As an aspiring racing official, Mauricia Grant had grown used to working in a man's world.
When she finally made it into NASCAR, Grant was appalled at the way she was treated beginning from her first day on the job until her firing last October.
Now she's suing NASCAR for $250 million, alleging racial and sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination.
"I loved it. It was a great, exciting, adrenaline-filled job where I worked with fast cars and the best drivers in the world," Grant told The Associated Press. "But there was an ongoing daily pattern (of harassment). It was the nature of the people I worked with, the people who ran it, it trickled down from the top.
"It's just the way things are in the garage."
The 32-year-old Grant, who is black, worked as a technical inspector responsible for certifying cars in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series from January 2005 until her termination. In the lawsuit, she alleged she was referred to as "Nappy Headed Mo" and "Queen Sheba," by co-workers, was often told she worked on "colored people time," and was frightened by one official who routinely made references to the Ku Klux Klan.
In addition, Grant said she was subjected to sexual advances from male co-workers, two of whom allegedly exposed themselves to her, and graphic and lewd jokes.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, lists 23 specific incidents of alleged sexual harassment and 34 specific incidents of alleged racial and gender discrimination beginning when she was hired in January 2005 thru her October 2007 firing.
NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said the organization had not yet reviewed the suit.
"As an equal opportunity employer, NASCAR is fully committed to the spirit and letter of affirmative action law," Poston said, adding NASCAR has a zero tolerance policy for harassment.
In the lawsuit, Grant said she complained numerous times to her supervisors about how she was treated, to no avail. On one occasion, Grant said Nationwide Series director Joe Balash, her immediate supervisor, was dismissive of her complaints, explaining her co-workers were "former military guys" with a rough sense of humor. "You just have to deal with it," she says Balash told her.
On another occasion, she alleged Balash participated in the harassment.
"Does your workout include an urban obstacle course with a flat-screen TV on your back?" she claimed Balash asked her during the week of July 28, 2007 while working in Indianapolis.
Grant told the AP her two younger sisters witnessed racial discrimination against the official while visiting her at Daytona International Speedway in 2006 and encouraged her to document every incident going forward.
The lawsuit details a series of those alleged incidents:
— Grant was forced to work outside more often than the white male officials because her supervisors believed she couldn't sunburn because she was black.
— While riding in the backseat of her car pool at Talladega Superspeedway, co-workers told her to duck as they passed race fans. "I don't want to start a riot when these fans see a black woman in my car," she claims one official said.
— When packing up a dark garage at Texas Motor Speedway an official told Grant: "Keep smiling and pop your eyes out 'cause we can't see you."
— When she ignored advances from co-workers, Grant was accused of being gay. She also claimed co-workers questioned the sexual orientation of two other female officials.
After her termination, Grant said she went over her notes and recognized "a pattern of retaliation and discrimination."
"It didn't diminish my love for the sport of auto racing, but the job wasn't always the easiest thing to go to every day," she said.
Grant's attorney, Benedict P. Morelli of Morelli Ratner PC, compared her fight to that of former New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders, who got $11.5 million in a sexual harassment case against Madison Square Garden and former Knicks coach Isiah Thomas.
"When you try and combat a force that huge, that wealthy, and that powerful — it takes a lot of courage to take that on," Morelli said of Grant. "It only takes one woman to stand up and expose what is really happening behind the scenes."
Grant said she routinely complained to her supervisors. Two weeks after her final complaint, Grant said she was warned during the week of August 18, 2007 at Michigan International Speedway that she had engaged in "conduct unbecoming of a NASCAR representative" and would be fired unless she changed her behavior. She said the warning stemmed from a confrontation with a track official who stopped her as she passed through a gate to use the restroom.
Roughly two months later, Grant was fired, and NASCAR cited a poor work performance in ending her employment. The lawsuit claims other than a previous warning for using "street" language, Grant had never been disciplined for job performance and routinely received positive reviews.
In addition, the suit claims official Heather Gambino was fired in 2006 for complaining about a sexually hostile work environment. The suit also claims former official Dean Duckett, who is black, was reprimanded and ultimately fired last November for using "aggressive language toward a white co-worker."
Among those identified in Grant's suit are Balash, assistant series director Mike Dolan, supervisors Alan Shephard and Dennis Dillon, NASCAR's senior manager for business relations, the human resources director and 17 of Grant's fellow officials. All of the defendants are white.
Grant says she continues to suffer from severe emotional distress, including depression, anxiety, nightmares, sleep disturbance, crying jags, headaches and gastrointestinal distress since her firing. She's been unemployed since.
"My supervisors all praised me. I was hanging in there with the guys," she said. "I am an athletic person. I went over the wall and faced malicious crews and competitive crew chiefs, and I was right there and held it down and was never lazy about it.
"And I knew that once I was terminated, there wasn't going to be an opportunity for me to find another industry like NASCAR to practice my craft."