Magic's quest: Find top black driver

Basketball great Magic Johnson is the point man for NASCAR's diversity effort.
By George Diaz
Sentinel Staff Writer
May 29, 2004


CONCORD, N.C. -- The kid must be out there somewhere, probably growing up in the inner city. A passion exists for fast cars, but he looks at the blacktop outside his home and sees only bouncing basketballs.

Folks are looking for him. Important folks. Former NBA star Magic Johnson is the point man, cultivating his professional and personal contacts with a historic challenge in mind:

Find an African-American driver to compete among NASCAR's elite teams.

Intent on bringing minority representation into a sport traditionally colored by white faces in the stands and Confederate red in the infield, NASCAR once again turns to a prominent African-American sports celebrity. This time, the vision seems serious enough to go beyond the dog-and-pony shows of previous efforts.

Julius Erving, Joe Washington and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have been brought in as owners, determined to make an impact along pit road, only to leave disheartened by the realities of the sport:

It takes between $12 million and $15 million yearly to run a competitive team on the Nextel Cup level, and for that, you need prominent sponsors, a promising driver and savvy team owners.

This diversity effort has nothing to do with that, at least in its encompassing vision. It is about black vendors selling T-shirts in the grandstands. It is about the rich scent of food cooking on an infield grill, served by a black man with concession rights. It is about a black tire changer jumping over the wall during a frenzied pit stop.

And it's about finding a driver, a guy who someday can feel the rush of racing with Gordon, Earnhardt and Kenseth. "I hope that one day a lot of people who look like me will be at the track, hollering and screaming," said Johnson, who became co-chairman of NASCAR's newly created Executive Steering Committee for Diversity last week.

Johnson, who led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles, now owns businesses in 65 cities, including a number of Starbucks franchises. He will use his extensive contacts to try and create opportunities for black businessmen, including himself.

Johnson will not draw a salary, but there is a likely payoff for him should some of those contracts require his signature.

Although he grew up as a fan -- his father loved watching stock-car racing in Mississippi -- Johnson admits that he has much to learn about the business. "I have to go to NASCAR college and learn the ins and outs," he said.

He will leave finding a speed demon to folks who know stock-car racing.

The networking began a day after Magic's appointment, when John Bickford was recruited for a role that amounts to talent scout. Bickford knows about kids and racing potential. He groomed his stepson, Jeff Gordon, to become the youngest driver (24) to win a series championship in the modern era. He introduced Ray Evernham to Kasey Kahne, the Nextel Cup circuit's rising star in his rookie season.

"No matter what color you are, you dream of racing," Bickford said. "The problem is they can't see the path. That's why we have to go cut them a trial."

Bickford will work in conjunction with Anthony Martin, founder and executive director of the Urban Youth Racing School, based in Philadelphia.

Founded in 1998, the school has introduced more than 800 urban youths to career opportunities in stock-car racing.

Martin and Bickford will identify a talent, then send him to the Finishline Racing School at New Smyrna Speedway in Samsula.

Mike and Kristal Loescher have been teaching youths to race since moving to the Daytona Beach area in 1978. Their clientele includes Gordon -- then a 14-year-old driving sprint cars -- and Jamie McMurray, who emerged as a top rookie at the end of the Winston Cup season in 2002.

Bickford will rely on the Loeschers' expertise for quick answers.

"We don't have time to take a kid go-kart racing for his career," Bickford said. "What you need to do is put him in a go-kart, run him some laps, find out where his weak spots are, concentrate on the weak spots and move him onto the next level.

"It took me 19 years to get Jeff Gordon to a championship. We don't have 19 years. We have two years."

Bickford laughs at his last thought, though the history of minorities racing in NASCAR can be labeled nothing short of, well, a dark comedy.

Only six black drivers have competed on the Winston or Nextel Cup circuit (and none today).

The legacy includes a shameful twist: When Wendell Scott won a 200-mile race on a Jacksonville short track in December 1963, his trophy was awarded to Buck Baker, a white driver. NASCAR officials feared that the predominantly white crowd would riot if Scott received the winner's trophy. The flagman didn't drop the checkered flag until Baker raced by.

A month after the fact, NASCAR officials finally named Scott the winner. He received a wooden trophy with no nameplate. Nobody was left in the grandstands.

Nearly 40 years later, the struggle continues. Approximately 25 percent of NASCAR fans today -- estimated at 75 million -- are people of color, according to an ESPN/Chilton poll (2002). NASCAR claims a fan base increase of 23 percent in the Hispanic market and 29 percent among African-Americans since 1999, but that doesn't seem to reflect the demographics in the grandstands, where non-white faces are scarce.

They have reason to stay away. No one to cheer for at the track.

Bill Lester is the most prominent minority in stock-car racing, though he competes in the Craftsman Truck Series -- generally a feeder system for the Busch and Nextel Cup gang, but he's the only one among the three NASCAR series.

Revisionist history would have been necessary had Willy T. Ribbs -- recruited by Humpy Wheeler to run on the NASCAR circuit in 1978 -- shown a little common sense.

With the deal yet to be consummated, Ribbs was arrested for speeding down a one-way street in Charlotte. Wheeler became hesitant and suggested that car owner Will Cronkrite sign a kid who was struggling as a short track driver: Dale Earnhardt.

Today, Wheeler tries once again to intertwine NASCAR's mainstream with minorities.

"The great advantage we have now over 20 years ago is most of our fans under 50 have gone to school with minorities and played football or baseball with them," said Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "Despite everything that people say, I think that race relations are better than they have been. Race fans tend to be responsible flag-waving Americans, 95 percent of them respect other races."

Johnson insists that placing a minority in the Nextel Cup level isn't imperative, though his comparisons to what Tiger Woods did for minority interest in golf seem to deflate his point. Woods competes at golf's highest level. The Busch and Craftsman Truck Series do not come close to generating the amount of interest from media and fans as the Nextel Cup series.

"We can't get caught up to where it will only be successful if a driver makes it," Johnson said. "Unh-Unh. If we get more vendors, more suppliers and money is touching minority hands, it's been a success."

All the auxiliary business benefits will be significant, but no one goes to a race to see a black man change a tire or sell a T-shirt.

Bickford, Martin and Loescher, among others, will start their search soon.

The kid must be out there somewhere.

George Diaz can be reached at 407-420-5668 and gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com.



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