Chris Bristol's parents gave their son more than a name. A passion for auto racing passed from one generation to the next. The family attended Indy car, sports car, short-track and drag races when they lived in Columbus, Ohio.
``My first memory was (from when) I was at a race track,' says Bristol, 23, a Greensboro resident and N.C. A&T graduate. Racing ``is something I always wanted to do and always believed that I could do.'Following that goal is tough for anyone; it can be more difficult for an African American such as Bristol.
``You go to Charlotte Motor Speedway, and you see 500 rebel flags flying in the air,' he says. ``It's like 'Whoa, am I really wanted here?' '
In Winston Cup, there are no minority drivers, one minority car owner whose teams run the full schedule and less than a half-dozen minority crew members. White fans fill the grandstands, and they will do so again today and Sunday at races at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord.
``Racing worldwide has been a white man's sport,' says Cuban Felix Sabates, who owns two full-time NASCAR Winston Cup teams. ``It has never been a black sport.'
Some would like to see change in NASCAR, for the sport to better mirror the American population and for minorities to have better chances to compete. Bristol is one, and so is Charles S. Farrell, director of Rainbow Sports, a division of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Farrell says the NASCAR Winston Cup Series needs minority drivers, crew members and owners to attract potential fans who have been ignored.
NASCAR's response, meanwhile, has been to create a diversity council and a minority internship program. NASCAR says other plans are forthcoming but won't say what they are.
``For a long time, we've said we want everybody to be a NASCAR fan, and we still say that, so we didn't market to any particular group; we just marketed the sport,' says Kevin Triplett, NASCAR's director of operations. ``In a way, as late as a couple of years ago, we realized it's more of an awareness issue.'
Bristol drove for N.C. A&T's racing team and competed against other college drivers in Legends cars, five-eighths-scale versions of early NASCAR racers. Since June, the mechanical engineering graduate has competed at Concord Motorsport Park in the street-stock class, a level below the track's top division.
Until two years ago, race and racing had never been an issue to Bristol. But it's a question minorities ask, even while the sport grows without much minority involvement. Television ratings have increased every year in the 1990s. No other professional sport in the United States matches that success. Retail sales of NASCAR-related souvenirs reached $80 million in 1990 and are projected to exceed $2 billion next year. Attendance for practice, qualifying and races has increased from 3.6 million in 1992 to 6.3 million last year.
Farrell says African Americans use the products of team and race sponsors, but he sees little return.
``In many aspects,' he says, ``we support motorsports, and motorsports does not support us.'
Winston Cup, 51 years old, has not had an African American driver since Willy T. Ribbs competed in three races in 1986. African Americans competed for the first time this year in NASCAR's Busch Grand National Division and Craftsman Truck Series, considered training grounds for the big-league series.
But no African American has raced full-time in Winston Cup since Wendell Scott retired in 1973. No Hispanic has driven in the series in more than 25 years. No Asian has raced in the series full-time.
``If there is a Caucasian person that doesn't want me here, that's their problem,' says African American Bob Kersee, who, with wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee, will be part owners of a Grand National or Winston Cup team next season. ``If there is a black person that doesn't believe I should be here, that's their problem.
``My job is to show that regardless of the color of my skin ... that I can survive in this sport if you give me an opportunity and don't put roadblocks up in front of me.'
'A START' FOR NASCAR
Brian France, the grandson of NASCAR's founder and the sport's senior vice president, represented NASCAR at the Rainbow/PUSH Conference on Sports in Washington, D.C., during the summer.
It was there that France announced NASCAR's minority programs. Days later, series officials were investigating a racial incident. A white motorcoach driver wore a hood similar to that used by a white supremacist group and directed the action toward an African American crew member July 7 at the Winston Cup track in Loudon, N.H.
The white motorcoach driver was fired by driver Derrike Cope and suspended indefinitely by NASCAR. Another white motorcoach driver was fired after the incident and also indefinitely suspended by NASCAR.
``For people who know NASCAR as a mostly white sport, it just reinforces that racism ... is just more open in NASCAR than in other forms of racing,' says N.C. A&T junior Soron Foster, an African American from Wilson who is a member of the school's racing team.
France did not return phone calls. Triplett, the operations director, acknowledges that perception is reality to many people.
``The responsibility that is on us right now is to make people aware that despite the immediate perception you may get by glancing around and not seeing many African Americans, that does not mean they are not welcome,' says Triplett, who oversees day-to-day operations of the Winston Cup, Grand National and Craftsman Truck series.
``The thing is that we've realized that over the past few years that marketing to the public in general, while there is nothing wrong with it, it's also not proactive to increasing awareness,' Triplett says.
NASCAR plans to have its diversity council set by the end of the year. Triplett said the council would include minority representation and people from NASCAR and the racing industry. The council's intent is to help NASCAR ``look into opportunities to market the sport in different areas,' Triplett says.
NASCAR will include the minority internship program for departments that have interns in its Daytona Beach, Fla., and Charlotte offices. NASCAR also has examined expanding an inner-city program nationwide that started in Philadelphia and is funded by Grand National car owner Ed Rensi. Each Saturday about 30 inner-city children are taken to a go-kart track to learn about the sport and drive.
``The biggest mistake that we could make is to think we can't do anything better than what we're doing,' Triplett says.
Are the programs enough?
``It is a start,' Farrell says. ``You can't fault somebody for taking that first step.'
Bristol says more steps are needed, based on experiences African American friends have had when he took them to a NASCAR race.
