue toward a Cup Series career.
There are 56 graduates of the Drive for Diversity pit crew program actively working across the three national series, including 27 at the Cup Series level. Cup rides for program graduates are scarce, though. Kyle Larson, who is half Japanese, was the most successful alumnus until he used a racial slur during a live-streamed virtual race and was fired by Chip Ganassi.
"There needs to be more resources available for that program," said Brad Daugherty, the lone Black team owner in NASCAR.
The task of turning the program into more of a driver factory is on the agenda of Drive for Diversity director Jusan Hamilton.
The 30-year-old Hamilton, the first Black to serve as race director for a Cup Series race, is a former dirt track driver who applied to an early version of the program only to be told he needed more experience. As his D4D role expanded, Hamilton helped change the goals to targeting prospects as young as 12 and established a coordinated developmental system.
Drivers are tutored by older members or other mentors, receive marketing training and there is an emphasis on physical fitness.
"We can control the full process and develop the drivers, help them grow within the system from beginning up to when they're ready to race at the ARCA level," Hamilton said. "They can then showcase their talents and use that to get themselves beyond the touring level and up through the ranks of Truck, Xfinity and Cup."
The challenges of securing a major ride - support resources, critical sponsorship money and connections - are difficult for any young driver but seem greater for minorities. Aside from pushing for more diversity inside the race car, D4D is also looking at ways to increase diversity among sponsorship, ownership and support roles.
"It's an uphill battle and that's one of the biggest things the program sets out to offset at the youth level," Hamilton said. "The program is now set up to be able to give them a better opportunity to make those connections and to understand those resources to get to the next level."
NASCAR hasn't had a Black driver win a Cup race since Wendell Scott in 1963. Caruth knows all about that and could teach a history lesson, if needed. He considers himself a student of stock car racing.
"I was a pretty decent history buff on NASCAR," Caruth said. "I did tons of school projects on it. My senior project this year, I did it on NASCAR right now. I spoke to a lot of other drivers and I feel like I know a lot more about the sport."
He narrates his senior video titled " How American Stock Car Racing Can Stay Relevant " that offers a 4-minute, 25-second crash course to his YouTube channel subscribers on changes in the industry.
"A higher priority of esports has been a way to, not only attract new fans in a new demographic, but also provide a new avenue for new drivers to get into the sport," Caruth said. "Like me."
Like Wallace was. He is one of at least eight Black drivers who have competed in a top-level NASCAR race, but that is stretched over the 72-year history of the series. Some who came before him question if NASCAR has done enough to involve the sport's trailblazers.
"I definitely believe that utilizing the knowledge and experience of those that have raced in NASCAR of color would benefit them," said Bill Lester, a Black driver who made 145 career NASCAR starts from 1999-2006. "I think I'd be able to offer a whole lot that would lead them in the right direction."
Willy T. Ribbs had 26 career NASCAR starts - notably making 23 starts in the Truck Series when he was 46 - and he said NASCAR has taken small steps in becoming more inclusive and inviting.
"If this was a 500-mile race," Ribbs said, "we're in the second lap."
Ribbs, though, said he hasn't attended a NASCAR race in years and if he does, it's because "we're going to celebrate the new look of NASCAR."
Hamilton said he would welcome the former drivers back into the fold.
"These are guys who can certainly share experiences and if they want to share as driver-coaches, I'd love to have them involved," he said.
The new look Tibbs and others bank on could be found in a Driver for Diversity class that includes Caruth, Chase Cabre, Nicholas Sanchez, Gracie Trotter and Isabella Robusto.
Caruth, a race fan since he was 6, was thrilled in 2014 when his family took him to a second-tier NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway. Four year later, he attended the 2018 K&N finale at Dover and introduced himself to key members of Rev Racing.
Caruth, who graduated from a Washington-area high school and planned to enroll at Winston-Salem State and study motorsports management, is now in his second year of the diversity program. He recently helped organize the George Floyd 100, an iRacing event that raised awareness within the motorsports community about the Black Lives Matter movement.
"He's really represented himself on the track and off the track like a true young professional," Hamilton said. "He's a very impressive young man. It's been three years of growth. He still has a long way to go."
It's at least another year or two until Caruth advances to the NASCAR-owned ARCA stock car series. Add time in Xfinity or Trucks and it could be a while before any Cup Series shot arrives, not that he is deterred by that.
"I'm going to do whatever I can right now to get close to that," Caruth said.
Updated July 28, 2020