Why I'm Starting A New Diversity Program In Racing

Illustration for article titled Why I'm Starting A New Diversity Program In Racing
Photo: SRO

“Green! Green! Green!” OK. Here we go. Four laps remaining after the restart. My Pirelli tires, as good as they are, are starting to fade under the punishment of 30 minutes of racing a 3,500-pound, high horsepower, rear-wheel-drive car on Sonoma’s notoriously rough circuit. I’m still leading the race but my early five second buffer to the rest of the field is gone. Down to a few car lengths at best. That’s what an ill-timed, late-race, full-course caution will do.

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Adding to the pressure is the whole improbability of my even leading the race in the first place. Our entire race program was put together in only a few months after a coincidental phone call from SRO series president Greg Gill. In fact, my first real laps in our Mustang GT4 were in the Thursday test session only three day prior. The first time most of my team even laid eyes on the car was the day before that.

Why the last-minute scramble to throw a program together? Technically it wasn’t really last minute at all, it’s actually something I’ve been working on my entire life. It just took a while for it all come together.

I never set out to be a Black racecar driver, just a racecar driver. Preferably a good one. I’ve never wanted the color of my skin to be the thing that defined me in racing or in life, so I never made it a thing, even when making it a thing might have been advantageous for me.

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Photo: SRO

That being said, I was also happy that my success in racing might have inspired some kid to follow in my footsteps. Maybe see opportunities that they might not have seen before. As my career winds down, however, I’ve come to realize that me not making it a thing didn’t do jack-shit to inspire anyone. (I need to consult Webster’s to see if jack-shit is actually hyphenated or not.)

It used to make me laugh that people that had followed my career for years, both driving and writing, didn’t even know I was Black. (Note to Rory: You reeeeally need to make those profile pictures bigger.) The events of last summer and the new global focus on diversity made me realize that, even though I was almost always the only Black pro driver on the grid. Nic Hamilton (Lewis’s brother), Jan Mardenborough (Nissan factory driver), Tony Brakohippia (drifter/stuntman), and fellow (former)Dodge driver Hugh Stewart are the only other Black drivers I’ve competed against in my nearly two decades of international professional competition. Just being there and being Black hadn’t made even the smallest bit of impact on diversity within motorsports. That realization hurts.

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Now, there’s going to be those of you who would question the need for any efforts to increase diversity in motorsports. Trust me, I’ve been hit with every fight-back in the book when I’ve defended diversity efforts in motorsports on social media.

“Why is diversity needed in motorsports?”

“I will work with anyone who walks through my door so it’s not my fault there’s no diversity.”

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“Maybe motorsports just isn’t part of (their) culture.”

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All of those statements were made by well-meaning people, a fair number of whom I’d worked within the industry for years, both here and abroad. Good people and not racist in the slightest. But their lack of understanding of the issues and their willingness to pass the buck only proved to me the need for a big push for change in the sport. When even the well-intentioned, influential people at the highest level in motorsports aren’t able to understand the reasons for — the root cause — of the homogeneous makeup of the sport, then you realize that change isn’t going to come unless someone else does it.

And then I realized, I am that someone else. The irony is not lost on me that I’ve spent a fair amount of time arguing that something needs to be done to increase diversity in motorsports but I haven’t done all I could to effect that change. That’s on me, and that’s the primary reason for our program.

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Before I get to my solution, let me quickly address what I believe to be the reasons behind the lack of diversity in motorsports:

It doesn’t matter. Not one bit.

You can walk through any paddock around the globe and instantly recognize the lack of diversity. Does it matter that minorities and women were historically excluded from participating in motorsports? Does it matter that minorities don’t have easy access to participation in the sport? Does it matter that the overwhelming majority of people within the paddock aren’t racist?

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No, it doesn’t.

We spend so much time analyzing a problem and debating it ad infinitum, that we never actually get around to doing anything about it. (See: gun control, climate change, etc.) Paralysis by analysis. The fact is that there isn’t one reason for the lack of diversity and there’s no one solution either. As opposed to sitting around debating, we decided that doing anything is far better than doing nothing. We came up with a plan.

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The main motorsports series in America (NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA) all have the same main thrust to tackle the diversity issue within the sport. It has been to create opportunities for minority drivers to get a foot in the door. It’s a great, much-needed effort, but it has a glaring problem. The dirty little (not so) secret in racing is that it takes a big pile of money to get behind the wheel in the first place. Truth of it is that most drivers don’t manage to get paid — if they ever get paid at all — until a fair number of years are spent bringing money to the table to get a seat in a car.

