Motorsports insider: NASCAR's slow progess toward diversity
For years, I've criticized NASCAR for lacking the commitment to establish a diversity program that could realistically attract potential minorities and women drivers.
The governing body for Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series talked a good game but rarely delivered. Their failures were largely the residual effect of a stubborn unwillingness to broaden the sport's ethnic coalition while its brand became increasingly expansive.
Danica Patrick scored a full-time Nationwide ride with JR Motorsports and finished 10th in the points standing in 2012. This year, Patrick will run a full Sprint Cup schedule for Stewart-Haas Racing and a limited Nationwide schedule for Turner Motorsports.
Also, Darrell Wallace Jr., a 19-year-old African-American driver, had three top-10 finishes in four starts last year. Wallace's rapid ascent earned him a full-time Nationwide deal with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Finally, NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program has steered clear of the obstacles that prevented young, talented minority drivers from developing the skills required to seize the opportunities afforded defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who captured the past two Nationwide points titles.
On Wednesday, Fox Chapel native Chip Ganassi made a significant contribution to the diversity program by signing Japanese-American driver Kyle Larson to compete on the second-tier stock-car circuit this season.
“To be the first one for the diversity program means a lot, too,” Larson said. “I really think it helps give me a ride this year in the Nationwide Series, and I'm really looking forward to it.
“I know I have a lot of pressure on me. I try not to pay attention to it at all. Racing is what I love. It's more of a hobby than anything. I try to go out, do the best I can. I don't really try to read articles about me, listen to what people might have to say.”
Larson will pilot the No. 32 Chevrolet for Turner Scott Motorsports. The 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion will begin the season in the Battle at the Beach at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18 before competing in the Nationwide Series opener on Feb. 24.
“There's no question that everybody's eyes are going to be on Kyle and the job that he's doing,” Ganassi said. “I think that's why we thought it was important to get him with a first-class team. We really want to do it right.”
In the past, NASCAR owners did most things right. Where they went wrong was losing patience with minority drivers, who didn't wreck as many cars as Sam Hornish or David Stremme — both of whom have Cup rides this season despite their unfathomable failures.
Of course, the challenge facing Ganassi and Harry Scott Jr. is allowing Larson to endure the inevitable growing pains. They can flinch when he wrecks their expensive race cars, but his future depends them standing firm and believing he can deliver.
Ganassi has proven he has patience. Besides, he's put up with an underachieving Juan Pablo Montoya for six Sprint Cup seasons.
“I've never kept guys from doing that at this stage of their career. I don't look to start dictating what he can and can't do,” Ganassi said. “I think that's kind of dangerous when you have a young horse that needs to run. He needs to get all the seat time he can in different cars.
“It was just a matter of finding the right situations for him along the way. It's going to be a continual effort for the next few years to do that, and hopefully we can bring his career into NASCAR in a way that he and everyone else will be most proud of.”
Larson has been in the pilot seat a great deal. He competed in almost 120 races in 2012.
“He's going to go through a learning process of sorts,” Ganassi said. “A lot of things are going to be coming at him that maybe he wasn't so concerned about when he was running Midgets or Sprint cars.”
• On Friday, NASCAR launched an aggressive advertising campaign to push the new Generation-6 race cars — or, at least, the production models of Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet SS.
“The new car is a game changer,” said Kim Brink, marketing director for NASCAR. “It's a watershed moment for our sport. The marketing impact is the business impact.”
• After cementing a deal with Fox Sports, NASCAR president Mike Helton said he is looking to expand the Sprint Cup deal to network television by 2015.
• To keep teams that barely qualify from bowing out early in races so they can collect their guaranteed money and run, Helton and Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition, are taking some of the prize money from the bottom to spread it around at the top. The idea is to ensure every driver is racing to win.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk on TribLive Radio from 9 to 10 a.m. Friday.