NASCAR Hits the Brakes on Male Dominance
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The traditionally White, male and middle-aged sport is finally recruiting and training women as pit crew members, engineers and executives.
Brehanna Daniels was munching on a Chick-fil-A sandwich when Norfolk State athletics department member Tiffani-Dawn Sykes suggested a career path that would change her life. It was the spring of 2016, just weeks from graduation, and Daniels — a Spartans senior point guard — was in a quandary about what to do after college: train for a low-paying professional basketball opportunity that might emerge overseas, or start a career in sports media. Sykes had yet another idea.
“NASCAR was holding a tryout on campus, and she thought I should try out,” recalls Daniels, now 24. “I’m like, ‘What? I don’t even like racing, and you want me to drive?’”
What Daniels hadn’t realized was that the tryout was part of NASCAR’s push to diversify its companywide roster beyond drivers to also cover crew members, back-office employees, engineers and fan communities. Leading those efforts is NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Crew Member Development program, launched in 2009 and managed by Rev Racing, a team that trains minority and female candidates. And the efforts are yielding results for women.
Driver diversity is … just the tip of the iceberg.
Dawn Harris, senior director of diversity affairs, NASCAR
Daniels, who joined the program, made history last year at Dover International Speedway as the first African-American female pit crew member in a NASCAR series race. At Daytona in July this year, she became the first African-American female tire changer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. She was joined at Daytona by another female graduate from the program, tire changer Breanna O‘Leary. For most of its seven-decade history, NASCAR says it never kept data on gender diversity among its pit crew members. It didn’t need to — the first woman in a NASCAR pit crew, Christmas Abbott, joined only in 2012. Now, nine years after its launch, Drive for Diversity’s pit crew program has recruited 25 women.
This recruitment of female pit crew members also represents a parallel bid for diversity by NASCAR, which has struggled with a similar push for minority and female drivers, faced with reluctant sponsors and an overwhelmingly White, male and middle-aged audience. The Drive for Diversity program for drivers has been around since 2004, five years longer than the initiative for pit crew members. But it has only recruited 23 female drivers to date.
“Driver diversity is definitely important, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Dawn Harris, NASCAR’s senior director of multicultural development.
The challenges NASCAR has faced in successfully pushing diversity aren’t surprising for a sport with its demographics. According to Statista, 91 percent of the company’s fans are White, and the average age of television viewers — a pillar of NASCAR’s success, with events broadcast in over 185 countries and 21 languages — is 58. What’s more, television ratings through June of this year were plummeting.
NASCAR executives insist that their sport is not dying — that it’s just in need of some fine-tuning. They point to new NASCAR-related merchandise in women’s apparel as evidence of outreach to a female fan base, and new frontiers — social, egaming and digital — as paths to connect with younger fans. In February, the company began developing two separate esports championships. Additionally, “staged racing,” or races in shorter televised segments, are airing to entice millennial viewers with shorter attention spans. With the recent retirements of legends like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick (the first female star of the sport), Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the company is also focused on developing young stars as brands for the future. And for the past 14 years, Drive for Diversity has tried to recruit minority and female drivers.
But the driver program has struggled for success in races. By 2009, the program could claim only three race wins in the K&N Pro Series — a major NASCAR platform — and all by one male driver, Paulie Harraka. NASCAR suspended its relationship with Access Marketing and Communications, the firm that was managing the diversity program, amid the poor performances, low funding for drivers and complaints that they weren’t being given competitive equipment to win.
That same year, it hired Rev Racing, owned by entrepreneur and multicultural activist Max Siegel, to run the Drive for Diversity drivers’ program. Rev Racing also took on the responsibility of finding sponsors for drivers. Since then, the program’s graduates have recorded 14 wins in the K&N Pro Series. But only two female graduates — Megan Reitenour and Macy Causey — out of 23 have recorded wins. The retired Patrick remains the biggest name in women’s NASCAR.
The cracks in the sport’s glass ceiling are appearing elsewhere. Compared with the limited success of female drivers, 12 out of 25 female graduates of the pit crew diversity program have gone on to work in NASCAR for at least three years.
Complementing the diversity program are efforts by other teams to laterally hire minority and female executives to drive the future of the sport. Among them is Alba Colón, director of competition systems at Hendrick Motorsports. A native of Puerto Rico, Colón spent 23 years rising through the engineering ranks at General Motors before moving to Hendrick this year. There’s also Andrea Mueller, who in 2009 became an engineer with Team Penske and last year joined the Wood Brothers team.
“One thing I noticed from the moment I arrived is how welcoming the sport is,” says Colón. But as America’s minority populations increase — the U.S. will be less than 50 percent White by 2045 — the sport must adapt more, she says. “[NASCAR] has changed so much in terms of learning how to approach these communities, but we still need a better understanding.”
The success of the pit crew diversity program has made NASCAR double down on it, hoping it can do what the drivers’ initiative has struggled to achieve. Since 2016, Rev Racing director of athletic performance Phil Horton scours college campuses in the spring for athletes, particularly soon-to-be graduates, who might be a fit. The most promising prospects earn a ticket to Rev Racing’s North Carolina headquarters, where they train.
“In this sport, the driver gets the glory,” says Colón, whom the Hispanic Heritage Foundation recognized with its STEM Award in 2017. “Every girl wants to be Danica [Patrick], but Danica needs a crew chief and needs engineers to make her who she is.” Just as NASCAR needs female and minority crew members and engineers, to secure its future.