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Haley heirs put down some Roots in racing

Tar Heel Tattler – January 2004

Haley heirs put down some Roots in racing
By Chris Richter

The hoopla greeting the news of a wholly black-owned NASCAR team might have obscured a key fact: Don’t expect change anytime soon in the lily-white roster of drivers in the sport’s top tier. That’s despite the intentions of the new team and of at least two affirmative-action efforts.

Alex Haley Racing — which will be co-owned by the estate of the author of Roots and by Sam Belnavis, majority owner of BelCar Racing — will be based in Concord. Startup costs for a NASCAR team run between $8 million and $10 million, but the estate isn’t saying how much it’s investing.

While Haley was never a racing fan, the writer’s heirs view the investment as good business and as a way to open motorsports to more blacks, says Bill Bryant, a partner in Empire Sports Group, a Charlotte venture-capital firm working with the estate. And that’s good for racing. Think Tiger Woods in golf or Serena and Venus Williams in tennis.

Mark Howell, author of From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, says the sport doesn’t deserve the redneck image that hounds it. A 2003 survey by New York-based Scarborough Research backs him up: About 9% of U.S. fans are black. But the highest level at which a black driver competed last season was the minor-league truck series.

Companies typically pay $10 million to $15 million a season for primary sponsorship of a Nextel Cup car. Because the stakes are so high, sponsors look for proven performers. The Haley team, which is expected to hire a white driver for 2004, hopes to shepherd a black driver up through the ranks of NASCAR. The racing organization is doing the same thing, as is a partnership of NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs and former pro football star Reggie White, a race fan. If any of the efforts produces a black driver in the Nextel Cup series, NASCAR would almost certainly enjoy a spike in interest.

But a mediocre black driver who’s more curiosity than competitor — NASCAR’s been down that road with Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 — won’t sustain new fans. The key colors are the black and white of the checkered flag waved at the finish line. “The fans just want to see someone who can drive,” Howell says.

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