Driver Sues NASCAR, Claims He Was Excluded from Diversity Program for Being ‘Too Caucasian’

Bob Pockrass, AOL Sporting News, April 20, 2012

An aspiring stock-car driver is suing NASCAR, claiming he was denied the opportunity to compete in NASCAR’s diversity program because he looks “too Caucasian.”

NASCAR argues that in trying to change the “face” of the sport, it has the right to select drivers for its diversity program based on skin color, attorneys for the sanctioning body and its former diversity program administrators have told a U.S. District court.

Michael Rodriguez, a driver from Pennsylvania, says in his complaint filed in U.S. District Court that he was denied the opportunity to compete in the 2005 and 2006 Drive For Diversity combines.

Rodriguez is suing NASCAR and Access Communications, which operated NASCAR’s diversity program from its inception in 2004 until 2008 and conducted the combines that are designed for teams in NASCAR’s regional series to scout minority drivers.

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program was created to develop minority drivers and crewmen and help them advance through the NASCAR ranks with the goal of reaching the sport’s top series. {snip}

Rodriguez, now in his early 20s, is asking for undetermined damages for violation of his civil rights.

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Judge Max Cogburn did not issue a ruling immediately after Wednesday’s hearing and indicated that he was uncomfortable with the case.

“The core question for the court,” the judge told the attorneys, “is can you discriminate on color in an effort to diversify?”

Rodriguez was invited to compete in the 2005 combine at age 15 with a resume that included two state karting championships. He also was the youngest driver ever to win a Super Late Model event at Mountain Speedway, a one-third mile asphalt track in St. John’s, Pa.

He states in his complaint that he believes he was discriminated against because of his complexion. According to his claim, he is of Puerto Rican and Spanish descent and identifies himself as Puerto Rican. He states in his claim that he is blue-eyed and fair-skinned.

According to NASCAR’s brief in support of summary judgment, Rodriguez based his claim on two references by an Access employee that he looks like “the poster child” or “the poster boy” for the Ku Klux Klan.

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The second Klan reference allegedly was made during a discussion of potential diversity drivers for the 2006 combine, according to NASCAR’s summary judgment brief. The “poster child” comment allegedly was made by an Access employee in the presence of three people, or made in a joking manner by an Access employee after the selection committee voted on which drivers to accept into the program. Rodriguez was selected as an alternate.

Another Access official said those statements were not accepted, tolerated or welcome after hearing the comment, NASCAR states in its brief.

NASCAR puts most of the onus on Access as far as the legal liability for choosing diversity drivers, but NASCAR also backed Access attorneys, who stated in their summary judgment brief that “the act of excluding (Rodriguez) from an affirmative action program because he appeared to be Caucasian is consistent with NASCAR’s stated goals of recruiting drivers who would change the face of NASCAR and make it look more like America.”

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Access attorney Dhamian Blue followed later, reiterating what Access argued in its summary judgment brief, saying that the color of a driver’s skin can be proper criteria for an affirmative action plan.

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NASCAR argues in its summary judgment brief, and Pasek reiterated at the hearing, that the selection of drivers for the 2006 combine was done by closed ballot and that there is no proof that Rodriguez was rejected by a majority of the members because of his skin color.

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NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said that the NASCAR attorneys were making a legal argument that skin color could be used as a criteria for selecting diversity drivers, but said that is not NASCAR’s policy and that skin color did not play a role in the Rodriguez decision.

“Absolutely skin color has nothing to do with our decision process,” Higdon said. “He, like many others, did not make the cut based on merit and merit only.”

Michael Rodriguez at age 15.

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