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The problem with funding minority drivers to get them in the sport is that once those funds stop, that driver will have no means to stay in the sport. The same thing happens once the spotlight turns away toward the next issue du jour. As the money, the attention, the highlighted driver moves away, the diversity effort withers and dies with their absence. This has been the problem with past efforts such as NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.

Additionally, it takes years for talent to develop in the sport, to the extent that they can get to where they can legitimately be paid pro drivers. Any diversity driver program that starts now will take several years, if not a decade, to bear fruit. That means years with no “success story” to justify the resources their program would need in order to be successful. It’s a vicious cycle. There is, however, another, more sustainable way to bring diversity into the paddock: crew.

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Although us drivers get all the notoriety (and champagne), nothing we do would be possible without a whole team of equally talented people behind us. Mechanics, engineers, managers, PR people all work tirelessly behind the scenes of every professional motorsport operation around the globe. Every single one of these positions is a paid position. They’re sometimes very well paid, as top motorsports engineers and managers can make good six- and even seven-figure incomes if you make it into F1. Mechanics and other crew can regularly make good five to six figures.

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Even better is that there are a lot of folks out there with the basic skills to get started working in the industry tomorrow. Although motorsports has a steep learning curve, possessing a solid engineering or mechanic background will give those new to the sport a substantial leg up in getting opportunities. The main issue in a lot of people getting into the sport is that they don’t even know this opportunity exists.

If you ask around the paddock a large number of people will say that they are there because their families had been in the sport for a few generations. Or maybe they’ll tell you that some of their friends had gotten them into it. The problem with that is, because of historically low minority participation, neither one of those avenues is a likely path in. (Completely unscientific personal anecdote: Most of the women I know currently participating or working motorsports have strong family ties going back generations. In fact, I believe it’s one of the more likely avenues into the sport for a lot of people.)

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The other great thing about this path is that if for some reason you fail to reach your goal of being on a top professional racing team, the job skills that are required to get there are transferable to many other good-paying jobs. That’s unlike the skill set needed to be a professional racing driver, which basically doesn’t translate into any real-world job that I know of. (You may want to pause and have a think before you say Uber driver. I don’t know about you but I really don’t want to be driven around by a failed racing driver channeling his inner Mario Andretti. But maybe that’s just me.)

All of that brings me to our program. With the help of all of my partners, especially the SRO championship, we have put together a two-prong program designed to get more minorities involved in motorsport at the crew level and additionally attract young people of all stripes to the motorsport profession.

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To accomplish the first goal, Rotek Racing has focused on hiring the few minorities with top motorsports experience (that I know of) to our team. Guys like ex-Champ car engineer Brian Ma and Nürburgring race engineer David Middleton. These guys are tasked with not only helping run the team and preparing my car but also locating and cultivating minority talent in the motorsport industry to help guide them and open the door for them to the sport.

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The second prong is even more ambitious. We have partnered with the Velocity99 Foundation, whose mission is to promote STEM learning and financial literacy to high school and college-aged kids, to create a contest, the winners of which will receive internships within our SRO program.

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As good as the potential internship deal is, my hope is that this opportunity will inspire kids to see doorways into places that they couldn’t before. And regardless of whether they are finalists or not, these kids will end up with a network of like-minded people who share a similar passion. It will, we hope, sustain their interest and drive as they pursue their goals.

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Knocking down the final laps. Three to go. Two to go. White flag last lap! I’ve managed to squeak out a second and a half lead on the rabid pack of cars behind. The focus for me now is hitting my marks and making no mistakes. All easier said than done after almost an hour in the car, but done nonetheless as I cross the finish line a few car lengths ahead of my nearest competitor.

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Any time you can win it’s special, but this one was more special than most. It wasn’t just a win for me, but for the whole program and I hope for a number of very deserving kids. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the rest of the season plays out from a racing perspective, but even more excited to introduce a whole new generation to motorsports.

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I hope you guys will follow along as I continue to post each race weekend with a focus more on the team aspects of it and what goes into a pro-level race weekend — while also highlighting all of the great people that are involved in the program and their stories.

The great thing is you guys don’t have to wait too long for the next chapter, as rounds three and four of the SRO GT World Challenge America series is this weekend at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas. Tune in to the SRO YouTube Livestream Saturday and Sunday and cheer us on.

Pro Race Car driver, former Pikes Peak Hillclimb record holder, 1st American to compete in the FIA World Touring Car Championships, British Touring Car Championships

DISCUSSION

wesleycrowbar
wesleyCrowbar

This is great! I wish there was a program like this when I was pursuing my engineering degree years ago. This is way more interesting than internships working to maintain compliance for audit season. Hopefully I’ll have kids someday that are interested in such a program.