Getting Inner-City Kids From Philly to Relate to NASCAR is No Easy Task

By Mike Mulhern
Updated: June 13, 2005
PHILADELPHIA, PA—Racing has always been a white man’s sport, and trying to change that thinking in a city such as Philly, well, it could be discouraging.

Anthony Martin understands that well.

“Philly is tough town, a tough town,” Martin said with a weary smile. “A tough sports town – and you can talk to Donovan McNabb about that.”

McNabb, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, has just signed with Martin to help promote his Urban Youth Racing School. In a tough-sell town such as this, a man needs all the cross-promotional help he can get.

Martin is NASCAR’s point man here in the inner city, and sometimes it seems like slow going.

Consider video-game sales, which Martin said are a good indicator of what’s going on in the inner-city market.

“NASCAR Thunder games, they don’t sell well in the urban community,” Martin said.”But you look at street-video games, like ‘Need for Speed Underground,’ racing your own vehicle on the streets, with big rims, the whole nine, they’re selling millions. Because these kids can relate.

“But NASCAR? That’s so far-fetched: ‘Man, that could never happen to me.’

“What has to happen is, kids – and this is what we’re doing, bringing kids into our program to learn to relate – getting a taste of racing on the track. And as that happens, to where NASCAR is not some far-fetched fantasy, and they start to relate and say, ‘I understand,’ then NASCAR will absolutely explode in this fan base. This whole new fan base will come in.

“But until that happens, it will be hard for that urban fan to relate to driving these NASCAR cars.”

The most obvious point would appear to be finding a NASCAR role model for that urban fan, Martin said. But he pointed to Danica Patrick and said that the key wasn’t the pre-Indy 500 hype but the fact that she actually produced.

“I believe the African-American driver who comes into NASCAR has to succeed, to really make a dent in the sport,” Martin said. “Danica, at Indy, finishing fourth, now that’s big.

“And Tiger Woods – when he came into the sport, he was successful. He wasn’t just finishing 10th or 15th.

“So you can’t have a driver come into NASCAR and just run 25th. The reaction will be ‘Pfffff!’ Nobody will care. But if he’s running top five and winning, then they’ll pay attention.

“You have to train the young kid and take him up the ranks,” Martin said, “competing, competing, competing, and then give him the proper equipment. That person needs the entire package – he’s got to be able to drive, he’s got to be flamboyant, and on top of that, he’s got to have major sponsorship and top equipment.”

Martin has been getting plenty of support from NASCAR drivers and team owners, particularly from team owners Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick. But he’s reaching out for more.

And NASCAR executives and some of stock-car racing’s biggest sponsors, who have put a heavy emphasis for four years on a marketing expansion program into minority demographics, are helping.

“Not only do we have NASCAR drivers embracing our program but other athletes, too, and that’s very, very important, because racing is very different from the NFL and the NBA, so we’re doing that crossover thing right now,” Martin said, referring to, at least, McNabb.

“….and we’re getting ready for our second magazine publication.”

As always, sponsors are crucial

There is more to all this than a tiny yellow stucco schoolhouse on North Front Street in the rugged North Liberties neighborhood. There’s also the new magazine, a glossy, high-tech piece, that is interesting because it provides feedback as to what companies are eyeing this particular marketing demographic. The key ads are from General Motors and GMAC, Enyce (a mod clothing outfitter), Sears Craftsman, X-Box, AT&T, Gillette, Audiobahn, Tagheuer, Lionhart wheels, Diablo wheels, Las Vegas’ Orleans (owned by Brendan Gaughan’s father), and Polanti watches.

Sponsorship, as everywhere in NASCAR, is a big part of Martin’s business, and those involved – as well as those conspicuously not involved – are worthy of note.

“General Motors is our biggest sponsor by far,” Martin said. “Sears, which helps with our internships. Obviously NASCAR, too. And believe it or not, X-Box, because Bill Gates loves the educational part of our program. And Joe Gibbs plays a big part, too.

“We have kids going to college now and to the NASCAR Technical Institute. When a lot of our students first came into our program they obviously came in wanting to be race drivers. But now they can see the other opportunities in the racing business.”

With NASCAR’s diversity push and the growing impact of Martin’s program, expansion into other urban markets would seem logical. And it’s coming.

But every student gets into Martin’s school without fee, which limits expansion.

“We would like to bring more students in,” Martin said. “But expansion would cost dollars, and racing is a very expensive business, with insurance and travel and everything. The costs for doing this are astronomical. We’re trying to get more sponsors involved, so we can bring more staff in and more students.