``They're like, 'Wow! Television really doesn't do (racing) justice,' ' Bristol says. ``They really enjoyed it, but they still wouldn't go back because of the environment and climate. It just makes blacks uncomfortable to be in an area of 80,000 people with 600 or 700 rebel flags flying around.'
One step Farrell wants NASCAR to take is to prevent the independent merchants who sell licensed souvenirs from selling rebel flags.
``This weighs on NASCAR's integrity and NASCAR's credibility,' Farrell says.
Championship Auto Racing Teams, one of two organizations that sanction the highest form of open-wheel racing in the United States, has started an African American Driver Development Program. NASCAR has no such program.
``If (we) only concentrate on a driver, you're greatly narrowing your scope of opportunity,' Triplett says. ``There's a lot of opportunity. What we can do is provide that opportunity by hopefully running this sport properly. We don't tell owners what drivers to choose. We don't tell sponsors what owners to pick.'
Bruce Driver agrees. Driver became the first African American to drive in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series last month at Richmond International Raceway.
``People seem to want to blame NASCAR for minorities not being in the sport,' says Driver, who drives a NASCAR Featherlite Modified, which is an open-wheel car with an enclosed cockpit. ``It's not NASCAR's fault. It's open if you want to make the sacrifice to do it. There are opportunities.'
In the CART African American Driver Development Program, as many as three qualified African American drivers will have a test session in a Toyota Atlantic car, an open-wheel car with a top speed of 160 mph. If a driver shows enough skill, a second test will be given in an Indy Lights Car, an open-wheel car with a top speed of 190 mph. David Francis Jr., 26, of south central Los Angeles and Andrew Kelley, 26, of Hilliard, Ohio, will test this year.
``Inner-city kids need to know that racing offers a viable career opportunity for them,' Kelley says.
Mike Vazquez, a South Florida real estate developer who is trying to form a Hispanic racing team, says that once the white audience is reached, the sport will have to look at minorities.
Dr. Janie Brown, who teaches a class titled ``The Business of NASCAR' at Elon College, says that economics is not motivating NASCAR's interest in minorities.
``I think it's probably not necessarily an economic question for them, but I think it's good politically,' says Brown, whose class examines NASCAR's actions off the track from marketing, management and the organization's history. ``I think the people who do marketing for NASCAR are smart enough. They need to be aware that there is a population out there that has not been touched at all.'
Ribbs, who returned to racing in an Indy Racing League open-wheel event at Las Vegas on Sept. 26, also sees the sport out of touch.
``When it (racing) becomes a big-league sport is when it looks like America,' Ribbs says.
The white population is expected to be 71 percent of the nation's 276 million residents by July 2001, U.S. Bureau of the Census projections show. African Americans will comprise about 12 percent and Hispanics about 11 percent.
Vazquez and partner Rudy Rodriguez have formed Hispanic Racing Team Motorsports with the goal of bringing Hispanic corporations and fans into NASCAR. The team, which is working with Winston Cup and Grand National car owner Larry Hedrick, hopes to have a Hispanic driver next year to compete in the Grand National series, which is a level below the Winston Cup Series.
``We're just trying to diversify and give (NASCAR) the same face the American population is taking,' Vazquez says. ``The fans that will be supporting our team also will support Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon and everyone else.'
Vazquez and Rodriguez plan to test Jaime Guerrero, a native of Colombia and the brother of Indy car racer Roberto Guerrero, this month. Sabates had Jaime Morales of Mexico City drive more than 100 laps in a test session at Martinsville on Sept. 14. Morales will test Oct. 20 at Memphis Motorsports Park, and if that goes well, he will attempt to qualify for the Grand National race there Oct. 31. In addition, Bill Lester became the first African American to compete in the Grand National series, which started in 1982, when he drove at Watkins Glen on June 27.
Many believe minority drivers will bring in more minority fans as has happened in golf with Tiger Woods and in tennis with sisters Serena and Venus Williams. The sisters gained more notice by both reaching the semifinals in women's singles in last month's U.S. Open. Serena Williams won the title.
``We definitely have a large impact,' Venus Williams said at the U.S. Open. ``Before, you never saw that many black people at a tennis match. People are watching what Serena and I do.'
Many also watch Woods. The National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla., estimated that there were 431,000 African American golfers in 1991. That number had more than doubled to 882,000 African American golfers by last year.
``Tiger Woods has been the impetus for those programs to increase,' says Judy Thompson, a spokeswoman for the National Golf Foundation.
Chris Bristol would like to be the Tiger Woods of auto racing. He knows it won't be easy.
``Chances are none of us will ever make it,' he says of fellow short-track competitors.
Bristol has learned that the toughest part of being a new driver is not learning how to race but finding sponsorship to help pay the costs of racing.
``I've been told 'no' a lot of times when I was trying to get some money to get down there at Concord and race,' he says. ``I think a lot of big-time companies may feel like they don't necessarily need to sponsor a black driver or a black team because economically they're getting a lot of dollars from the black community.
``Just like you have to wash your clothes, a black person has to wash their clothes, too. Whether or not this company sponsors a black driver, most cases, black people are still going to go to the store and buy those same products.'
Even if Bristol races on only short tracks in North Carolina, he could inspire younger African Americans to follow him. Bristol once saw Ribbs drive in a street race in Columbus, Ohio. Bristol, who wrote an elementary school report about wanting to be a race car driver, knew his hopes could be achieved when he saw Ribbs.
``Wow!' Bristol thought. ``He's black. Maybe I could do that, too.'