Here’s the thing about diversity in NASCAR: It was never just going to happen.
Unless you’re the child of a millionaire or a relative of one of the sport’s biggest stars of yesteryear, it’s next to impossible to break into NASCAR’s premier series, never mind become one of its top drivers. For a sport that fancies itself the realm of self-made renegades with nobody to answer to, it sure has a lot of rich kids who spend a lot of time begging sponsors for money.
That’s not a bad thing, but it is the reality. And it’s why Darrell Wallace Jr.’s ascension to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is such a momentous step.
It’s been 11 years since an African American last raced in Cup and 13 years since NASCAR welcomed its first “Drive for Diversity” class, on the heels of a similar program in place at Joe Gibbs Racing. On the surface, the program’s goal was to increase the opportunities for women and minorities to get into racing, but the sea of Caucasian faces in the garages and in the stands was merely a symptom of the source problem.
Without near-bottomless financial backing, there’s really only one way to get into racing, even at the lowest local levels of the sport, and that is to know the right people. Perhaps your uncle or neighbor has an old quarter midget that can be rebuilt with a few hours’ elbow grease, assuming you have the hundreds of dollars in tools and requisite know-how. Anyone who argues racing isn’t expensive either has never had to worry about money in any regard or has never taken a cost inventory of all the equipment in their workshop.
Each past generation therefore is a foundation for the next in racing, and if racers of a previous era looked a certain way, racers of the next era most likely were going to look the same.
This has been the obstacle to diversifying NASCAR’s top ranks. When it’s a struggle to scrounge thousands of dollars to race Bandaleros on weekends, raising millions to run Cup cars is closer to an impossibility. Without an official, concerted effort to fill that financial gap, it’s possible drivers such as Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson and Wallace — all products of D4D-type initiatives — might never have been able to make the jump.
For years, fans and others inside NASCAR scoffed at the need for a program to promote diversity. Many claimed minorities simply weren’t interested, and that breaking into the sport would be easy if they were. Others, although they maybe didn’t say it out loud, didn’t want them in the sport anyway.
This close-minded view might have been excusable from a business standpoint when the sport was booming in the 1990s and early 2000s, but since the 2008 recession, taking vast swaths of the audience demographic for granted is no longer tenable. And as much as fans are attracted to paint schemes, the fact is many are attracted to faces that look like theirs, too.
Bringing in a Mexican face in Daniel Suarez and an African-American face in Wallace therefore is more than merely the addition of a little (literal) color to the grid. Each is an opportunity to attract a fan who wants to root for a driver with whom they might share some life experiences due to their backgrounds.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of those in the sport, the opportunities, like the one Wallace has received in the No. 43, have been given. Now, it’s up to him — and Suarez, Larson, Almirola and others — to make it happen.
That’s all they’ve ever asked.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images