NASCAR’s Diversity Combine Fuels Dreams of Young Black and Brown Drivers

CONCORD, N.C. – NASCAR fans of every stripe attend races, cheer on their favorite drivers and know the exact moment when they fell hard for the sport. 

Yet, there’s a particular subset who become so enamored that they want to race cars themselves. So, they jump in go-karts, midget cars and online racing simulators for the exhilaration their heroes experience flying around raceways at top speeds, feeling momentarily immortal. 

Among those dreamers are Black and Brown kids who want to be professional race car drivers, like 14-year-old Nathan Lyons, who moved with his mother over 1,000 miles from Dallas to Concord, North Carolina, for a chance to be the next Bubba Wallace. 

“When I was six, I got free tickets to the Texas Motor Speedway for a race,” Lyons told The Chicago Defender, “Ever since I went to that race in 2015, I’ve been pretty much addicted to the sport.”

Yet, too few avenues and a plethora of barriers exist for any kid looking to race professionally, especially Black and Brown kids. Unlike their peers with dreams of playing in the NBA or NFL, there aren’t many camps, private coaches or leagues for folks looking to race in the big leagues.

But there is one path, and it has existed for nearly 20 years.

It’s a program NASCAR developed to identify and cultivate a pool of young, diverse talent like Lyons in the hopes that one day, perhaps five to 10 years down the road, they can drive professionally themselves.

This initiative is known as the Advance Auto Parts Drive for Diversity Combine, which took place over three days in early October between Concord and Florence, South Carolina. 

Lyons and fourteen other drivers, between 13 and 20 years old, competed at this combine for a shot to enter a youth development program that has become a critical pathway into professional motorsports.  

Advance Auto Parts Drive for Diversity Combine

While their peers back home were at school studying for exams and doing classwork, the Drive for Diversity Combine participants had their own special examinations that would help determine whether they would move closer to their dream or not. 

Evaluators from throughout the industry evaluated their racing ability, physical fitness and media and marketability. 

They were engaged in friendly competition with a consequential outcome: the chance to not only enter a program but also gain more exposure and sponsorship opportunities in a sport where funding is just as vital to success as sheer talent.

“You have three days that could really change the trajectory of your career and so much of what your family has invested to this point,” said Caryn Grant, senior director of diversity and inclusion at NASCAR, “So a lot is riding on these kids’ shoulders, but there’s a lot of possibilities out there as well.”

For NASCAR, one of the premier motorsports organizations in the world, there’s also a lot riding on the success of the Drive for Diversity Combine. The hope and plan is that this program can help develop future stars from diverse backgrounds for a sport looking to diversify and expand its global reach.  

Amid Adversity, Rises This Combine Success Story

NASCAR Driver Bubba Wallace

If there is one person who qualifies as a Drive for Diversity Combine success story, it’s Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. 

Kyle Larson, Daniel Suárez, Rajah Carruth and Nick Sanchez also fit the bill as combine alums who successfully transitioned into professional racing. Larson, a Japanese-American Cup Series driver, has enjoyed enormous success. 

But let’s focus on Wallace, the only full-time African-American driver in NASCAR’s top-tier Cup Series division who competes for Michael Jordan’s — yes, that Michael Jordan — 23XI Racing team. 

While he has yet to crack the elite ranks of the Cup Series like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tyler Reddick and Larson, Wallace has 16 top-five Cup Series finishes and two wins as of this writing. He also has an estimated net worth of $3 million.

This past season, Wallace made the playoffs for the first time, making him the most successful Black driver in American stock car racing history since the great Wendell Scott, the first African-American driver to win a race at NASCAR’s highest level. 

Besides on-track accomplishments, Scott and Wallace have another thing in common: racially-charged scorn from fans. 

In a 2022 TV news segment that paid tribute to Scott’s legacy, a family member revealed that the NASCAR Hall of Famer used to receive death threats and was once poisoned because of the color of his skin.

Wallace’s ascent in NASCAR has also been fraught with racist events and controversy, like when a noose was found in his garage at the Talladega Superspeedway in 2020. That incident prompted NASCAR officials to investigate the matter vigorously. However, an FBI report later concluded that the noose was placed in the garage the prior year before anyone knew it would be assigned to Wallace. 

