My daydream ended with a vision of reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden seated at the table. The sport’s biggest American star, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was there. Second-generation stars Graham Rahal and his wife, retired NHRA ace Courtney Force, were in attendance. Defending NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch and Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay were there. Sports car champion Jordan Taylor was present. Popular racer and podcaster Ryan Eversley was there. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson sat in the middle.
The daydream arrived last Wednesday, the morning after racing took its first steps towards social responsibility as black squares blanketed Instagram and Twitter. My daydream, lasting a few seconds, began with images of the iconic photos from the ‘Cleveland Summit’ in 1967.
Held in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam war, a press conference was organized by his contemporaries. Seated to the left was Bill Russell, the greatest champion the NBA has known. Next to him was Ali, and on the other side, it was Jim Brown, the greatest football player of his era and possibly all time. Lew Alcindor, soon known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar – another all-time basketball great – capped the end of the table. Assembled behind them, a wall of eight other well-known African-American sports stars depicted a united athletic front unlike any other.
The visuals were overpowering. These dauntless men, chiseled from ebony, some wide and square, others touching the sky, instantly transformed themselves from sporting figures to activists. The June 4 gathering, coming towards the end of our country’s ugly Civil Rights battle, was centered on Ali, but their lasting impact was not limited to the heavyweight champion’s plight. Something was born with the Cleveland Summit. It inspired many of its participants, and some of their sympathetic fans, to expand their relationship beyond courts, fields, rings, and diamonds.
As the LeBrons and Mahomes of their day stood for the first time in unison to take public, risk-filled positions behind Ali, the value of black athletes trading jerseys for suits, and helmets for microphones was codified.
The Cleveland Summit wasn’t a gathering to address the wide-ranging evils of systematic racism, police brutality, and the other touchstones driving the civil rights movement, but it still managed to take on greater importance and symbolism than anyone imagined. It represented a new possibility – an affirmation of sorts – that athletes of color could be both seen and heard, and should be valued for their beliefs and principles.
Speaking from a pulpit built by sports-related fame that reached a nationwide audience, the legends and heroes at the Cleveland Summit came to embody action and change. Their collective efforts more than 50 years ago in Ohio continues to inspire the silent to speak, and the motivated to mobilize.
And it’s here where my daydream ended, with today’s most popular white race car drivers transposed with the Russells, Browns, and Alis in that spellbinding photo from the 1967 meeting. Brown, the face of the Cleveland Browns franchise, and the most socially active within the group, organized the summit of 12 that spanned multiple sports.
Attempts to recreate the photo with 12 professional African-American race car drivers in 2020 wouldn’t be possible; we’d struggle to find more than half the number to invite. After Willy T. Ribbs, Bill Lester, Antron Brown, and Bubba Wallace, the list starts to lose momentum. It’s this truth, I believe, that inspired my daydream.
Said with differing arrangements of the same words, statements from African-American leaders have delivered a consistent message for longer than I’ve been alive: If we’re going to defeat racism and all the sickness dispatched from such ideology, it will take our white brothers and sisters to join in, because as 13 percent of the population, we can’t solve this on our own.
That’s why the concept of newly-inspired Dillons, Andrettis, Earnhardt Jrs, Newgardens, Johnsons, Rahals, Harvicks, and other white American drivers forming a meaningful coalition of their own – a Daytona Summit, or Indianapolis Summit (where both series will meet next month) – played out in my mind.
How many millions of racing fans who look like me would benefit from having their favorite drivers organize around philosophies of love and equality for African-Americans? Imagine if they used their immense voices and corporate relationships to affect social change. Visualize a joint press release from these men and women of influence, declaring an initiative to be part of the solution through new fundraising, education, and volunteerism programs.
There’s a beautiful foundation to build from in that regard. Many of our most prominent drivers have put hard work into creating their own charitable foundations, or vowed to support worthy causes that hold deeply personal meanings. From helping wounded warriors and military families to curing cancer in animals, the spirit of activism is alive in our sport. In every instance, those contributions are needed.
Somewhere between ensuring our battle-scarred war fighters receive the care and support they’re owed upon returning home, and combating cancer in dogs and cats, I want to believe the same drivers have been moved to engage with the African-American community, to apply the same level of impassioned effort to prevent the losses of future George Floyds and Breonna Taylors.
For the first time in its history, racing is taking a stand in a fight that has raged for hundreds of years. The modern greats of our sport, and the next-generation stars, have bravely risen to join our African-American brothers and sisters in spirit. And if this emboldened stance is going to make a real difference, it can’t start and end with black squares and videos. Racism and inequality won’t be conquered with smart phones and social media.
I look to the imagery from the Cleveland Summit and see its participants as pioneers who risked their lives by speaking out and being accountable. Many of the men at the table have been life-long heroes for their athletic achievements. They also hold a higher place in history due to their civil rights work; it would have been easier and safer, as high-profile black men living in murderous times, to sit rather than stand.
Imagine Dale Jr. calling Force and Rahal. Imagine Johnson calling Newgarden. Imagine the possibilities and permanence that could come from their hands and minds. Does this group of NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, and NHRA stars have its central organizer, its Jim Brown? Imagine the very men and women who’ve brought millions of fans together every weekend making a bold decision to model themselves after their fellow athletes and forebearers, the Russells, Browns, and Alis, and honoring their legacies through social activism.
They’ve come so far in recent weeks. Imagine how far they could go together. Farther than a daydream, I’d hope.