Leonard T. Miller dreamed of making it big in Nascar. His goal was to find a talented and ambitious black driver and build the racing team that would rocket him to stardom. Nascar [National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing] would be transformed; Miller would be a hero. Racing While Black: How an African-American Stock Car Team Made Its Mark on Nascar, is the story of that quest. The tale ends in failure. The question is, Why? His explanation -- that it had to do with the color of his skin -- is plausible. But it's far from the only possibility.
Miller's dream wasn't as quixotic as it might seem. African Americans love Nascar. Not all of us, of course. But about six and a half million of us do, if you accept the numbers that ESPN and Nascar put together a few years ago. That's a little over 8% of Nascar's total fan base. Even if many of those 6.5 million fans are casual followers, that's still not bad for a sport in which there are no black stars.
The very idea of black racers and black motorsports fans -- especially where Nascar is concerned -- surprises most people, including many African Americans. It shouldn't. After all, blacks share the great American love affair with the car, especially fast cars. It's a fascination that goes back to the early days of the automobile. During the '20 and '30s, black racers, who had been turned away from the Indianapolis 500 and other major events, organized the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, a touring series that attracted drivers and spectators to tracks all over the midwest. In the 1940s and 1950s, members of the black Atlanta Stock Car Club raced each other on dirt tracks throughout the southeast.
That history has been largely forgotten. In the minds of most, stock car racing is a sport that can't quite shake its association with Rebel flags and rednecks. Despite the fact that many white fans are middle class, college educated, and live outside the South (as Nascar will happily tell you), the perception lingers -- among both blacks and whites -- that African Americans aren't quite welcome either at the track or on it. And, in fact, you won't find many black fans at Nascar tracks. We tend to stay home and watch the races on TV.
The notion stock car racing hasn't opened its arms to African Americans isn't baseless. Very few black drivers have competed in Nascar's national touring series, its major leagues. The most successful of them, Wendell Scott, was at his best over forty years ago. He won a race in 1963, and, in 1968, he finished the season an impressive sixth in the points standings. But as the only African American driver in Nascar's top tier, he sometimes faced hostility from fans, officials, and other racers. In the early '60, for instance, Bob Colvin, the president of South Carolina's Darlington Raceway, refused to allow him to race on his track. There and elsewhere, some spectators shouted racial taunts. A few of his fellow competitors tried to wreck him.
And, yet, by the mid-'60s, Scott's skill behind the wheel and his reputation as a quiet, hard-working, underdog had earned him many white fans. In fact, according to Brian Dovovan's excellent biography, Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story, he became one of the most popular racers on the circuit.
Unlike Jackie Robinson, who opened the door to major league baseball for the thousands of black players who have followed him, Scott was an anomaly, not a harbinger of things to come. Since his time, a few other black drivers have trickled through Nascar's national touring series -- Randy Bethea, Willy T. Ribbs, Bill Lester -- but they've tended to race for under-funded teams and have had little success.
In the early '90s, Leonard T. Miller and his father, Leonard W., decided to change all of that. They began their search for a driver who could succeed where Scott failed -- who could be, as Leonard T. puts it in Racing While Black, "the Jackie Robinson of stock car racing."
Both of the Millers have deep roots in motorsports. Leonard W., a successful business owner, was a highly regarded sportsman drag racer, in the '60s. Not content to play in the minor leagues, his goal was to play in auto racing's majors. He almost made it. Putting his business skills to work (and investing a considerable amount of his own money), he created a team that ran in the 1972 Indianapolis 500 and competed briefly in the Formula 5000 series. By the late '70s, however, the team was back in the minors and fighting to stay alive.
In his own book, Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motorsports, Leonard W. says that his biggest problem was money, or, more precisely, the lack of it. Big time racing takes big time bucks. Even the wealthiest team owners -- a group to which he did not belong -- rely on corporate sponsors to pay the bills. Leonard W. never found the consistent financial backing that he needed to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Why? The root of the problem, he believes, was racial prejudice.
Leonard W. was more successful in passing his love of racing on to his son, Leonard T, who spent many weekends watching his father and his father's teams race. The younger Leonard also inherited his father's dream of reaching the top rank of American motorsports. That meant Nascar. Over the last couple of decades, it has far surpassed any other form of racing, in terms of money, media, and fans. When Leonard W. passed the baton to his son, stock car racing seemed to be the only way to go.
