Role Model or Pawn?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 23, 2006

I have attended one NASCAR event in my life and that was at the Atlanta Motor Speedway two years ago, the same track where earlier this week, Bill Lester became the first black driver to compete in the sport’s elite division in 20 years.

The attention Lester received this past weekend was immeasurably disproportionate to his talent or his chances of winning, but in today’s politically correct era of television, Lester was a feel good story that allowed NASCAR to attempt to move out of its &uot;good-old-boy&uot; comfort zone that inhibits the growth of the sport on an international level.

In fact recently, basketball Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson was assigned to a committee looking to diversify NASCAR. The Denver Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony also announced just last week that he would be one of the sponsors for a car on the IRL circuit.

Now, Magic Johnson is like the sports world’s version of Jesse Jackson, always being pushed to the front of race related issues, sometimes when he’s not even needed.

Anthony, on the other hand, is part of the new &uot;hip-hop&uot; generation of professional sports, and his involvement with any promotional efforts will probably include Mountain Dew and a rapper.

I can’t believe that Bryant Gumbel didn’t chime in on Lester this week; I was rabidly waiting for a sound bite from that bastion of the African-American experience.

The problem here is much the same as the issues brought to light during the winter Olympics. I watched ESPN’s Sportscenter the day after the race to see where Lester had finished, expecting him to get a brief mention, after his story dominated racing’s weekend headlines. Instead what happened was that ESPN and most other networks were so focused on this new &uot;diversity&uot; concept that I had to call Thadd and ask him who actually won the race (by the way it was Kasey Kahne).

Let’s get something straight – the past two Secretary’s of State have been black, the owner of the latest NBA basketball franchise is black, we have a black Supreme Court Justice (our second), and the head of the world’s largest on-line portal, AOL, is a black man.

My point? In spite of astronomical odds and a never ending climate of poor race relations in this country, people who are determined to succeed in any given endeavor will in fact succeed if they work hard enough, and like Bill Lester said, &uot;don’t take no for an answer&uot;.

The great story about Lester is not that he competed in a NASCAR event at the highest level, that had been done five times previously, but the fact that he was a successful engineer who decided to pursue his &uot;dream&uot; of competing in such an event.

Lester’s level of commitment was dwarfed only by his obvious intelligence and work ethic, all of which have been buried under the media’s ravenous push to make a connection between NASCAR and black Americans. But why?

I enjoyed my trip to the Atlanta Motor Speedway, but I have never been back, not to Atlanta or any other NASCAR event. I had a good time, but the loud noises and smell of slabs of bar-b-q ribs mixed with Budweiser were not my cup of tea.

I personally don’t get into fast cars and motorcycles that much and that is a personal choice. Yet there were thousands of black people at the event and I know many more who in fact indeed enjoy professional racing and none of them need a diversity committee to tell them that it’s okay to like the sport.

Bill Lester is a black man who like to race cars. The difference between Lester racing in NASCAR and other blacks who may want to lies in the amount of work Lester put in to arrive where he has.

The barriers put up for black athletes in today’s era are not as concrete and obvious as they were say 30 years ago. Any black person looking to make headway in a profession where the landscape is dominated by whites knows fully well the task that lies before them whether it is in auto racing, politics, or even journalism.

So don’t do the Bill Lesters of the world any favors. If they want to get in the door, they know how much work it will take and that is the story that should be told.

Blacks in NASCAR will become commonplace when blacks in engineering, math and science become commonplace, as professional auto racing is not just driving really fast.

What is more disturbing is not the lack of blacks at NASCAR events, but because not enough blacks watch the sport on television to matter.

The role of women at NASCAR events is sordid at best, unless you enjoy women in bikinis posing around loud engines and an eternal smoke cloud.

I didn’t care too much for it and that’s why I’ve only been to one event, but once again, that has been my personal choice. It doesn’t matter whether Lester was black or white but rather was he the most qualified or most talented and shouldn’t that always be the case?

Holla back