A half century after it kept its first black race winner out of victory lane, NASCAR has another — and this time he got to celebrate. When Wendell Scott became the first black NASCAR winner in Charlotte in 1963, the circuit didn’t recognize it as a victory, instead crediting it to a white driver and only years later fixing their mistake.
According to some accounts, NASCAR didn’t recognize Scott as the winner because it feared the backlash it would receive when Scott took the podium and kissed the white beauty queen who customarily presented trophies. Fifty years later, the only drama in Darrell Wallace Jr.
s win in the NASCAR Truck Series came on the track. Wallace took the lead with five laps to go and held on in the end to make him the first black driver to win a national series race since Scott did it 50 years ago.
“I had so much confidence coming into this race,” Wallace said after the race. “I told my guys that I did, and I told everybody that asked if I was going to win. … So, it was, ‘No, maybe we’re going to try,’ this one was, ‘For sure,’ and we capitalized. This means a lot.”
Wallace’s victory is a clear milestone for African-American athletes, though more remain: in the short-term, the 20-year-old hasn’t locked up a ride or a sponsor for the 2014 season. Thinking longer-term, there hasn’t been a black driver in the Sprint Cup series, NASCAR’s biggest stage, since 2006, and black drivers have run just five total races since 1986.
The win is also a milestone for NASCAR, a sport that once seemed destined to join America’s traditional Big Four in popularity. The last decade, though, saw NASCAR’s television ratings flat-line and its attendance plummet, and when officials starting asking how they could stem the declines and get the sport growing again, one answer they settled on was diversifying a brand known mostly for appealing to white southerners. The first major shift in that direction came from Juan Pablo Montoya, the famous Colombian IndyCar, CART, and Formula 1 driver, and in 2013, a big female name — Danica Patrick — signed on as a full-time driver for the first time. At the same time, NASCAR developed a program known as Drive For Diversity that trains minority drivers in lower racing circuits.
Wallace is the second Drive For Diversity alum to win on a national circuit in 2013. Japanese-American driver Kyle Larson won a Truck Series race in Rockingham, North Carolina. NASCAR has also attempted to expand its reach in Mexico, where it sponsors a racing series.
The question is whether any of that will attract minority fans. According to 2009 numbers, 20 percent of NASCAR fans are minorities, with Hispanics and African Americans making up 8.3 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively. The number of African American fans grew 12 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to those numbers, though that may paint a slightly prettier picture than the one that exists now since the recession was particularly damaging for NASCAR. But if that number is correct, NASCAR may not have as big a diversity problem as it thinks, at least compared to other sports. While it trails the NFL and NBA significantly in attracting black fans, it’s not that far behind Major League Baseball. NASCAR’s breakdown for male and female fans, meanwhile, is identical to the NFL’s. NASCAR’s problem, it would seem, is as much a perception that it isn’t open to minorities — and the reality that in many ways it hasn’t been — as the fact that it simply isn’t attracting them.
Even if diversity isn’t the cure to NASCAR’s recent woes, the sport has been making strides in recent years to overcome a distinct racial past that other sports began leaving behind decades ago. None of those steps, though, was bigger than the one Darrell Wallace took Saturday, when a black driver finally got to celebrate in NASCAR’s victory lane.