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But it won’t take more than a glance to realize that none of the 12 drivers vying for NASCAR’s annual championship are a minority. While the racing organization has worked hard to overcome the perception that it’s an all-white, male sport, a survey of the current field does little to shift that thinking.
At No. 17, Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, who made the move to NASCAR from Formula One racing in 2006, is the only minority ranked in the top 20. In fact, on NASCAR’s drivers’ page, which features 40 of the sport’s top drivers, Montoya is the only minority at all.
The racing organization is seeking to change that – and NASCAR feels it is truly turning the corner on that front.
“[Diversity] is at the very core of our business,” said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR vice president of public affairs and multicultural development. “We believe it is essential for NASCAR going forward to further diversify the field of competitors, the drivers and crew members, the athletes at the core of our sport. It’s a leading corporate and industry initiative.”
Jadotte adds that the these efforts have been part of the sport for more than a decade, gaining even more momentum in recent years as stakeholders and brands that play a role in NASCAR have begun to further see the potential as a fan base, particularly when it comes to the Hispanic market.
Two weeks ago, NASCAR held its eighth Drive for Diversity combine. The event brought together two dozen promising female and minority racers with the goal of developing talent from underrepresented demographics.
Nine of those drivers were Hispanic, Jadotte says.
NASCAR Mexico, a joint venture between NASCAR and OESCA, was announced in 2004. In the six years since that race series began, the stockcar racing has seen considerable growth among a Mexican audience.
That’s been a boon for NASCAR, Jadotte said, as Mexican drivers that would have once focused on open-wheel racing are now seeing NASCAR as an elite possibility.
Getting minorities to see NASCAR as a possibility at all has been a major obstacle for the sport.
“From an athlete standpoint, unlike stick and ball sports, there aren’t race teams at the high school or middle school level,” Jadotte explained. “Most kids in this country don’t have an opportunity to go to a race track and take up auto racing as a 5- or 6-year-old. That really is a key to success in this sport, starting early, which is the case in most sports.”
That entry barrier is even more pronounced among minority communities and is something Jadotte sees as a fundamental challenge. The Drive for Diversity was created to specifically try to bridge that gap.
Perception is also an issue. While NASCAR has sought to position itself as a sport with broad appeal, many people still view it as a white male sport.
Relationships with several broadcast partners, including ESPN Deportes, have helped the organization better reach the Hispanic demographic. The hope is that as more Latinos become interested in following the sport, more Latinos will become interested in actively participating.
Jadotte already sees the culmination of the sport's direct efforts, like the Drive for Diversity initiative, and the general growth of NASCAR interest among minorities, especially Hispanics, paying off.
However, it’s hard to nail down an increase beyond anecdotal evidence. A member of NASCAR’s communications department said the organization does not have specific stats on racial diversity or hiring.
According to NASCAR, it’s not possible to get an accurate number of Hispanic or minority drivers, as the organization does not ask drivers to self-identify as far as race or ethnicity. Reportedly, there are similar challenges in gauging the growth of Hispanic or minority crew members as race teams hire their staff’s independent of NASCAR.
But Jadotte maintains that strides on this front are clearly apparent.
“NASCAR is more diverse than we’ve ever seen, with a greater representation of drivers of Latin American origin that ever before,” Jadotte said. “That’s an important part of our story.
“We are far from where we want to be,” he added. “But there’s noticeable progress week in and week out at NASCAR events across the country. …We’ve made significant strides, but we still have work to do.”
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz