Eight Issues for NASCAR: Number 7 – Get Serious About Diversity

The purpose of this post is not to make arguments for or against “diversity”.  I will delete comments on that theme because we can have the ‘there is no problem/yes, there is/yes there is, but it will solve itself in time’ argument till we are all blue in the face and we’re not going agree.  The point of this post is:  If you are going to claim diversity is important, put up or shut up.

I know something about diversity, being in a field (physics) where only 12% of the Ph.D. degrees in 1991 (the year I earned mine) were awarded to women.  I’ve benefited from some diversity efforts and been hurt by others.  I’ve organized and participated in diversity efforts.  I’ve heard everything from “I don’t know why I should spend time teaching you — you’re just going to get married and you’ll never use anything I taught you” to “Well, I would have had twelve interviews for postdocs, too, if I had tits’.  I’ve cringed watching a young physics grad student remark on how much interest there was in her talk when the real interest was in her way-too-short-for-a-professional-conference skirt.

NASCAR, like physics, is a predominantly male sport for reasons of history.  Both are highly competitive and fast paced, which means there often isn’t time for the usual niceties of the workplace.  “Pardon me, Fred, but I think you have a factor of 2 error in your calculation, but that’s OK, I’ve done the same thing” becomes “Who the hell &^$#ed up with the gear calculations?” when discovered during a race.   In 1963, Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in physics and the headline was “LaJolla Housewife Wins Nobel Prize”.  NASCAR wouldn’t let women – even wives – in the garage area until 1972.  Not only are there women in the garage now, there are pregnant women in the garage.  There are also an increasing number of minorities in the garage and when you see someone there, you know they have earned their job.  When every tenth and hundredth of a second (or an inch) counts, teams are not going to keep people for show.

Much to the surprise of many, there are people who study diversity (and the lack thereof) to collect data and develop strategies that might work.  I haven’t found any studies on diversity in motorsports per se, there are some remarkable commonalities across fields.

  • Critical mass:  The group in question needs to comprise about 15% (the critical mass) of the people for stability.  In many areas, the first women, for example, are singlets (Louise Smith, Shirley Muldowny, Lyn St. James, Janet Guthrie, Danica Patrick) and appear in ones and maybe twos.  They are usually exceptional — exceptionally talented, exceptionally motivated, exceptionally connected.  But they remain ones and twos until critical mass is  reached.
  • Community:  One of the most important components for sticking with a field of study is feeling that you are part of the community.  It is tough for a woman to do that when community pastimes include getting really drunk and strip clubs (yes, I’ve seen this in both physics and motorsports).  When you put a woman in a group of guys, the guys tend to be self-conscious about their behavior.  It isn’t deliberate or probably even conscious:  We just tend to gravitate to people who are similar to ourselves.
  • Intention:  For diversity to really succeed, there have to be people who are wholly committed to it, including realizing that it’s going to cost money, it’s not always going to be popular, and there is always someone that is going to be unhappy with what you are doing.  (See for example, the suit recently filed by a blond, blue-eyed Puerto Rican who claims to have been barred from the D4D in 2005.  Full Throttle pretty much summed up my feelings on that.)  Programs that are established because of external pressure rarely work.  You need committed mentors at all levels.
  • Follow through:  Isolated interventions have limited effect.  We have plenty of data that shows that doing anything once isn’t enough.  Running one workshop or one event will have limited impact.  Sustained intervention is required.
  • Accountability:  If you want people to change, there has to be either a carrot or a stick.  At some point, there is a reckoning, whether it is the Wall Street Journal pointing out that you have no female board members.

So let’s look at how the NASCAR community is handling the issue.  There are diversity programs in many areas we rarely hear about. Most auto manufacturers’ diversity programs extend to their racing programs (although I don’t know how the financial situation may have changed these).  Some current crew members I know originally received scholarships from Dodge to earn a degree from a technical institute like NTI or UTI, and then matched them with a team that needed the awardee’s expertise.

Some teams have their own diversity programs.  The one with which I am most familiar is at Joe Gibbs Racing, which produced Aric Almirola.  That program was strongly influenced by NFL player Reggie White.  Roush has a Chief Diversity Officer.  Most teams have internships for business and technical areas.  Some tracks have diversity internship programs as well.

