NASCAR isn’t known for diversity. One program wants to change that... and so far it has

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. went from NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to the Cup Series, where he will drive the No. 43 car for Richard Petter Motorsports next season.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. went from NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to the Cup Series, where he will drive the No. 43 car for Richard Petter Motorsports next season. Observer File Photo

Around the corner from Charlotte Motor Speedway, there is a garage-turned-makeshift media workroom, with lights and cameras and six young race-car drivers at the center of everything.

These six make up NASCAR’s 2018 Drive for Diversity class, the sport’s foremost attempt at integrating minority and female drivers into a predominantly white, predominantly male realm. The program got its start in 2004, but only since 2009, when Rev Racing took over as its operational arm, has it really worked.

Three of the program’s alumni – Kyle Larson, Daniel Suárez and now Darrell Wallace Jr. – are already racing in the Cup Series, NASCAR’s top division. Consider that they’re 25, 25, and 24, and the program’s emphasis on youth is obvious.

Wallace is the most recent of those, as he was just named the driver of the No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports for next season. In doing so, he will become the first African-American to drive full time in the Cup Series since Wendell Scott in 1971.

“It’s absolutely a win, it’s a win for the whole sport,” Jusan Hamilton, who oversees the program from NASCAR’s racing operations and management side, said of Wallace joining the Cup Series full time. “It means a lot for where the sport is going and where the program has been able to get drivers to.

“That’s really our focus, is getting drivers on that level where they can showcase what they can do.”

Essentially the program takes these select drivers and gets them into cars they might otherwise not have had a chance to drive. They start out with smaller, more local cars and tracks before eventually progressing up to the K&N Pro Series East, a regional series.

From there, they hope to catch the attention of one of the larger teams and work their way into the Camping World Truck Series, the lowest of NASCAR’s national series. Basically, Drive for Diversity sets minority drivers on the bottom rung, where they may never make it on their own – but the rest, the actual climbing of the ladder, is up to them.

“That’s what we’d like to see each of the drivers do,” Hamilton said. “Just use that as a stepping stone, and we’re giving them the platform to do it.”

The six drivers in this year’s class were selected after a combine that tested participants on their media marketability, driving skills and communication, among other things. Another combine Drive for Diversity organizes is for pit-crew members, meaning the entire racing operation becomes more diverse. Several former Drive for Diversity crew members are now with Cup Series teams, as well.

The program isn’t perfect, as its developmental nature means it often takes drivers many years to make it to a national series like the Camping World Truck Series. What the program has done, though, is introduce a number of minority drivers into the sport.

The sport’s popularity has been in decline for a number of years, but helping diversify it might draw entirely new audiences, new fans who relate to minority and female drivers.

More diversity is one of NASCAR’s two best hopes (the other being reaching out to younger fans) for reviving its dwindling fandom.

One of the six in this year’s class might not be the next young driving sensation, but the way Hamilton and Drive for Diversity are committed to keeping the pipeline full, the program figures to produce another national driver soon.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks