By: Bryce Zimmerman and Jake Bartecki
Beginning in 2021, Michael Jordan’s New NASCAR team will compete with Darrell “Bubba” Wallace as its driver, pairing the Cup Series’ only Black driver with its only Black majority owner and possibly attracting a long overdue minority presence.
In five years of racing hundreds of competitors at local dirt tracks, Tommy Etherton has competed with less than five Black drivers.
But he is hopeful the number will increase.
“In all my years of racing locally around Nebraska, there’s been only one to three Black drivers that I’ve noticed competing,” said Etherton, a Denton, Nebraska native and former I-80 Speedway Rookie of the Year.
In a state with a 5% Black population, per 2019 census, having just a handful of Black drivers among hundreds of competitors doesn’t add up.
So, while the world’s most well-known athlete has seemingly won everything there is to win in the basketball world, there’s one honor he adds to his list of accomplishments when he becomes a rookie again — a title he hasn’t held since he entered the NBA in 1984 — as the first Black majority owner in 50 years.
This newly-formed team, 23XI Racing, featuring Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., the sport’s only full-time Black driver in 50 years, could help NASCAR expand its demographic and diversify its mostly white audience.
Etherton said the team, with longtime driver Denny Hamlin also on board, will be a good stepping stone for drivers of different backgrounds to get a chance to compete within the Cup Series.
“This team could also create more interest in racing among minorities and make more people want to compete at their local dirt track,” he added.
Chase Thompson, a local Nebraska race fan, said he knows many NASCAR fans who have left the sport following the Confederate flag ban and public support of Black Lives Matter earlier this year. Thompson said the overall impact of promoting diversity has however been positive.
“Jordan getting into the sport and connecting with Wallace will only help diversify the sport,” he said. “I think NASCAR is losing fans due to the movement towards diversity, but those are the people you don’t want in your fanbase. NASCAR has made it very clear that they’re more than OK with losing that demographic in return for earning a whole new one.”
The new Jordan and Wallace team could also help encourage young and talented Black drivers to see a path for racing in NASCAR, according to Bob Pockrass, a NASCAR FOX Sports reporter.
In addition to bringing more eyeballs to the sport, this Black duo will set a new standard.
“Folks don’t feel they’re welcome unless they see someone who looks like them doing it,” said William Richard, another NASCAR fan known on Twitter for sharing his perspective. “Anyone, no matter their color, race or creed, can make an impact in the world of NASCAR.”
Having another African-American come into the sport in a significant ownership role, not just as a minority owner, but as the majority owner of a race team, is huge, added Jesse Iwuji, one of the only Black drivers in NASCAR’s Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
While Jordan was known as being apolitical during his NBA playing career — famously saying, ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ — he has recently increased his public activism, recently pledging to donate $100 million to anti-racist organizations.
Lenny Batycki of Performance Racing Network, which airs radio broadcasts of NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series races at Speedway Motorsports-owned tracks, said Jordan’s brand brings attention to wherever it goes.
“More will see the sport of NASCAR due to the light reflected by Jordan,” he said.
In fact, NASCAR has been longing to find a partner like Jordan, Richard added.
“To have him join the racing world in an ownership role only adds to the draw that NASCAR can bring around the globe.”
Teaming up with Jordan likely further places Wallace in the limelight, too. Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer in May, Wallace became the face for NASCAR’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement and confronting the sport’s troubled past with racist fans at tracks and most notably the Confederate flag.
“Removing the Confederate flag from all premises is a monumental moment in NASCAR history,” Thompson said. “NASCAR has made massive steps in diversifying its fanbase this season and that goes back to the shunning of the Confederate flag and symbols of racism.”
While some fans point to NASCAR’s support of Black Lives Matter and eventual banning of the Confederate flag as a publicity stunt, Brenden Avery, a Black NASCAR fan from Omaha, said the move is actually a human rights stunt.
“(Wallace) is already in a position where people won’t back him, because he’s in a sport that’s predominantly white. But now he’s got fans who give him backing and support,” Avery said.
Banning the Confederate flag is a move that Pockrass thinks will help create a more inviting environment for everyone. He also believes that NASCAR needs to do a “better job” in encouraging teams to require sensitivity training and educate employees about discrimination.
Drivers and crew members rallied in unity behind Wallace at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway in June when what appeared to be a noose was discovered in his team’s garage.
“Wallace’s 2020 season has opened the eyes of many race fans,” Richard said. “Seeing the level of support for Wallace from fellow drivers is one step into changing the viewpoint that NASCAR is a ‘southern white man’s’ game. To know there is support in the garages of America’s premier motorsport simply showcases that anyone is welcome.”
Thompson said he doesn’t think Jordan will be more popular than the revamped 2021 Cup Series schedule, including six road courses and a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“What will have the effect is the schedule changes coming in 2021, more track locations, cheaper ticket prices and added fan activities will be what allows the sport to become more popular,” he said.
Other onlookers, such as Dallas Mavericks radio play-by-play announcer Chuck Cooperstein, believe that Jordan’s impact on NASCAR’s future rests on the team’s success.
“Ultimately, it comes down to the driver. What are we paying attention to? We’re paying attention to who wins and who loses,” Cooperstein said in a recent Zoom meeting with University of Nebraska-Lincoln sports media students.
“(For example,) Jordan owns the Charlotte Hornets. If the Hornets are good, we’re ultimately going to be talking about how PJ Washington, Devonte’ Graham or Malik Monk are doing the things they need to do in order to win games, not Jordan.”
If Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace are not successful in their new endeavor, it’s possible Etherton may not see any more minority drivers behind the wheel.
Some like Iwuji and Batycki said NASCAR could try diversifying its audience and drivers through other methods, too.
For Iwuji, NASCAR can continue to diversify its audience by creating a program to bring minorities to the track and others who don’t have the normal opportunity to attend races or know anything about NASCAR. This program could set aside a certain number of tickets as part of a diversity outreach program that provides minorities a NASCAR experience.
“This would help bring people from different demographics that you don’t see at the track a lot, whether they’re Hispanic, Asian or Black,” he said.
In addition to giving away free tickets, Iwuji said this program could offer a VIP tour experience that shows people around the track and garage area. This would provide them with behind-the-scenes looks, which could help provide better understanding and appreciation for the sport.
The most important thing, Iwuji said, is just getting people to the track.
“I’ve never heard anyone go to a NASCAR race and say it sucked after. The key step is just getting them there,” he said. “This experience would allow them to tell their friends, ‘Hey, this was cool, let’s go next year,’ which would further help build the sport.”
As far as diversifying NASCAR’s group of drivers, Batycki said the first step is lowering the costs of team ownership and making room for investors.
NASCAR’s Generation-7 car, set to debut at the beginning of the 2022 season, is intended to improve the aerodynamics and downforce of the car while lowering the cost of owning a race team, according to NASCAR President Steve Phelps.
In Batycki’s eyes, more available seats means more drivers can potentially compete.