Darrell Wallace Jr. set NASCAR history two weeks ago in Delaware. Racing at the Dover International Speedway, Wallace became the first African-American driver to capture a Nationwide Series pole position. And at 18, he was also the youngest.
In any other American sport, an athlete as young and accomplished as Wallace would have companies lining up to sign an endorsement deal. Despite his record of success and serious potential, Wallace does not even have a sponsor lined up for next year.
Wallace's predicament underscores NASCAR's struggle to market and develop minority and female drivers. A recent New York Times feature on this issue notes that since 1986, Bill Lester is the only African-American man to start a race in NASCAR's premier series, now known as the Sprint Cup. Lester competed in two events in 2006.
Joe Gibbs racing has done more than perhaps any other ownership group in seeking out diverse talent. Gibbs racing partnered with NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White shortly before White's death in 2004, and J.D. Gibbs, the president of the ownership group, signed Wallace when he was 15.
"I think it’s a real value to this sport if you can kind of have that piece fit in," Gibbs told the New York Times. "Other sports, it kind of happens naturally. This sport's hard because of the barriers to entry because of the cost standpoint."
The lack of diversity stems from a variety of issues, including lack of awareness and insufficient funding.
In an interview this week in the Washington Post, Tia Norfleet, the only African-American female to be licensed by NASCAR, said the sport may have a perception problem among minorities and women.
"A lot of people don’t know anything about [race car driving], especially minorities, especially people of color," Norfleet said. "Because it is a predominately white sport — a predominately white male sport, at that — a lot of people just don’t know about it."
Breaking into NASCAR can also be difficult for athletes competing on a low budget. The New York Times reported that Darrell Wallace Sr. spent nearly $1 million to support Darrell Jr.'s career. Most families do not have that type of discretionary money.
But NASCAR, which has one of the oldest fan bases of any professional sport, is making a significant effort to alleviate the burden and remove the hurdles for young drivers, especially minorities and women. NASCAR will host the eighth annual Drive for Diversity (D4D) Combine from October 16-18 at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va. According to NASCAR's website, 17 of the most promising female and minority drivers will come together at the D4D combine for a "three day driver evaluation of on-track performance, marketing and media aptitude, and physical fitness." Wallace participated in the D4D program in 2011.
“If not [Wallace], there is going to be somebody that is going to walk in and be a star and it is going to be very good for us,” NASCAR Chairman Brian France told the Sporting News." He may be the one, I don’t know. We’ll just have to see."