Posted on October 9, 2020

Will Michael Jordan’s Involvement Actually Improve NASCAR’s Race Problems?

Nick Bromberg, Yahoo Sports, October 6, 2020

The addition of Michael Jordan to NASCAR’s stable of team owners is a huge boost for a series looking to regain the mainstream appeal it had in the mid-2000s. And Jordan’s presence brings something that NASCAR hasn’t had for nearly 50 years.

When Jordan and current Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin field a team for Bubba Wallace in 2021, the NBA icon will be the first Black person to have a majority ownership stake in a Cup Series team since 1973.


Previous efforts to make NASCAR more appealing to women and people of color have made some inroads. But NASCAR — and American auto racing as a whole — has still been dominated by white men. Especially as the Confederate flag still lurked at NASCAR tracks.

As of this summer, that flag is no longer allowed. Can its absence coupled with Jordan’s arrival and Wallace’s emerging star be that catalyst for real demographic change?

Wendell Scott’s impact in NASCAR
When Wallace takes the green flag in the 2021 Daytona 500, Jordan will join Brad Daugherty as the only two Black owners of NASCAR Cup Series teams. And Jordan will be the first Black majority owner of a Cup team since Wendell Scott made his final start in 1973.

Scott was NASCAR’s Jackie Robinson, believed to be the first Black driver ever licensed by NASCAR.


After excelling at the local levels, Scott moved to NASCAR’s top level. He made his first start in what’s now the Cup Series in 1961, scoring five top-10s in 23 starts in his own equipment.

The future Hall of Famer became a mainstay over the next decade and even finished sixth in the points standings in 1966. Two years earlier, he became the first and only Black man to win a NASCAR race when he won at Jacksonville Speedway.


Unlike after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, there was no influx of Black drivers into NASCAR after Scott started racing in the Cup Series. While drivers like Willy T. Ribbs — the first Black person to test a Formula 1 car — and Bill Lester made a handful of starts racing part-time in the Cup Series, Wallace is just the second Black driver to race full-time at NASCAR’s top level.


As Jordan noted, NASCAR’s southern Confederate-flag waving culture has played a role in its white identity. The prominence of the flag at races and on NASCAR-themed imagery has long made people believe that the series wasn’t welcoming to non-white people.

While NASCAR hasn’t used or endorsed the official use of the Confederate flag in any capacity for years, the flags haven’t been hard to spot at tracks. Will its absence going forward help more Black families give NASCAR and auto racing any consideration?

“I just think we have to get people exposed to it,” Wallace told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of people have messaged me about how they can get started and where can they go. And they need to do some research. They need to figure out where a close racetrack is, local racetrack for them is. It’s all about exposure. That’s how I got my start. I went to go watch a family friend race and the next weekend we went out and bought a go-kart.”

While kids in cities and towns across the country can mimic nearly any other sport with a patch of land or blacktop outside, it’s impossible to go out and have a pickup car race. Legally, anyway. And especially if you’re under 16.

And even if you are of legal driving age, where is that motorized vehicle coming from in the first place? Where are you racing it? Racing’s startup costs dwarf that of other sports. You can’t buy a go-kart for anywhere near the price of a football or a baseball glove. There are also no school-based racing teams or leagues.

Even simply racing in a karting league without your own equipment is expensive. A 10-event junior league at K1 Karting — a company that has 35 locations primarily located in suburbs across America — costs $400.

The costs only go up from there. Speed costs money. And so does travel. Short tracks in the U.S. aren’t typically located in the middle of cities. After all, they can be really loud.

Those costs are a reason why many NASCAR drivers over the past decade have risen through the ranks of the series via family funding. Sons and grandsons of the leaders of Albertsons, Allegiant Airlines, Zaxby’s and Rheem have raced in NASCAR’s top three levels in recent years.

Racing is the only sport in the country where you need both talent and millions of dollars in sponsorship to make it to the top no matter who you are or where you come from.


Making NASCAR and racing more accessible to everyone
Wallace became part of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity nine years ago, a program started in 2004 by ex-CEO Brian France, who recognized that NASCAR was in dire need of more diversity.

In the last 15 years, dozens of drivers have gotten opportunities to race at NASCAR’s lower levels for teams like REV Racing, a minor league NASCAR team owned by Black executive Max Siegel. Without the program, it’s very likely that many of its participants wouldn’t get a shot to become a NASCAR Cup Series driver.


In addition to providing opportunities for drivers, the Drive for Diversity program has given former college athletes and others an opportunity to become pit crew members for NASCAR teams. The program boasts that over 50 participants are working for teams at NASCAR’s top three levels and over 30 of those have jobs on Cup teams.

But those crew member numbers dwarf the number of crew chiefs and drivers that have come from the program. Those are the two most prominent positions in NASCAR. Not one current crew chief at the Cup Series level is Black or was part of NASCAR’s diversity program.

Just three drivers from the program have earned full-time Cup Series rides. And Wallace is currently the only one of the three with a ride in 2021. Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion, has raced for three Cup Series teams in the past three seasons and doesn’t have a spot in the field set for 2021. Kyle Larson, the program’s most successful alum, is currently racing sprint cars at dirt tracks across the country.

Larson was fired from his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in April and suspended indefinitely by NASCAR after he publicly used the N-word. He could be reinstated as soon as 2021.


The course of Wallace’s career has changed seismically over the last four months.

After speaking out against racial injustice and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, Wallace wore a shirt that read “I can’t breathe” ahead of the June 7 Cup Series race at Atlanta; a race where NASCAR president Steve Phelps made a public admission that NASCAR needed to do better when it came to addressing systemic racism.

Its first tangible action came days later. Hours before Wallace hopped into a car that said “Black Lives Matter” on it, NASCAR said that fans could no longer display the Confederate flag at its racetracks. It was a sudden hardline stance after NASCAR simply asked fans to “refrain” from flying the flag at tracks after a white supremacist shot and killed nine Black people at a South Carolina church five years earlier.

Wallace had advocated for that ban in a cable news interview two days before. That advocacy put NASCAR on high alert when a crew member discovered that Wallace’s garage door rope was tied into a noose knot at Talladega. An investigation involving FBI agents discovered that the rope had been tied like that since the fall of 2019.

Over the summer, Wallace’s advocacy for social and racial change also caught the eye of numerous companies without any previous NASCAR ties. {snip}

In the weeks after the flag ban, Wallace and his Richard Petty Motorsports team got sponsorships from CashApp, Columbia Sportswear and DoorDash. Wallace even scored an endorsement deal with Beats by Dre.