The Millers (the father remained involved with the team) knew that they had to walk before they could run with the big dogs of Nascar. They also understood that any team that was serious about making to stock car racing's highest levels had to be headquartered near Charlotte, NC, the center of the Nascar universe. So they bought a Late Model stock car and set up shop at Concord Motor Speedway, not far from Charlotte. While Late Models run in stock car racing's minor leagues, the competition is fierce and a winning driver can attract the attention of people higher up the food chain. The choice of Concord as a home base was also a good one. It's well respected in the industry, and Henry and Yvonne Furr, the track's owners, liked the idea of having a black team race at their track.
Any start-up racing team confronts two critical problems -- finding the right driver and securing sponsorship. Miller was never able to fully solve either of them.
Miller discovered that the pool of good black racers is small. (Except in drag racing, which is another story completely.) The drivers that he hired were talented, but inexperienced. During the team's decade or so of existence, its drivers won a few races and often finished near the front. But none won on a regular basis. Some burned out, due to the pressure; others gave up, frustrated by Miller's inability to steady the team's finances. The best were lured away by more established teams. As I'll mention below, the Millers weren't the only people looking for a fast black racer.
Leonard T. knew that sponsors were the key to realizing his dream, and he courted them doggedly, hiring consultants, putting together PowerPoint presentations, tapping into industry networks, and logging tens of thousands of frequent flier miles. His pitch was simple. Backing a black-owned team, with a black driver, would bring bring millions of new African American fans into the sport, benefiting sponsors, who could market to a new demographic, and Nascar as a whole, which would expand its fan base.
In the end, Miller didn't have a lot to show for his efforts. Dr. Pepper was on board for a while, as was the United Auto Workers-GM. Neither, however, would contribute the kind of money it would take for the team to move out of Late Models and into one of Nascar's touring series.
Why didn't Miller secure the sponsorship that he needed? His answers are simple and direct: corporations were reluctant to associate themselves with a black driver and a black-owned team; those sponsors that did sign on did so tentatively; Nascar was indifferent to his efforts. Add to that the hostility that some rivals, officials, and fans aimed at the team, and the effort was clearly doomed.
It's possible that Miller is right and that a similar white-owned team with a white driver would have succeeded where he failed. Maybe. But sponsorship is always hard to find, as Miller himself concedes. Companies that want to go racing will look for an established team with a good track record and a winning driver. Miller, on the other hand, was a complete unknown, in stock car circles, when he went looking for sponsors. His team was too new to have any track record at all, and, after a few years of racing, its winning percentage was modest. Nor did he have a significant record success in other racing series on which to build his case Most of his drivers were equally untested, and, just as importantly, they lacked a following of their own.
Miller seems to have realized that, if winning was what potential sponsors wanted, he had a weak hand. Instead, his pitch was about bringing black fans -- black consumers -- into the sport. That line of thinking also had its problems.
First, as I've mentioned before, millions of African Americans already followed stock car racing. They weren't waiting for a Jackie Robinson. Second, it's not clear that the number would have grown significantly just because a black team and a black driver were part of the show. In golf and tennis, the success of Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters doesn't seem to have transformed the demographics of the sports' fan base. Potential sponsors may have concluded that they didn't need Miller and his team to reach the consumers that they wanted.
Ultimately, the story Miller tells is both fascinating and frustrating. I'm willing to accept that Miller ran into more than his fair share of prejudice and indifference when he went looking for sponsors. And I'd guess that they probably have something to do with the team's failure to secure adequate sponsorship.
But they're not the only reasons. An unproven team with untested drivers will always struggle to find the backing it needs. It doesn't always come down to race.
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Nascar itself knows that it's bad business for it to be seen as hostile to blacks, Latinos, and other minorities. Several years ago, it created Drive for Diversity, a program designed to bring minority group members and women into the sport as drivers and crew members into stock car racing. It may be, as some respected observers argue, that Drive for Diversity has promised much and delivered little, but its mere existence reflects a small change in the culture of the sport. Will it have big effects? Check back in about a decade.