To cynics, it’s a buzzword, hollow and clichéd, the kind of thing you say because you’re expected to say it.
When NASCAR announced its 2015 Drive for Diversity class last week, however, the word really meant something.
It has nothing to do with Kyle Larson, a graduate whose supporting role to the Chase contenders last season impressed as much as any of the leads. It isn’t about Bubba Wallace or Daniel Suárez, two flashy talents now in the XFINITY Series. Nor does it pertain entirely to the 2015 class, – Devon Amos, Jay Beasley, Collin Cabre, Natalie Decker, Kenzie Ruston, and Dylan Smith – talented as they are.
It’s about those who didn’t make the cut.
Certainly, rejection has always been part of the process. When NASCAR initiated Drive for Diversity in 2004, it eliminated 13 applicants.
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The five who remained ran a broad spectrum. Bruce Driver, who turned 40 that October, spent time on the Modified Tour. Morty Buckles, 33, had a win in NASCAR-sanctioned late models. Another 33-year-old, Reggie Primus, was switching to asphalt as a competitor in Thunder Roadsters. Allison Duncan, 26, came from sports cars as varied as SCCA’s entry levels up to the Rolex 24. Joe Henderson III., the youngest participant at 19, raced legends cars.
Their résumés weren’t disqualifying. For the late model ranks, they gave the program a credible start. Still, they were no Cup-bound cast, and those turned down in 2004 were even further from stardom.
The same can’t be said this year.
Failing to advance were those like Jairo Avila, Nicole Behar, and Hannah Newhouse, three drivers who have already raced in the K&N Pro Series, each scoring top 10 finishes. In 2004, those marks would have been stretch goals for drivers in the program, not prior accomplishments.
NASCAR Mexico Series champion Abraham Calderón and his runner-up, Rubén García, Jr., did not make the final roster, either, despite beating Suárez in the standings. Their experience in a travel-heavy tour, with live television coverage, recognizable sponsors, and a playoff system added to their attractiveness.
Juan Esteban García Duarte, a champion in Colombia whose versatility made him an Irwindale race winner, and Emily Packard, a steady points-scorer on the American Canadian Tour, represented late model talents who were already triumphant in full-size cars as teenagers. Ali Kern, 21, is another late model winner, now touring in the Midwest.
Any of these drivers would have made the first Drive for Diversity lineup. They could have been its flagship talents. Now, NASCAR is in a position to pass them up.
Oddly, a program designed to create opportunities sees its greatest progress in its ability to deny them.
K&N Pro and late models, the divisions Drive for Diversity deals in, are not entry points in racing. To fill its lineup, NASCAR needs underrepresented drivers to already be racing something, somewhere, successfully.
Now, more than ever, they are. Progress is not sending alumni to Sprint Cup, as admirable of a target as that is. Progress is female and minority drivers battling in real, competitive races on their own before they ever audition.
11 years on, that’s happening. It’s happening when Packard takes a checkered flag at Devil’s Bowl Speedway. It’s happening when García runs an XFINITY Series race with his own sponsors. It’s happening when Avila’s 80% top 10 record in limited K&N running can be turned down for Ruston or Beasley’s East Series top fives.
NASCAR can take some credit for that. They’ve created a real target. They’ve given a reason for people not traditionally involved in motorsports to get started. That catalyzes progress — real, grassroots progress.
Even today, the program has its critics. Outsiders like Danica Patrick question its existence. Pioneering team owners Leonard W. and Leonard T. Miller question its legitimacy. Henderson’s father questioned how it managed his son.
It also has its milestones, not in the pool of graduates, but in the pool of candidates – especially those who got cut.