From Olympic sprinter to ... NASCAR? How outsider Ato Boldon is diversifying racing

Former Olympic sprinter Ato Boldon will be covering another kind of racing this weekend – NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Former Olympic sprinter Ato Boldon will be covering another kind of racing this weekend – NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Courtesy NBC Sports

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Ato Boldon was one of the world’s fastest men. He won Olympic medals in both the 100- and 200-meter sprints, collecting three bronzes and a silver over his illustrious career. He competed against track legends Maurice Green and Frankie Fredericks, and he came out ahead sometimes. He is, by all measures, one of the sport’s most accomplished sprinters.

So what is he doing in the broadcast booth for this Sunday’s NASCAR race in Charlotte?

Boldon’s track expertise led him to broadcasting when he hung up his cleats in 2004, and since then, he’s become NBC’s lead Olympic analyst for the sport. He’s watched as Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, men even faster than he once was, have shredded records with their speed.

Ato Boldon
Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago in 1997. LIONEL CIRONNEAU AP

“I take pride in knowing everything there is to know in track and field,” Boldon said Tuesday. “So the network said, ‘OK, Mr. Know-It-All, let’s trade you out and put you in something new.”

Back in June, NBC announced it was moving Boldon to select NASCAR races to serve as a guest announcer. He has only been to two races so far (Daytona and Bristol), and after Charlotte his next one is Texas, then the season finale at Homestead. But even in that short time, Boldon said he’s come to appreciate the sport – that, and the opportunity he has a visible minority to potentially help shift NASCAR’s demographics.

“A year ago, if someone had told me, ‘Hey, you’re going to doing some NASCAR races,’” Boldon said, “and by the way, you’re going to really really enjoy it, and you’re going to start consuming the sport like a fan, I’d have said, ‘Get out of here. No way.’

“But I’ve definitely come to enjoy it, and that’s been surprising for everyone who knows me, but also for me.”

‘Why I was chosen’

Boldon, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago before immigrating to the United States as a child, admitted he never really had an interest in racing growing up.

“That is sort of precisely why I was chosen though,” he said. “I don’t think that if I had anything more than casual or passing interest, then they wouldn’t have chosen me.”

When the idea was first broached, he didn’t immediately back away. Transitioning from covering one style of speed and racing to another, he thought, could work.

That didn’t mean it came easily. Boldon’s first interview on the job, he was asked to name as many drivers as he could. Five of the few he named, such as Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, were either retired or deceased.

“The first week, I would say I was certainly flunking the class,” Boldon said. “Now I would probably be one of the worst students in the class, but I’d still be passing. I’d get a D.”

Boldon still isn’t as knowledgeable about cars as he is about track and field, but that’s not to be expected. Rather, to him at least, making the transition has been about learning more than just the drivers or the manufacturers. It’s about truly getting into it like a fan, getting inside the heads of the people who love NASCAR to understand why they do.

That’s probably why Boldon, who goes into the driving simulator on Monday, has pedals and a steering wheel set up in his home. He’s been working with a virtual reality version to try to prep himself. After all, he wants to get in a car someday.

“To me, it’s not just learning the names,” Boldon said. “It’s learning what makes the sport tick.”

Diversifying the sport

Boldon wasn’t selected to be a guest analyst just because of the crossover between different forms of racing. It partially has to do with him being a visible figure at races and on broadcasts – specifically, with a minority being that visible figure.

“The folks at NASCAR have made no secret about the fact that they don’t want NASCAR to feel like … the way it was described to me was as a closed group that only people who are into it can enjoy,” Boldon said. “So my presence there is also to help diversify the audience, and that’s a good thing.”

As of 2016, statistics show, only 21 percent of NASCAR fans are minorities. And out of that portion, the smaller segments are for African-Americans. Bolden doesn’t fit that bill traditionally because he is an immigrant, but the idea is the same. Get a person of color in front of the camera at some of these races, then people like them will be more inclined to watch the races.

The question is, does that logic actually hold up?

Ato Boldon(2)
Ato Boldon, running for Trinidad and Tobago, was once among the world’s best sprinters. Now he’s doing some moonlighting on NBC’s NASCAR broadcasts, including this week in Charlotte. MICHAEL PROBST AP

“I haven’t looked at what the ratings are, but my fans online and the people that I know have said, ‘I never thought I would watch a NASCAR race, but I’m going to watch it to watch you,’” Boldon said. “And if that’s what starts them watching and they discover a love for the sport, then that’s fine.”

It’s an interesting thought experiment, especially at this juncture of sports and politics in the country. For all the talk of protests and patriotism and injustice, having a minority broadcaster at NASCAR races – where drivers have been less inclined to comment on social justice issues – presents interesting possibilities.

Boldon not only understands that, he also accepts it.

“To me, NASCAR is the most patriotic sport there is. I go to NASCAR and I go wow, their love for America is on display here in full force,” he said. “Having said that, if there are any protests at all, the last place it’s going to start is at NASCAR. I don’t think it will never start there, but I think the last place it will start is at NASCAR.

“I think the demographics of NASCAR are such that you’re just less likely to see that.”

Not the main story

Boldon said that while he is personally a Colin Kaepernick fan – “I grew up a 49ers fan, so I have extreme bias” – he wouldn’t take a knee at a NASCAR race. While he said he supports other people’s rights to do differently, he said his job is as a broadcaster, reporter, and guest of the sport. He isn’t there to be the main story.

Instead, he’ll be in Charlotte to make predictions about who wins the Bank of America 500 and who will drop further down the leaderboard. You can watch him on NBC Sports for the Xfinity Series elimination race on Saturday at 3 p.m. and the Bank of America 500 on Sunday at 2 p.m on NBC.

And since he’s still new to the sport, he won’t say who he thinks will win this weekend, but he does have an idea about who walks away as the Cup series champion this season.

“I think (Martin) Truex Jr. takes it overall, but I don’t necessarily see him as the favorite this weekend,” Boldon said. “I just think it’s Truex’s year. It just feels like everything is falling in line for him.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks