ONE IN three adults in the U.S. is said to be a stock car racing fan, and soon, if NASCAR gets its wish, more of them will look like Joe Henderson III. The 19-year-old Franklin, Tenn., native, fresh off his first full season on NASCAR's Dodge Weekly Series, is one of four black drivers revving up their careers on minor league circuits as part of a NASCAR program called Drive for Diversity. Only seven black drivers have started on the league's three national circuits since Wendell Scott became the only African-American to win a Cup race, in 1963, and despite NASCAR's phenomenal growth, it struggles to appeal to minorities. "If we had a Tiger Woods, it would help," says NASCAR COO George Pyne. "The only way to address this is to develop real, focused programs that can some day drive results."
That's the idea behind such initiatives as Drive for Diversity, which will add three more aspiring Tigers for 2005 and double the number of minority interns on crews to 12. NASCAR, which last May named basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson cochairman of its Executive Steering Committee for Diversity, has several other programs up and running, including one aimed at aspiring minority and female crew members.
In addition to NASCAR's efforts, Joe Gibbs Racing has partnered with former NFL star Reggie White to create a Dodge Weekly team with two minority drivers ( Aric Almirola, who is Hispanic, and Chris Bristol, who is black). "How great would that be for our sport if everyone feels like they're included?" says JGR president J.D. Gibbs. "I believe they are, but it's a lot easier to convince them if you've got somebody that looks like them."
Henderson is glad to be among the pioneers. "This is something I've wanted to do ever since I can remember," he says. Chances are, he's not alone.