- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2004

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. - In a nondescript shop in a strip of buildings in this Charlotte suburb, two NFL greats have joined forces to achieve a not-so-modest goal: change the face of car racing. Joe Gibbs’ racing organization is embarking on a program intended to establish minority drivers and teams in NASCAR — and in the process discover the Tiger Woods of racing, a young star who could draw more minority drivers and fans to the sport.

The partner of the recently rehired coach of the Washington Redskins? Reggie White, the defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles who so often made Gibbs’ life miserable on the football field.

“Every time we would play Philly, I would look up and he would have the football after just killing our quarterback,” Gibbs said.

Now, Gibbs and White are teammates searching for a new kind of star for this burgeoning sport. NASCAR produced $3 billion in revenues in 2002. It is the second-most-watched sport in the United States, behind the National Football League. It has a large, extremely loyal fan base. NASCAR last year signed a sponsorship agreement with Nextel Communications worth about $700 million, the largest such deal in sports history.

White, an ordained minister, and Gibbs have built a team from scratch. They hired a 26-year-old black driver from Ohio who used to race dirt bikes and a 19-year-old Hispanic driver from Florida who raced go-carts as a boy.

The two drivers, selected from more than 200 applicants, will begin racing this season at the Late Model Series level at two small tracks in North Carolina.

Gibbs and White hope to succeed where other such efforts — most notably a partnership between NASCAR and the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH organization — have failed. That partnership drew heavy criticism from NASCAR fans and from White, who accused Jackson of taking at least $250,000 from NASCAR but getting no results.

And results are what NASCAR says it wants. Brian France, the third member of the family that founded NASCAR to head the organization, has said that diversity is the organization’s “top corporate priority.”

“We are an American sport and want to look more like America,” Mr. France said.

Progress has been slow. NASCAR four years ago formed a diversity council that distributed scholarships and created educational programs about motorsports. But the council accomplished little where it counts: on the track.

Joe Gibbs Racing was part of that council, but decided to take the initiative with its partnership with White.

“We said, ‘Look, why don’t we just start from the ground level? We know we can do this,’” said J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs’ son and president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “I used to race late-model cars. We know what it is like. We have guys who can put them together. Let’s start there and bring Reggie along as an owner from the ground up. Instead of starting at the Cup level, we will start from down here and work our way up together as drivers and crew guys.

“We want the sport to represent all of society. This is just the right thing to do.”

NASCAR now finds itself trying to catch up to Gibbs and White.

“We have a very similar program to the Gibbs-White effort,” said Andrew Giangola, a NASCAR spokesman. “We are working with a company called Access Communications, a minority-owned firm, and we are developing a program to have five African-American or Hispanic drivers at the Dodge Weekly Series level and six crew members in the Craftsman Truck Series.”

Gibbs’ drivers, Chris Bristol of Columbus, Ohio, and Aric Almirola of Tampa, Fla., have been working with crew chief and general manager Ray Theiss at the Pitts School Garage to prepare for racing at tracks in Burlington and Asheboro, N.C. Each driver was influenced by his family’s passion for racing: Bristol’s parents were fans, and Almirola’s grandfather was a driver.

“I was involved in racing since I could remember,” Bristol said. “My parents were from the South, so they were big race fans. They took me to my first race when I was eight months old. We used to go to races of all types.” Bristol began racing dirt bikes and later went to school at North Carolina A&T; to study mechanical engineering. He took part in the racing program there and eagerly tried out for the Gibbs-White team.

“If you are already an established Nextel Cup driver and Joe Gibbs Racing calls you, that is a big deal,” Bristol said. “They are one of the best organizations in this sport. To have this opportunity at the late-model level and to have Reggie White be part of it is really huge.”

Said Almirola: “It is so hard to get into this sport at the level we are competing at. There are thousands of young kids who race go-karts all over the country, and their hopes and aspirations are the same as mine were. To get an opportunity like this gets your foot in the door.”

Gibbs and White are hoping to find someone who, like Woods in golf, can kick that door down.

“Not a lot of people had an opportunity to play golf or be exposed to it, and then Tiger Woods comes along and changes the whole outlook,” Joe Gibbs said. “It would expand the sport, and it would be neat to give guys an opportunity like that.”

NASCAR has been — and still is — a sport dominated by white drivers. There are no minorities competing in today’s Daytona 500. There are no minority drivers on the Nextel (formerly Winston) Cup circuit. The only minority driver to compete in any of NASCAR’s three national series — the Nextel Cup, Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck — last year was Bill Lester, who races on the truck circuit.

Historically, few minority drivers have made an impact in NASCAR. Lester has raced at Daytona three times and found success in the Truck Series. In the 1980s, Willy T. Ribbs drove in several Winston Cup races and the Truck Series.

The trailblazer among black drivers was Wendell Scott, the subject of the 1977 film “Greased Lightning” that starred Richard Pryor. Scott won a 200-mile endurance NASCAR race in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1963, but was not declared the official winner. Buck Baker, a white driver who came in second, was awarded the trophy in front of the crowd. Several hours later, a scoring error was announced and Scott was quietly declared the winner.

