Q: First, I am an African American who has been promoting the sport for years in my circle in an effort to engage and bring in more fans of color. I felt our sport fell short last weekend in highlighting with a bit more context the recent disturbing events that have gripped our country. I felt we talked around the subject during the broadcast instead of tackling it head-on. I am not blaming the crew (Leigh, Townsend, & Paul) as they are the best in the business. NBC should have crafted a better narrative on behalf of IndyCar and the network. I know IndyCar put out a statement, but I felt there could have been more from the body as a whole (kudos to Newgarden on his tweet).
There’s a base of “people of color” who love the sport and encounter the struggles of racism on a constant basis, yours truly included. I must state that NASCAR nailed it with Bubba Wallace and Jimmie Johnson leading the charge in messaging. As we all know, words spoken will have to be supported with actions. As I write this, NASCAR is banning the Confederate flag, which is extremely uncomfortable for any American attending a race where they were displayed. Full disclosure: I have never felt that way at any IndyCar event. Lewis Hamilton called out F1 and its drivers in an effort to wake the F1 community, and the drivers and F1 responded in kind. However, IndyCar, it’s time for your “woke” moment, and a need to strive for more diversity and inclusion into the sport from a driver and fan standpoint.
I salute the likes of pioneers and heroes like Wendell Scott, soon to be one of the greatest Lewis Hamilton, the audacity to be black (“Uppity”) Willy T. Ribbs, and the smoothness of Bill Lester. Each of these pioneers have a story of triumph to tell, as the barriers and obstacles they encountered centered mainly around the color of their skin. Just let that simmer for just a moment, in your mind, and in your heart. I encourage and challenge each to have dialogue with a neighbor of color, listen, learn, and receive. We can change this pandemic of racism one conversation at a time followed up with a personal action plan. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “We will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Friends we will see you at Road America. Be Woke! Robin keep up the great work. My brothers and I met you at Homestead about six years ago. We enjoyed the conversation.
Andrew J., The Woodlands, Texas
RM: Thanks for the letter and your passion for IndyCar (I do remember talking with you and your brothers), but I just don’t know what NBC could have done differently. It’s a two-hour sports show in primetime that kicks off a season that’s been dormant for eight months, and besides identifying the tumultuous events in Minneapolis and subsequent aftermath of social upheaval, what else needed to be said? Our guys aren’t there to pontificate on police brutality or spend 10 minutes giving their opinions, it’s a race and NBC devoted plenty of hours and manpower to the nationwide protests in its news shows. That’s where it belongs, not on an auto racing show in Texas.
But on the subject of African Americans in IndyCar, be it fans or participants, I’ve always thought it was more about interest than inclusion. Willy T. and George Mack remain the only two black Indy 500 starters, the late Hardy Allen was the longest-standing crewman for Gurney and Foyt and the only black full-timer I can recall until a young man came along in the 1980s and ’90s for Dick Simon’s team. Why is that?
I remember doing a story with Benny Scott, a Formula 5000 driver in the ’70s, and he said the biggest problem wasn’t the color of his skin but the color of his money, because he couldn’t get anyone in black corporate America interested in financing his dream of getting to Indy or F1. The offshoot was that black people had little interest in auto racing because it wasn’t part of their heritage. And young African Americans don’t gravitate to racetracks because it’s not even on their radar. Basketball, baseball and football doesn’t require much money to get started, whereas a lot of impoverished black kids don’t get a car until after high school or later, so there is no connection to explore mechanics or driving.
Willy T. had his racing father for guidance, Ron Dennis hand-delivered Lewis Hamilton to F1 and Bubba Wallace got an early start thanks to his family before NASCAR gave him the breaks he needed. Is it going to be tougher for a black driver to make it? Might be tougher to get started, but then they still need money and desire. Wallace came through NASCAR’s Diversity Program and has driven for Joe Gibbs, Kyle Petty and Richard Petty, along others, and he’s the best example I can think of where he got opportunity based on his potential and not his wallet. Chase Austin was also on that track and ran Indy Lights, but fell by the wayside after his Indy 500 deal with A.J. fell through. NASCAR is way ahead of IndyCar on that platform. I recall CART giving Bill Lester a test and announcing a diversity program, but he was already way too old and it seemed like more of a token gesture than anything serious and, of course, it never materialized into anything. CART’s biggest mistake was not embracing Ribbs and Bill Cosby in the ’90s and making sure they had every chance to succeed, because Willy had the talent and personality to get black American engaged.
Q: It’s one thing for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag. I’m sure it looks like the Nazi flag must look to Jewish people. That’s not a big thing in my book. I’m surprised it took them this long to do it. But eliminating the guideline for all drivers and crews to stand when the American flag is shown, and allowing them to “take a knee in protest,” is too much. They gutlessly caved in to political pressure.
Here are my rhetorical questions – why does everything have to have a protest involved with it? Why can’t we watch one sport as a relief from day-to-day politics? I’m sure this won’t get printed and that’s OK. I’ve enjoyed IndyCar, F1, NASCAR and sports car racing since 1968, and I’ll continue to enjoy them. I’ll just excuse myself and take a potty break while drivers and crews dis the entire country because of a few bad people.
RM: That’s a good question for which I have no answer. But sports was always an escape for people from the daily grind, and now it’s become a battleground for civil rights, politics and the almighty dollar. What baseball and basketball best be careful of is that if they decide not to play, we might not care – or ever come back.