NASCAR itself has a diversity internship program that provides 12 internships for minority and women in everything from business to engineering and technical positions.  (Applications for these internships are due March 1, 2010, so if you’re interested, check out the link.)  They also have a minority supplier program and a college tour to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  NASCAR has a Diversity Council and an Executive Steering Council for Diversity – I wasn’t able to find anything more recent than 2005 for a list of who is involved.  I asked NASCAR about a list and they haven’t gotten back to me yet, but to be fair I asked only four weeks before Daytona and everyone in NASCAR is absolutely crazy this time of year.

NASCAR’s primary diversity program — the one that gets the most publicity — is the Drive for Diversity.  D4D (as they call it), a program to develop women and/or minority drivers and crew members, started in 2004.  The program was run for five years by Charlotte-based multicultural marketing company Access Marketing & Communications.  In this earlier incarnation, D4D drivers were farmed out to short-track teams, with equipment and committment level varying significantly.

D4D recently got the opportunity to re-invent itself when Max Siegel found himself on the outside of the Ganassi/DEI merger.  Siegel, a graduate of Notre Dame Law School with a previous career in the music business, had joined DEI in 2006.  When DEI and Ganassi became EGR, Siegal’s loss was NASCAR’s gain.  Seigel’s sports and entertainment agency The 909 Group is now managing the program.  They inherit some of the baggage created by Access (but not the lawsuits), but they’ve acted quickly to make some significant changes.

D4D now requires its participants to relocate to Charlotte and will run its own teams under the ‘Revolution Racing’ banner.  Four NASCAR Camping World Series teams will be overseen by Andy Santerre and six NASCAR Wheelen All-American Series teams will be run by Blair Addis.  They also plan initiatives to identify aspiring drivers in late model series that might move into the D4D program and may run Bandeleros to attract even younger kids.  These are all promising moves.

As far as intention goes, I have a lot of respect for Max Seigel.  If anyone has sincere intentions (and a fighting chance) of making this program work, it would be Seigel.  But I am really skeptical about diversity programs managed by marketing companies.  For NASCAR, diversity is (like everything else) all about getting more fans, more sponsors, more eyes on the television.  I know, sports is ultimately about money and I live in an ivory tower, but I maintain the hope that doing well by doing right actually works.  Sometimes, the will of a single person can overcome all kinds of barriers, but I would feel much better about NASCAR’s committment if they had consultants who are actually in the trenches dealing with these issues.  (And I don’t mean Presidents and CEOs, who make an impressive-looking group, but rarely get anything substantial accomplished.)  I’d like to see that 909 has some people aboard (perhaps as consultants) who know about diversity research, but I haven’t seen anything on their website.

It may be that Siegel just has really good intuition.  He has made a lot of changes that jibe well with what we know about improving diversity.  The program centralizes the drivers in Charlotte and puts them all on a single team, giving them the chance to learn from and lean on each other. (Community/Critical Mass)  With any luck, more than one D4D driver will be racing at each event, so they can support each other.  The single team and the presence of well-respected racing veterans like Santerre and Addis ensures consist quality in equipment and training.

The problem of follow-through and accountability was discussed elegantly by Ed Hinton, who pointed out that the last known figure for the amount of money NASCAR spends on the diversity programs was $4M, which was about three years ago. Hinton — like many others — says that the program is over hyped and underfunded.  (Although I have to note that there are a number of other sponsors involved like Sunoco and Sprint.)  Hinton points out that NASCAR stops providing any support after the driver moves up into one of the top-three series.  NASCAR says that doing so would be a conflict of interest – the sanctioning body can’t support some drivers and not others.  I can see merit in both sides of the argument.  The best solution, but one that won’t happen until/unless the economy picks up, would be for more sponsors to sign onto D4D and remove direct NASCAR sponsorship.  Diversity in potential sponsors’ workforce is no doubt higher on the priority list than diversity in racing.  Removing NASCAR from D4D would also leave NASCAR open to the charge that they don’t do anything to promote diversity.

As far as accountability, the criticism is leveled that no D4D drivers are currently running in the top three series.  This is true, but let’s put it in context.  Can you find a comparable group of white males and track their careers for comparison?  What is the average time for a driver to move from a regional series to Trucks or Nationwide?  I’m not talking about exceptions like Joey Logano, I’m talking about drivers like Ricky Stenhouse, Colin Braun, David Starr.  What kind of evaluation of the program has been done?  This would make a great study:  I’d be writing a proposal to do it if I weren’t in such a hurry to escape academia.