The most difficult hurdles facing anyone — minority or otherwise — trying to establish a team are financial. A team must receive between $15 million and $20 million each year from sponsors to compete on one of NASCAR’s top three circuits.

Those high costs have hampered numerous attempts in the past to develop minority teams. High-profile black athletes such as Julius Erving and former Redskins running back Joe Washington have tried and failed to sustain a team. Even Joe Gibbs Racing — the gold standard in NASCAR these days — had difficulty finding sponsors when it began exploring the idea of a minority team that would include White.

“We tried to get a major sponsor, but that didn’t work,” White said. “It was difficult, and is still difficult, to get sponsors.”

J.D. Gibbs said he believes they were unable to secure a sponsor primarily because of White’s inexperience.

“The fear was that Reggie was coming in and not ever being a team owner before, and now we were going to start a team from scratch,” he said. “That is hard to do. We get turned down a lot of times when Joe Gibbs Racing walks in the door and asks for a sponsor.”

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For White, this is all new. “I was never much of a racing fan,” he said. “I didn’t watch it. I grew up watching football and basketball.”

A friend, former NFL running back Leonard Wheeler, told White about NASCAR and its efforts to increase the minority presence in the sport. That piqued White’s interest.

“I went to a race after that and got more excited about it,” he said. “My adrenaline got flowing when I saw how fast those cars were going. Leonard told me that, if we were going to go into Winston Cup racing, we needed a partner. I said if I had a partner in racing, it would be Joe Gibbs. We came and talked to Joe, and it took off from there.”

White, who is a neighbor of Joe Gibbs in Charlotte, had long admired the coach and had one day hoped to play for him in the NFL. The feeling was mutual. “I have great respect for him, but never got a chance to coach him except for the Pro Bowl,” Joe Gibbs said.

About two years ago, the two began talking about putting a racing team together.

“Joe has integrity and a championship spirit and had already had two champions on his racing team,” White said. “I knew him, and I knew the integrity he had, and I wanted to work with him. I feel privileged, because I know Joe doesn’t usually jump at making these kind of deals.”

Steve de Souza, vice president of Busch operations at Joe Gibbs Racing, said it was the timing — and the chance to work with White — that made this opportunity different from so many other offers they receive.

“We do shy away from partnerships,” Mr. de Souza said. “We usually have our own agenda and work internally, in terms of a business. … With the relationship of Reggie and the Gibbses, and the timing of the diversity initiative, the Gibbses felt this was something we should look at.”

White approaches racing with the same competitive fire he brought to football. “I remember seeing [NFL running back] Curtis Martin on television, and he was asked if he loved football, and he said no,” White said. “My response was, finally, somebody said no. Because I didn’t love football. I loved winning. That motivated me more than anything.

“When athletes can fall in love with winning and not the sport, that is when they become champions. That is what I hope we can build here, making champions and succeeding at a high level.”

White has criticized some efforts to draw minorities into racing, particularly those of Mr. Jackson. “It seems as though he is using his status and his organization to raise money for his organization without helping to benefit the people who are trying to move into those professions,” White told the Fox News Channel last July.

When asked if he considered Jackson’s arrangement with NASCAR to be a payoff, White said, “Well, pretty much. … That’s what is really disappointing, and that’s happened a few times with Jesse.”

NASCAR reportedly has cut off funding to Jackson’s organization, though NASCAR would not confirm or deny it. “We will support any organization where we believe their work on diversity issues will make a positive contribution to the motorsports industry,” said Mr. Giangola, the NASCAR spokesman. “We have supported the Rainbow Coalition’s work, and if we believe they will continue to have a positive impact, we will continue to look at that.”

Charles Farrell, director of the Rainbow Coalition/PUSH sports division, said his group has been successful, despite the criticism.

“Our efforts in motorsports have been very extensive,” Mr. Farrell said.

The Rainbow Coalition held meetings over the winter to introduce sponsors to minority drivers and teams and has more sessions scheduled, he said. Nothing has yet materialized from those meetings. Mr. Farrell said the coalition is close to several deals to bring minorities into the merchandising side of NASCAR, selling apparel and collectibles.

Mr. Farrell said there has been no discussion about ending the group’s relationship with NASCAR. “They have been very supportive of our initiative, and we see it continuing,” he said.

Mr. Farrell also had a few words for White. “We have tried to reach out to Reggie,” he said. “We will be happy to discuss our efforts, and they have been effective. If Reggie had reached out to the Reverend Jackson and myself, he could have found out what we have been doing.”

White declined to discuss Jackson’s group further. “People know how I feel about it,” White said. “The thing that is important to me now is to give these guys a chance. That is in the past, and we want to focus on what we are doing here.”

What they hope to do is what White and Gibbs did many times on the football field — not just compete, but win.

“We want to go out and win races,” J.D. Gibbs said. “We want to show we can get the job done at the track. If we can do that, the rest of it will take care of itself.”

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