NASCAR calls on Johnson to bring diversity to sport

Former Laker is bringing flash, experience to post

Auto Racing

May 21, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Basketball legend Earvin Johnson is about to try to work his magic on NASCAR.

So far, everything the former Los Angeles Laker has tried has turned golden. When he left basketball, he developed Magic Johnson Enterprises, taking businesses that avoided urban areas into ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

Today, he has 70 Starbucks in 38 cities in 13 states, five movie theaters and two restaurants. He has 10,000 minority workers and 225 minority students on college scholarships.

In a news conference yesterday, Johnson was introduced as the co-chairman of NASCAR's Executive Steering Committee for Diversity, a group that aims to increase involvement by minorities in the sport.

"I wondered why they asked me to do this, too," said Johnson, a self-described "car guy" who went to races with his father as a child in Mississippi. "But I speak to urban Americans every day. I know what they want. Now, all I have to do is educate them about all these great programs NASCAR has."

Yesterday at NASCAR's Charlotte, N.C., research building, chief operating officer George Pyne stood in front of photo enlargements of the late Wendell Scott, the only man of color to win a race in NASCAR's top series, Bill Lester, the Craftsman Truck Series driver, and several minority crew members, to introduce Johnson.

"We are committed to making our sport look like America, on and off the track," Pyne said. "It's the right thing to do."

NASCAR has taken steps to be more inclusive, providing scholarships for technical training, internships for 33 minority or female students and touring historically black colleges to broaden awareness.

Yesterday, the organization also announced the selection of five minority drivers and six minority crew members who will compete in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series and the Craftsman Truck Series, respectively.

"I really believe we're an open sport, but you look around and it's crazy," Nextel Cup driver Jeff Burton said by phone yesterday. "There are no minorities driving at this level, and there are few minorities in the garages, few in the grandstands or even in the media on any level. The question is why?

"Magic Johnson brings attention and enthusiasm, and I hope he helps."

Johnson said he can.

"I've done this so many times," he said. "I've had to educate retailers on minorities and vice versa. I had to teach Starbucks that black people don't eat scones. We had to have sweet potato pie and peach cobbler in my Starbucks.

"I think the real key is to educate."

One day, he said, the programs may lead to one or more drivers on the big circuit.

"And if it doesn't happen, that's not to say that these programs won't be successful," Johnson said. "The test will be in how many people do you touch. ... If you have minorities on these scholarships and fans in the stands, that's one way to measure success."

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