Joe Henderson III says NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program failed him

Driver Joe Henderson takes the checkered flag after his qualifying lap during the NASCAR Drive for Diversity combine at South Boston Speedway October 15, 2007 in South Boston, Va.
Driver Joe Henderson takes the checkered flag after his qualifying lap during the NASCAR Drive for Diversity combine at South Boston Speedway October 15, 2007 in South Boston, Va. Getty Images for NASCAR

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program began in 2004 with two goals: Get minority drivers in seats and make more money for the sport.

“We’re doing it because we believe that, one, it’s the right thing to do,” George Pyne, then NASCAR’s chief operating officer, told the New York Times in 2006. “Two, we feel that we want to market our sport to all segments of society, and certainly by doing so we believe we’ll grow our fan base, which will result in higher ticket sales, higher value of sponsorship, more people watching on TV, more people buying T-shirts and hats.”

It may have made the sport money, but no driver from the program’s first six classes is racing in one of NASCAR’s top three series.

Joe Henderson III, a then-21-year-old black driver from Franklin, Tenn., was part of the first two in program history and took part in a NASCAR commercial embracing diversity.

But he had a dispute midway through his second season with the program. In 2006, Henderson’s father, Joe Henderson Jr., spoke out to the New York Times about what he saw as broken promises. He said his son was “given poor equipment in 2005 and not even provided a race car in 2006.”

“It’s a sham,” Henderson Jr. told a reporter then. “The program is not designed to be successful because, No. 1, it’s not properly funded. They claim that it’s a pipeline. Well, nobody came out the pipe.

“NASCAR’s not trying to develop nobody. They have nobody ready to move up. It’s a smoke-and-mirror program.”

When the younger Henderson applied for a third time to D4D, he said he was told he did not qualify even though he believed he ran the fastest time of all the drivers for a second consecutive year. He believes it was the article that ultimately shut him out of NASCAR.

“I can’t get a sponsor,” Henderson III said in a more than 90-minute phone interview last week. “I can’t do anything with anybody here in America. I promise I can’t. Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s something else, but I feel like I got blackballed out of the sport because of the article. It was the truth and nobody wanted to hear the truth at that time. If I wanted to get back with a race team, that team would take a serious risk. …

“Right now I’m sitting here with a late model (car) with no motor or shocks. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get back racing, but I have to work a regular job. Only way I see is to do some local racing, which is fine with me as long as I’m racing. …

“I’m trying to be positive. I’m working as a manager at a hotel, which is fine. ... I’d rather be in a race car doing what I was born to do.”

Henderson III, 30, does carry some baggage. He admitted to three incidents at tracks that resulted in near fisticuffs, including one where he picked up a wrench when he felt threatened. He regularly slips into slang speech, which would be frowned upon by sponsors. His highest finish in 20 races in 2004, his first year with the program, was sixth, and a snapshot of his 2005 results shows he finished higher than his qualifying position just once in five races.

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations who also oversees the diversity program, said it’d be fair to say there were growing pains. Any new endeavor won’t be 100 percent right out of the gate, he said, and there have to be adjustments made along the way.

Cassidy couldn’t specifically address Henderson’s experience, but he said there’s going to be some level of disappointment in professional sports as not everyone makes it.

“Whether you’re a crew member or a driver, it is not easy to make in it a professional sport. There are challenges and you need resources and you need a lot of talent,” Cassidy said. “I can’t speak to Joe’s specific experience, but like I would do with other friends and competitors that were former drivers in the sport, there are other ways to make it in the sport if you can’t realize your driving dreams.

“I don’t, and we don’t, like to see anybody disappointed in the sport and their experience, but I will tell you there are a lot of avenues for people to go on and down to remain involved at a lot of different levels and that’s a great thing.”

Cassidy pointed to Ryan Gifford, a former Drive for Diversity driver who now works for Richard Childress Racing, and Eddie Troconis, a Mexico native who after driving became a race engineer for Kyle Busch Motorsports, as examples of minorities who found different paths in racing.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9