Discrimination lawsuit threatens to revive old NASCAR stereotypes
This just in: NASCAR has a problem. A big, potentially catastrophic problem.
To review: Earlier this week Mauricia Grant, a former technical inspector in the Nationwide Series who is African-America, filed a $225 million lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against NASCAR, accusing the sanctioning body of discrimination, harassment, and wrongful termination.
The alleged actions by NASCAR officials in the 40-page filing describe a culture within the sport that is grotesquely racist and sexist. Grant, who worked in the Nationwide Series for nearly three years from January 2004 to October '07, claims that was called "Queen Sheba" and "Molicious" by fellow inspectors; she said that male colleagues exposed their penises to her and that one inspector made references to the Ku Klux Klan; and that other co-workers said she was on "colored time" if she arrived later than white officials to certain events.
NASCAR was quick to respond to the lawsuit, saying that Grant never reported the inappropriate behavior to her supervisors. "The disappointing thing is she makes a lot of claims, none of them reported," said NASCAR chairman Brian France. "It's inconsistent of our policies of our company and how we operate the sport. The fact that it went on as she stated, for many months, but never bothered to tell anyone at management what was going on -- which is what our policy says -- is very disappointing. We would have liked, if those type things were in fact going on, we would have loved to have done an investigation and a review of such an allegation."
Grant disputes this. She says she complained to her supervisor and eventually voiced her problems to series director Joe Balash. But after Grant talked to Balash, she claims that she received a call from a member of NASCAR's human resources department and was issued a reprimand for poor job performance. About two months later she was fired.
So what to make of all this? For years NASCAR has tried to shake the perception that it's a southern-based sport populated by rebel-flag waving, good ol' boy rednecks. In '04 NASCAR initiated a drive for diversity program, and while there are several young minority drivers currently being cultivated in the program, there aren't any full-time African-American drivers in NASCAR's top three series. And if you've taken regular looks into the stands at tracks across the country for the last four years, as I have, you'd see that the racial component of the crowds hasn't appreciably changed over that time. The fans are still overwhelmingly white, like 99 percent white.
I've spent a little bit of time around inspectors in the Cup series, and my experience is that I've never heard any inappropriate racial or sexual remarks. But I do wear a credential that says Sports Illustrated on it, so as long as they can read, they'd know not to say anything lewd around me. I have no idea if Grant's claims have merit, but the lawsuit certainly feeds the perception that NASCAR has a race problem.
Which is why I'm guessing that NASCAR will try to settle this case as quickly as possible. This is nothing but bad PR for the sport, and the longer it lingers, the more hits NASCAR's image will take. But if Grant pushes this all the way through the legal system and her attorney deposes all of the defendants listed in the lawsuit, well, this case, one way or another, could shatter all of the perception problems that NASCAR has. Because in the light of the courtroom, perception will become reality.