Nascar Turns to BET to Boost Minorities

A few clicks on the Web site of Black Entertainment Television leads viewers to a short Nascar tutorial filled with information about popular drivers, racetracks and salaries.

It may seem odd to find a sport so closely tied to white Southern men featured on a Web site devoted to African-American entertainment, but it represents Nascar’s latest attempt to build a following for minority drivers it hopes to develop into stars.

Nascar is behind a new reality television series on BET, “Changing Lanes,” that will make its debut at 8 on Wednesday night. A field of 30 minority drivers will be narrowed to 10, who will live together for a month as they compete on the track and prepare in the classroom for the chance to race in a high-profile event and ultimately succeed in Nascar.

The series is the brainchild of Max Siegel, a former music industry executive and global president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., who became involved with Nascar’s diversity effort in 2003 when the Hall of Fame football player Reggie White tried to start a minority-based race team. White died in 2004 before seeing his dream come true, but the effort to draw minorities has continued.

Nascar has spent seven years on its Drive for Diversity program, which has struggled to add minorities to the mainstream of the sport. No driver from that initiative has made it full time in the upper-level Cup, Nationwide or Truck Series level.

Siegel, who is African-American, took control of Nascar’s diversity effort this year.

“One of the things that’s pretty much fascinated me with respect to awareness and brand building was the formula for ‘American Idol,’ ” Siegel said Monday in a telephone interview. “By the time their records came out, went to market, the singers had a built-in fan base.”

“Changing Lanes” not only seeks to build a fan base for minority drivers, but also to give sponsors reason to support them.

“What really struck me as a huge impediment to be able to get corporate sponsorship was, no matter talented these athletes were, no one knew who they were,” Siegel said. “There was limited TV for the development series and, quite frankly, there was no media platform to justify an investment.”

He added: “These athletes are young and they’re world-class athletes. So now we’re giving the people who want to make the marketing investment something they can get a return on their money from.”

Siegel said he had signed up sponsors including Sunoco, Freightliner and Goodyear and expected to name others in the coming months.

In addition to his involvement with “Changing Lanes,” Siegel operates the Revolution Racing team. It trains and features some of the Drive for Diversity drivers who appeared on the show.

Several of the series’ participants — who include African-Americans, Hispanics and women — have gone on to stellar performances on the track this season.

One of them, Paulie Harraka, 20, of Wayne, N.J., is third in points with one victory in the lower-level K&N Pro Series West and made a significant breakthrough with his Nationwide Series debut on Sunday in a race in Montreal.

“I’ve done a lot of live TV and live radio and all kinds of stuff like that,” said Harraka, who is a junior at Duke. “That was nothing like being on a reality show.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it comes out. I think it’ll be pretty cool.”

Could “Changing Lanes” be what finally helps integrate the sport? Nascar can only hope.

“Not only will it allow us to tell the story of the Drive for Diversity program,” said Marcus Jadotte, the managing director of public affairs for Nascar, who oversees the sport’s diversity efforts, “but it will be for many an introduction to the sport and that is important for growing Nascar audiences but also important for encouraging young people, kids, to get involved in and take an interest in motorsports.”

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