As I said, diversity is in many ways a no-win situation, but it is complicated by a) NASCAR’s zero tolerance policy for releasing anything negative; and b) most people’s lack of understanding of how complicated solving diversity problems really is.  D4D is an experiment.  It’s not like we know what works in motorsports and NASCAR simply has to follow a recipe.  But precisely because it is an experiment, NASCAR ought to be a little more open with the input and the output.  In science, reporting a null result (i.e. something that didn’t work) is valuable.  OK, not as valuable as reporting a positive result, but experiments turn out the way they turn out.  You have to have some idea of whether what you are doing is working or not and if it’s not working, it ought to be OK for NASCAR to say, ‘look, we put x dollars into trying this model and we gave it a y-year try and these are the results’.  NASCAR really should release numbers on how many of their interns (minority and other) are eventually hired into permanent positions at NASCAR or NASCAR-related teams.  If the number of minorities hired is smaller than the number of non-minorities hired, someone needs to look into why that is happening and propose a fix.

My favorite quote regarding diversity is “Women will truly be equal to men when we are allowed to be as mediocre as they are”.  Having one exceptional superstar doesn’t constitute success at diversity.  When there’s a woman allowed to run 25th or 30th every week without losing her ride (along with Jeannette Johnson or Toni Stewart running in the top ten), then we will be making some real strides.

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About Diandra 451 Articles
I'm a recovering academic who writes about the intersection of science and life. I'm interested in AI, advanced prosthetics, robots and anything that goes fast. Author, THE PHYSICS OF NASCAR and Editor, BIOMEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY


  1. I agree with you on the put up or shut up if you’re going to play the “we’re all for diversity” game. I think the problem we run in to, all over the place, not just in Nascar, is a failure to define what diversity is. So without a clear definition of what diversity is to Nascar how can they truely be diverse?

    But I read in an article about this, that what sex, race or religion you are shouldn’t matter in Nascar if you truly have talent.

    I think if you have talent, then you have a chance. I guess sometimes the individual just has to take that chance. Like you said, we tend to stick to what’s safest to us. If women and minorities can learn to step out of the box then we’ve solved one part of a larger issue.

    Anyhoot, trying to stay away from why or why they should or shouldn’t focus on diversity.

  2. Perhaps the reality we all must accept is it is too late for NASCAR to interject diversity into its business model.

    NASCAR is facing almost insurmountable obstacles in a multitude of areas, especially those of an economic nature.

    It may well be more merciful for the anachronism to fail and fade away. It has become unattractive, wasteful and repulsive, after long years of pridefully rejecting all efforts to become inclusive and truly a sport representative of and appealing to all people.

    If you live by the Rebel Flag, it can wave over your cold dark grave.

    NASCAR has no choice but too reap the benefits of its ignorance.

    Diversity? What diverse living thing, in his or her right mind, would aspire to be part of such a travesty?

    If anyone does, please warn him or her not to, as soon as possible.

  3. Good stuff, as always.

    NASCAR in intriguing because women can compete at the highest level. They do not face the same challenges that they would in most sports (upper body strength, foot speed, etc.).

    I would suggest that NASCAR is doing it about right. There are a ton of great drivers who will never get a chance at the top level. I am thrilled to see Terry Cook getting a shot. I am more aware of him because of the local tracks around here where he has been champion. How many others are there like him? 3 or 4 in every state/ There are only 50 spots available. Being very good is not necessarily a guaranteed spot. There is some luck involved.

    So you try to fill the funnel with diversity candidates, make sure they get some help along the line, and hope they begin to make it through.

    I would use Casey Atwood as an example of what to not do. You can actually do harm by pushing people forward.

    I was going to say that a sign of progress will be when NASCAR has women who are not gorgeous. But at the end of the day, drivers are spokespeople for products. And then I remember the Kasey Kahne commercials… I guess that good looks is just another leg up in the luck equation.

  4. As a kid I always used to get fascinated with the NASCAR racing. I used to dream of becoming a NASCAR driver. This field has a superb talent and like to see the drivers in action. Nice information shared in this post. Have bookmarked this post.

  5. Thanks for to mention to my “too white for NASCAR” post.

    A special note for “Mrs. Goodman,” if you think NASCAR is festooned with Rebel Flags as it was decades ago your sadly mistaken.

    Will you see one on occasion, yes, but frankly so what, they are so infrequent now as to be a non-issue.

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