Lake Norman & Mooresville

NASCAR icon takes the lead in tech nonprofit

Sam Belnavis' life has always been made up of firsts.

He was the first African American to own a NASCAR team; he was the first African American hired in a managerial position for Sears; he created his own advertising agency; he was appointed director of sports marketing for Miller Brewing Co., and he went on to be the chief diversity officer for Roush Fenway Racing.

Now, the Concord resident is expanding his roles and tackling a new first as he accepts the chairman of the board position for the nonprofit organization Ten80 Student Racing Challenge: NASCAR STEM Initiative.

"All of those assignments, all of those opportunities for my career were firsts from an African-American perspective," said Belnavis. "I look at Ten80 as another first in my career."

Ten80 is a group of engineers, scientists, teachers and parents who aid students and teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers.

Belnavis left his mark on racing when he co-owned a team with Bill Cosby, and the pair raced the first African American driver, Willy T. Ribbs. The racer went on to become the first African American to race in the Indianapolis 500.

From the 500 to NASCAR, Belnavis then took the role of general manager and team owner of BelCar racing, where he introduced the National Guard to the sport and raced with Todd Bodine as his driver.

The NASCAR pioneer will continue to leave his mark on the industry as he takes on his new role at Ten80.

"Sam has worked with us a lot over the past two years. He has brought people to see us, he has helped fund a camp for us, and he has watched it for quite a while," said Beverly Simmons, Ten80's founding educator. "We are very excited to have Sam in this role."

The NASCAR initiative is part of the "practice league" in which future engineers, scientists, marketing and creative professionals actively learn and prepare for their futures, Simmons said.

Belnavis was first introduced to the Ten80 organization four years ago when he was board chairman of the N.C. Motorsports Foundation. The nonprofit came in to read a presentation to the foundation about the Ten80 program. After doing some research on the organization and its curriculum, Belnavis said he felt it was a program he wanted to become a part of.

"Sam just has influence, and you always want to put the right person with your program," said Simmons. "He has started his own companies before and he was the first African American to have a race team, so he is not afraid to be on the cutting edge of things."

It is both Belnavis' and Simmons' hope that the organization will continue to flourish in the future.

Currently, Charlotte is Ten80's largest hub, with 10 schools participating. Nationwide, 22 states are involved with the organization. The organization helps provide supplementary curriculum to children ages kindergarten through 12th grade, while the NASCAR STEM Initiative focuses on grades six through 12.

"My goal overall is to build awareness among students grades six through 12 as to what STEM is and how it relates to their current curriculum in school, how it relates to their future, which courses will they pursue, and what's available to them," said Belnavis.

So far, Belnavis said the most rewarding part of the job is working with youth.

"The most rewarding experience is to have a young man come up to me, be he African American or Caucasian, and say, 'Mr.Belnavis, thank you for what you do,'" said Belnavis.