Drive for Diversity program opens doors

No "free rides" given to minorities when chosen by owners

When Chris Bristol stood in Victory Lane at Hickory Motor Speedway on April 6, 2005, nobody had ever been where he was at before.

Bristol became the first African-American driver to win a race at Hickory Motor Speedway, a track buried in Deep South racing heritage. Undaunted by the history he made, Bristol just celebrated -- "I just always wanted to run up front," he said.

But a few days later, he got an e-mail that said his celebration could be felt in more places than the rural North Carolina town.

"It was from an older black gentleman who is an executive in Corporate America," Bristol said of the message. "He grew up in Taylorsville, which is near Hickory. He said when he was a kid that he wasn't allowed in the track because he was black. So he and his buddies would go climb this tree over to the side so they could watch the races.

"In our world, we take things like that for granted. But for someone like him to share that story with me, it puts everything in perspective."

Bristol plans to stand in those shoes again, only at a higher level. And NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program may provide the steps to get there.

One of eight drivers selected for this year's Drive for Diversity class, Bristol will be driving for Nextel Cup driver Ken Schrader 's team. And Schrader's not just paying the bills.

"It's great because Ken Schrader is confident enough to put you in his car," said Bristol, who will continue his stint in the Dodge Weekly Series this season.

So confident was Schrader that after practicing for a Late Model race at Phoenix, Schrader tossed the keys to his ride to Bristol and told him to turn a few laps. It was the same car that Schrader was to run the following day.

"I was nervous because he had to race the car the next day," Bristol said. "I mean, I ran hard, but I left enough on the plate so I wouldn't be worried about messing up his ride. It was amazing that he had the confidence in me to go do that."

Perhaps it wasn't that amazing considering Bristol, who was also the first black driver to win at Caraway (N.C.) Speedway, had three victories, 12 top-fives and 14 top-10s in the Dodge Weekly Series last season while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. In pairing with Schrader this year, Bristol is committed to running 18 Late Model races, but sponsorship will dictate whether they can do more, such as ARCA or regional series races.

Filling Bristol's vacated seat at Joe Gibbs Racing -- 15-year-old Marc Davis.

Never mind that he doesn't even have his driver's license yet and is a sophomore in high school. With 11 years of racing under his belt, he's gone faster around a track than most adults twice his age. And three weeks ago, Davis and his family picked up from their Maryland home and moved to Mooresville, N.C., so the young gun could be closer to the Mecca of the racing world -- and JGR's shop.

"My dad and I always worked on cars, but the Gibbs equipment and the time they commit to the cars makes us successful," Davis said. "Driving skill is a big part of it, but to have a winning team, you have to have the resources."

Davis' desires, however, don't stop behind the wheel. In addition to his driving, the youngster owns two teams -- one in the Florida FASTkids/Fastrucks Series and a Limited Late Model team that competes at South Boston Speedway.

It's the Drive for Diversity program, he said, that will provide him the biggest opportunities in driving and learning how to manage the sport, especially at such a young age.

"To know that of the number of drivers that applied, I was among the eight selected -- that opens a huge door for me," he said.

The Nextel Cup Series is obviously the ultimate goal for drivers competing in the program, but becoming just the second black driver to win at NASCAR's highest level isn't exactly the carrot they're chasing.

"Let's say [Truck Series driver] Bill Lester lands a Cup ride for a race in 2006 and he's running up front at Talladega and wins," Bristol said. "That doesn't change my goals. My goals are to make it there."

By not placing parameters on such aspirations as breaking the Victory Lane color barrier and not competing under a be-first-or-don't-do-it attitude, Bristol understands the goal of the Drive for Diversity program, said director Bryan Kryder.

"We didn't sit down with these drivers and show them a timeline for their career," Kryder said. "There is no direct line of success. Some have taken quick paths, while for others it has taken a little longer. That's the nature of the sport in general."

Some may argue that diversity in the sport has taken long enough. But the program, Bristol said, has allowed minority drivers to do things they might not have otherwise done.

"I've been racing long before these programs were established, and I've even won some races," Bristol said. "But the biggest difference is the program has allowed me to get my foot in the door of places I would have struggled with before."

Driver Profiles

Chris Bristol is competing with Ken Schrader Racing. The Columbus, Ohio, native made history as the first African-American to win a race at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway and Caraway (N.C.) Speedway. He had three wins, 12 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 2005.

Brianne Cronrath of Fleetwood, Pa., participated in the Drive for Diversity program in 2005, competing at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va. This season she will join Spraker Racing Enterprises.

Allison Duncan will drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2006. Duncan, from San Rafael, Calif., has been with the Drive for Diversity program since its initial season in 2004. Last year she became the first Drive for Diversity participant to win a race and the first woman to win at Stockton (Calif.) 99 Speedway.

Marc Davis of Mitchellville, Md., will join Joe Gibbs Racing. In 2005 he competed at Summit Point (W.Va.) Raceway and Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway where he became the NASA Road Course points champion in the Super Unlimited Division.

Paul Harraka will compete with Spraker Racing Enterprises. The Fairlawn, N.J., native had 20 wins in the World Karting Association and Stars of Karting Series in 2005. He is a seven-time World Karting Association national champion.

Jessica Helberg of Petaluma, Calif., competed at various tracks across the West Coast in 2005, earning four top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. She will drive for drag racing icon Frank Pedregon in 2006.

Jesus Hernandez of Fresno, Calif., returns for his second season as a Drive for Diversity participant. He finished 2005 with one top-five and six top-10 finishes. He will join MB2 Motorsports in 2006.

Peter Hernandez from Blue Island, Ill., competed in the Mid-American Stock Car Series in 2005, finishing first in points with 14 top-five finishes. This season he will compete with Bill McAnally Racing.

 

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