NASCAR has struggled for decades with minority inclusion. The sport, dominated largely by white, male drivers and owners, is immensely popular in the South.
There have been only a small handful of consistent black racers in the organization since NASCAR was founded in 1948.
That lack of diversity was thrown into sharp relief last week when a $500 million lawsuit was filed against NASCAR for racial discrimination against a proposed racing team from Diversity Motorsports Racing, LLC. The suit highlights NASCAR's troubled racial history in one of America's least-diverse sports.
Terrance Cox, chief executive officer of Diversity Motorsports, filed the suit. His company identifies itself on its website as "an ownership team that reflects the diverse faces and backgrounds of America, coming together to blend their individual talents to create a fresh approach the motorsports industry has been seeking." The lawsuit alleges that NASCAR turned away Diversity Motorsports when they approached the association with a proposal to start a team called "Steve Harvey Races 4 Education."
African-American comedian Steve Harvey has distanced himself from the suit. Mr. Harvey said on "The Steve Harvey Morning Show" radio program that he had expressed his willingness to Mr. Cox to participate with a program to expose underprivileged children to the sport, but that the relationship with Cox had not gone any farther. Harvey said he wanted his name off the lawsuit, claiming it greatly over-represents his involvement with Diversity Motorsports.
"I have no problem with NASCAR," Harvey told listeners on his radio show. "Ain’t never had a problem."
NASCAR says the lawsuit has no merit.
"Diversity both on and off the track continues to be a top priority for NASCAR and its stakeholders," the organization said in a statement. "We stand behind our actions, and will not let a publicity-seeking legal action deter us from our mission."
NASCAR currently has no black racers in the Sprint Cup, its top racing series, and only one black driver in the lower Xfinity series.
"Motorsports remain the most racially segregated sport in the United States," says the lawsuit. "NASCAR and ISC [International Speedway Corporation] have been complicit in, and supportive of, the racially discriminatory environment that virtually excludes African-Americans from meaningful participation."
Records show that NASCAR has had few non-white participants. Wendall Scott was the first African-American to start a race on March 4th, 1961, but he did not finish due to engine troubles. After this rocky start, Mr. Scott went on to become a highly successful racer, participating in 495 races between 1961 and 1973 and even winning the Cup in NASCAR's top racing series in 1963. After that, NASCAR had no black racers in the top series at all in the periods between 1974 to 1985, 1987 to 2005, and 2005 to the present.
In 2004, NASCAR made an effort to reach out to women and minority drivers with the Drive for Diversity program, but the higher echelons of competitors are still almost exclusively white and male.
Early racing had its roots in the Depression before becoming formalized under organizations like NASCAR. In the impoverished South, cheap entertainment like racing was in high demand. NASCAR was founded in 1948 in Daytona Beach, Fla. The organization maintained a large Southern following in subsequent decades.
"Part of the reason that southerners identify with stock car racing is that it’s southern," Monte Dutton, the 2009 National Motorsports Press Association writer of the year told the Gainesville Times in an interview that same year. "The South is the first place where [stock car racing] became a spectacle."
Even after NASCAR's popularity grew in other parts of the country, say critics, Southern resistance to integration was built into the system, and the legacies of that resistance linger to this day.
"There’s nobody [of color] in the stands. There’s a few on the pit crews and in the office there are some," Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., a black NASCAR driver in the Xfinity series, told The Charlotte Observer last year. "It’s not enough to finally say the sport is changing. It’s going in the right direction. You just have to keep getting after it."
But for Cox, change in NASCAR is coming too slowly. His lawsuit seeks $75 million in compensatory damages and $425 million in punitive damages, which would go to fund groups sponsored by Diversity Motorsports to promote the inclusion of minorities in racing. The suit also demands that NASCAR "fully integrate the African-American community" into its racing programs.
The lawsuit comes as professional athletes around the country protest mistreatment of African-Americans by kneeling during the national anthem.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.