They're trying to change the complexion of NASCAR

On Motor Sports

July 11, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

If you want to get Bob Kersee animated, just suggest to him that his venture into Winston Cup Racing should be designed for the pure benefit of minorities in a sport that is nearly snow white.

"Did Larry Bird play basketball just for white America and Magic Johnson play just for black America?" he asked. "Does Wade Boggs hit for the white America and does Brian Jordan hit for the black America? Did John Elway play for white America, while Reggie White played for black America? I mean, in those sports, those questions are not asked. Larry Bird is a basketball player who played in the NBA who is white. Magic Johnson is a basketball player who played in the NBA who is black.

"So I think NASCAR needs to get away from the image that if a black person comes in the sport, they are playing for black America."

NASCAR would, no doubt, like to do just that. In a perfect world, the Kersees -- Bob and his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a three-time Olympic gold medalist -- would make news in racing only because their success in track and field make them desirable new owners in Winston Cup racing, just as former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs made news when he started his Winston Cup team. But the world is not perfect.

A recent piece on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" portrayed NASCAR in a biased light. That story implied that black driver Willy T. Ribbs did not have a ride on the Winston Cup circuit because he is black. But it did not point out that there are also dozens of white drivers, many of them with terrific resumes and with more experience in stock car racing than Ribbs, who are unable to get Winston Cup rides.

The "Real Sports" piece also pointed out that the Joe Washington and Julius Erving team that started last season had trouble finding sponsorship. But so, too, have other new teams and, as was seen last week, even Ricky Rudd, who has won at least once in each of the past 16 seasons, a modern-era record, learned he'll be losing his sponsorship after this season.

In the perfect world, everyone would have a driver's seat and a sponsor. And every stadium and racetrack would be filled with the perfectly diverse crowd.

And in the perfect world, Kersee would not be answering questions from both reporters and civil rights groups about the racial makeup of the Kersees' Winston Cup race team next season.

But that's the way it is. And, of course, Kersee knows it.

Back in 1988, he said, he was asked why his wife didn't have more sponsorship. Was it because she was black or because she was a woman? "I told them then: `Why ask us? You should be asking the CEOs of every major company.'

"Now I'm in NASCAR, and if I find out they're excluding minorities, I'll have a problem with that. But that's not what I've seen. It's the same thing in hockey. I'm the strength and conditioning coach for the St. Louis Blues. I coach Grant Fuhr. I see more black kids getting in that sport. If you want to play hockey, you've got to get out on the ice whether you're black or white.

"If we want to get involved in NASCAR as black Americans, then we have to pay the price: develop our kids, promote them, encourage them, support them and sponsor them. And we're going to have to then allow them to go out there and assure them they're not going to be considered because of the color of their skin, either way."

NASCAR officials have long said their gates are open to anyone who wants to bring a team to race. But no black driver has raced regularly in the Winston Cup Series since Wendell Scott (1961-73), and that is a situation NASCAR is motivated to change for several reasons.

One, it wants its Winston Cup Series to be mainstream. Two, it sees a source for more income for its marketing arm. And, three, its officials believe it is the right thing to do.

In Washington last week, NASCAR senior vice president Brian France announced a three-part initiative involving a diversity advisory council to develop ways of opening its doors, an internship program in conjunction with historically black universities and an agreement to work with the Inter-City Racing League in Philadelphia to expand the inner-city program around the country.

"For us, right now, awareness is the main objective," said John Griffin, NASCAR's director of communications worldwide. "You have to have awareness before you can get people involved. The goal is eventual participation and involvement."

Kersee, who has been a Winston Cup fan since he was 10 and realized the Daytona 500 was run on or near his Feb. 17 birthday, is also interested in increasing minority involvement. In fact, it is in increasing awareness and educating minorities about the sport where he said his new team can do the most good.

"If a black American is interested in the sport but doesn't understand the sport because of a lack of opportunity, education or motivation, then I am going to educate them," said Kersee.

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