In July 2020, NASCAR banned Confederate flags at its venues at Wallace’s urging in the aftermath of the horrific murder of George Floyd, when calls for racial justice in America and around the world were at their loudest. As a result, Wallace drew contempt from a segment of fans who felt that he infringed upon their heritage and tradition. 

To this day, fans at various tracks routinely boo him.

Despite all of that, Wallace’s presence and viability have allowed him to become an ambassador for his sport, as it looks to draw fans and drivers from around the world, including communities of color, which differ from its traditional White Southern base. 

“We want to grow the sport,” NASCAR’s Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell told The Defender in July after the inaugural Chicago Street Race.

“We want everyone in America to come out and be a fan of NASCAR.”

Wallace is an integral part of that effort to draw fans, and he doubles as an inspirational figure for other drivers of color looking to follow in his footsteps, especially those at this year’s combine, who are years away from their own Cup Series dreams.  

Being a NASCAR Driver: The Improbable, Possible Dream

Truth be told. Most who get into stock car racing won’t reach the upper levels because it’s statistically impossible. Every Sunday, a NASCAR Cup Series race only has 40 available driver slots.

So it follows that, for most of these Drive for Diversity invitees, the Cup or the second-tier Xfinity Series is out of reach. 

There is not an abundance of available research on the success of all who have come through the Drive for Diversity Combine over the years. But an Andscape story did track combine participants between 2004 and 2018. Of the 62 drivers that went through the program in that span, only Wallace, Larson and Suárez secured spots in the top-tier Cup Series. Ten have raced at least once in one of NASCAR’s three divisions, which, besides the Cup Series, includes the second-tier Xfinity Series and the third-tier Craftsman Truck Series.

The primary obstacle for many who aspire to race professionally is securing the sponsorships and funding needed to field a competitive car, even at the semi-professional level. 

It can cost one million a year to field a car in the Automobile Racing Club of America Menards Series, a minor, semi-professional division of stock car racing, a fraction of the cost to field a Cup Series car. And speaking of the Cup Series, it can cost over $15 million or more for a team, top-of-the-line equipment and a car. 

But that doesn’t mean that Drive for Diversity Combine participants cannot find success elsewhere in the industry apart from driving. 

“There are alumni in the program who participate in Trans-Am [Series Racing],” said Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s vice president of Diversity & Inclusion. “We have had alumni of the program who have participated in open wheel stuff, whether prior to or even post. We’ve also got a few crew members who were NASCAR crew members but were able to parlay that into being IndyCar crew members.”

Adds Jordan Leatherman, NASCAR’s diversity and inclusion director, “I think everyone always talks about Bubba Wallace, Kyle Larson, and Daniel Suárez as the three that have come through the program and made it to the Cup Series, but there are a lot of people that have been involved with this program. And maybe they didn’t necessarily make it as a driver, but they’re still involved in the sport in general.”

Drive for Diversity alums have gone on to work in NASCAR’s racing operations. Others have graduated to careers in auto racing media, and some have joined pit crews or have become mechanical engineers.

“So I think it’s made a much larger impact to the entire ecosystem of the sport and advancing women and people of color,” Leatherman said, “And even if you’re not necessarily seeing it, from a driver standpoint, like seeing that large influx, what you are able to see is how [the Combine] has had an industry-wide impact.” 

Yet, dreams are dreams, and the fact that the combine did launch the careers of Wallace, Larson and Suárez means that making it to the Cup Series isn’t a complete impossibility.

“Like every other kid, I want to make it to the big level. So Cup Series,” said Lyons when asked about his primary goal.

“I want to show everyone, prove to everyone that I’m a racer, and I can do this,” he said.

And Lyons isn’t alone. The drivers who have entered this program still see it as one of the best paths toward becoming NASCAR drivers, especially past alums on the cusp of competing professionally, like 18-year-old Andrés Pérez. 

“It’s the best path I consider to grow in my career and hopefully be in the big leagues of NASCAR in a couple of years,” said Pérez, who advanced from the Drive to Diversity Combine to race in the semi-professional ARCA series. 

While Wallace, Suárez, Larson and Carruth are the exceptions, their post-combine success can be a powerful motivator for young drivers coming behind them.

“It helps for these kids to be able to see themselves reflected and know that their dreams are possible when they see the drivers who have made it through the program,” Grant said.

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