“But we’re the only urban-youth racing school in the entire country, so people know who we are in Utah, in Alaska, Oregon … And there are kids out there who say, ‘Gee, I wish we had one of these in our area.'”

Expansion of the program makes sense particularly to NASCAR promoters in difficult markets such as Los Angeles and Miami, where it still struggles. And Chicago could be ripe, too.

“We’ve been talking with Washington, D.C., Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles, about adding an UYRS in those cities,” Martin said.

The project has been his baby, so he doesn’t want to lose out in any “franchising.”

“The thing we’re proud of about our program is our quality here and our reputation,” Martin said. “And we’ve got big sponsors to consider. So when you starting talking about expanding to other cities, you ask how do I manage a program in Los Angeles if I’m here in Philadelphia? So we’ve got to find new people we can trust.

“We’ve had a lot of people approach us about wanting to do a school, because kids in other cities should be able to experience this, too, including the internships. For example, the (high-school) graduation rate in Washington, D.C., is terrible. The graduation rate in Detroit is less than 50 percent. Those cities would love to have something like this there, because, hopefully, something like this will change kids’ lives and move them in a different direction.

“You’ve got to take a kid who is a C or D student and give him the incentive to become a B or A student. He needs that opportunity.

“We’ve had kids who are borderline – in trouble, maybe with the law, or on the street, or with their families… where you can make a difference, where you can help change them. And we’ve had kids who aren’t serious, so you move on to someone else. We don’t want to waste time.

“Obviously, NASCAR is in search of an African-American coming into the series. But we’re education first, and saving lives first. And we can do that with our program.

“But these are no handouts,” Martin said. “You ask Brendan Gaughan and Rick Crawford, men who have been working with us – there are kids in our program who can really do the job.

“This is not about taking some kid from Philadelphia off the street just because you want to do something for them. This is an intense program. And as these kids get more experience, they can become successful.

“We’re getting ready to do a deal with the Philadelphia school district, and we’re talking to Drexel, Penn and Temple, who all have great engineering programs. But if you really want to become involved in the motor sports world, Charlotte is the place to be, because that’s where the teams are. So we’re trying to work with UNC Charlotte.”

Entering the pipeline

Martin is as much a recruiter for NASCAR teams as a promoter for the sport in the inner city.

“From what I’ve learned from Rick Crawford and the NASCAR guys I’ve worked with, they want to hire people they feel comfortable with,” Martin said. “They don’t have time to train people.”

Among Martin’s success stories: Cameron French, now in his third year at UNC Charlotte, Tommy Lane, now working with Ray Evernham’s Dodge group and part of Evernham’s own minority driver-development program. He’s racing at Hickory Speedway on the weekends and working fulltime at Evernham’s.

But there are certainly opportunities for young drivers in NASCAR these days, so is it time to put more pressure on NASCAR team owners to put some minorities in the cars and give them a shot?

Martin is reluctant.

“That gets back to Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske and these owners seeing a black driver coming up through the pipeline and being successful,” he said. “Seeing one drive and be successful in Midgets, for example.

“After all, how many successful black drivers can you name right now?

“But Brian Vickers and those guys were winning in other series at a younger age. They were already in the pipeline.”

But Martin also said that “There aren’t that many black drivers doing it period. You’ve got maybe one or two guys. We’ve got to show the Rick Hendricks of the world that some of these kids are successful.

“Even Tommy Lane – he’s 29 and just running Late Models. Really, Late Model guys should be 16 years old, not 29. But there aren’t that many guys to choose from.

“I remember when Bill Lester and I started out in this thing together, a CART team had a test once, for all the black drivers they could find. But Bill was beating all those other guys by two seconds. Two seconds. That’s an eternity in racing.”

Lester is the top-level black racer in NASCAR, running the Truck Series for Bill Davis. But Lester, now 44, got a late start in NASCAR, in 2000, after several years as a weekend SCCA road racer. Lester, with a BS in electrical engineering and computer science from Cal-Berkeley (1984), might be a star today if he had been in the pipeline much earlier.

“That’s the problem – there aren’t any young guys out there who have been doing this since they were eight years old,” Martin said. “The Penskes, the Hendricks, the Roushs are all facing this problem – there aren’t many black drivers out there to look at.”

And Michelle Kuilan, the UYRS operations director, said, “We don’t want to throw a kid out there just to say ‘These are black kids or Hispanic kids coming from the Urban Youth Racing School.’ That’s not the point.

“If you do things like that, you’re taking three steps backward. You’re counterproductive.

“Let’s groom a kid who is the full package – a kid who can drive, is good for sponsors, can speak well, media-trained. Let’s pick the kids who can not just drive but do the rest of it – and in a good, clean way.”