In past years, when the Confederate flags seem to outnumber the American flags at NASCAR tracks, many people felt unwelcomed and unwanted. But there have been dramatic changes, as motorsports pursue a 21st century audience. Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) is playing a leadership role in that transformation.
Significant changes occur in US sports when exceptional players—e.g., Jackie Robinson, Tiger Woods—are included. There have been Blacks in racing from the start. But, except for Richard Pryor portraying Wendall Scott in 1977’s Greased Lightning, there has been little recognition of people of color in the sport.
While Bill Lester was the first African-American to race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup truck series at PIR in 2006, a future star will be here in November. As Patrick and most racers, 19-year-old North Carolinian Darrell Wallace Jr fell in love with the sport after he and his father went to go-kart tracks. He now races trucks as part of Toyota Racing’s Kyle Busch’s Motorsports team.
Wallace gives advice to young enthusiasts. “The biggest thing is just moving up through the ranks to a much faster car. You start out in go-karts and Bandoleros... then moving up to Legends cars and Late Models … the biggest thing is just taking as much in as you can, taking that and what you’ve learned over the years, and taking it with you.”
Lack of endorsements hindered Blacks from competing in racing. But, as more companies recognize the buying power of diverse audiences, this will change. No one more represents the positive change in motorsports than PIR’s innovative President Bryan Sperber, who arrived in 2002. One of the youngest track owners, he changed the attitude and direction of motorsports nationwide.
Sperber encouraged people of color to be involved as vendors, volunteers (e.g., Laron Harrington and his nonprofit Fruit of the Trees were enthusiastically selling refreshments at the race Sunday) and staff.
This year, PIR also hosted Mexico’s NASCAR Toyota Series--the first international NASCAR race in the US. “We were thrilled with the event on March 1,” said PIR Marketing Vice President Scott Rovn, “Great turnout! Great race for Abraham Calderon! We attracted a new, enthusiastic audience to PIR and NASCAR.”
If the DJ spinning rap songs at the main NASCAR exhibit during Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 pre-race activities is any indication, the future of motorsports in Phoenix will be much more colorful and inclusive.