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NASCAR's intern program aids diversity effort

Students, graduates from around the country get internships as stock car racing company tries to broaden its appeal.

- Special to the Charlotte Observer
Sunday, Jul. 05, 2009

Courtney McKnight admits it: Until she entered NASCAR's Diversity Internship Program, she had little knowledge of auto racing and even less interest in it.

The Johnson C. Smith University student had heard of the Earnhardt family, of course, and Jeff Gordon. But the sport itself? It was people driving in circles. She had an older friend, though, a fellow student who worked in the internship program last year. The friend recommended her.

So this summer, having graduated from Johnson C. Smith in May with a marketing degree, McKnight finds herself working for The 909 Group, a Huntersville marketing firm that promotes NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. (The firm's CEO, Max Siegel, a former Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive, was the highest-ranking African American executive in NASCAR.)

It's an appropriate fit. The initiative tries to develop minority and female drivers and pit crew members in an effort to – as officials put it – make NASCAR look more like America.

In the process, it's drawing people like McKnight, 21, a football fan who attended her first race in May and began to realize there was more to it than people driving fast.

“I'm not quite at the enthusiast stage, but I'm definitely getting there,” she said. “I've been reading ‘NASCAR for Dummies.'

“It's much more complex than people think it is, and for me, complexity makes a sport interesting.”

Which is not to ignore the effect of cars driving fast. “When you're watching it on TV, you don't realize how fast the cars are really going,” McKnight said. “I'd never seen a car move that fast in my life, and I thought that was super cool.”

In its 10th year, the internship program accepted 12 other students and graduates from around the country. They include De'Marcus Miller, a 29-year-old Charlotte native and Olympic High graduate who's working at another Huntersville marketing firm, Octagon Inc.

“I never did think I'd be working in NASCAR. I thought it was a boring sport,” said Miller, whose internship is his final requirement for a master's in sports studies at High Point University. “But I started to appreciate the strategy. It's a very strategic sport, and you have to be at a race to understand it …

“If the opportunity presents itself, I would love to work for NASCAR.”

The program is part of a larger initiative to broaden NASCAR's appeal that appears to be working, albeit slowly. NASCAR hasn't traditionally attracted minority fans, much less employees.

But the Daytona Beach, Fla.-based company's latest research indicates that 9 percent of NASCAR fans are African American, compared with 6 percent in 2001; women make up about 40 percent of the fan base. About 200 minority students and graduates have gone through the internship program, and about 10 percent of those have found jobs with NASCAR.

“We know we have, as is the case in every business, work to do,” said Marcus Jadotte, who oversees the internship program as NASCAR's managing director of public affairs; Jadotte is African American. “What we've learned over the last 10 years is that when we have a chance to introduce the sport to a new audience, we attract new fans.

“Clearly, any observer can see that the face of the sport on pit road, in NASCAR offices, is certainly more diverse.”

The program doesn't just reach out to African Americans. Kris Rincon, 21, is working in NASCAR's licensing department this summer, helping with bids and contract renewals.

He literally has a front-row view of NASCAR's transformation. Rincon works in the new NASCAR office building at Stonewall and Brevard streets, next to the unfinished NASCAR Hall of Fame. The building opened just last month, and workers were still installing wiring as he spoke.

Rincon, a business management and marketing major at the University of Arizona, is from the Los Angeles area. But his father is the son of an immigrant from Colombia – “Colombia, South America, not Columbia, S.C.,” he said, and his father is an avid NASCAR fan who's taken his son to races since he was a child. “It's undoubtedly growing in its minority fan base,” Rincon said, “and this program provides the perfect opportunity.”

All three said they're not necessarily committed to working in NASCAR – they'll go after whatever opportunity seems best – but would gladly work in the industry.

“I think it's a great thing that they're expanding into women and minorities being involved,” McKnight said. “I'm confident NASCAR will do a good job, because they're doing all the right things to get there. I'm having fun with it. There's a lot to do, and I'm learning a lot from the company …

“If NASCAR offered me a job, I would jump up in the air and click my heels together.”

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