news 1 week ago

Mike Sielski: NASCAR pioneer Lenny Miller speaks about rope in Bubba Wallace's garage and Blacks' complex relationship with auto racing

The Philadelphia Inquirer — By Mike Sielski The Philadelphia Inquirer

June 27-- It has been a stormy month for NASCAR. On June 10, the association banned displays of the Confederate flag from all its racetracks. Less than two weeks later, it reported that a noose had been found in the garage of Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's only Black driver, at Talladega Speedway in Alabama, igniting an FBI hate-crime investigation and a controversy over whether a moving show of support for Wallace from his fellow drivers was built on a false premise.

Lenny Miller watched all of these developments with a perspective that few men share. A native of Lawrenceville, N.J., who as a kid raced go-karts on streets and tracks around Trenton, Miller, 58, is the former co-owner and president of the Miller Racing Group. His father, Leonard, grew up in Philadelphia's western suburbs and in 1972 founded the Black American Racers Association. The two of them became the first Black team owners to win a NASCAR race when Franklin Butler III won at Old Dominion Speedway in 2005.

I spoke with Lenny Miller on Wednesday morning by phone about Wallace, these recent incidents, and the complex relationship between Blacks and auto racing. His remarks have been edited for conciseness and clarity.

___

Because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, everyone has their heads out of the sand now. People are in the streets by the thousands now for the last 30 days. Confederate statues are coming down.

NASCAR, like the NFL and other Fortune 500 companies, has really just used a public-relations moment to look good. So NASCAR comes up with this deft PR statement so they can take advantage of the timing of this. "Hey, we want to get up to speed here, too, and we're going to ban the Confederate flag."

As for the noose incident, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that something like that would happen, but you definitely have to check it out. The way NASCAR presented it, it was like the officials knew that this was a real thing. You always investigate. You always check facts. It sounded like all of that was done, and you thought, "Here we go again." Then, when it turned out it wasn't a hate crime, I wasn't surprised at that, either. Even if it's a police issue in a small town, you have to wait for the investigation to be completed before you have a ceremony and declare victory or declare a problem or declare we need a solution. They jumped too quickly.

The big issue I have is this: The main focus should be that a Black driver or a Black team needs adequate sponsorship to compete in any level of NASCAR. Bubba Wallace's car looks pretty, but the last two or three seasons, he does not have enough sponsorship money. He's been with Richard Petty. They're probably running on 25% to a third of what they need. Bubba has a small logo on the car from McDonald's. He has the U.S. Air Force. But the dollars are not enough.

They've really been exploiting Bubba Wallace. The sponsors get good PR. NASCAR gets good PR because he's the sole Black driver. There's only been two or three Black drivers in any one decade who could compete at the top levels. But the reason you don't see more is because corporations do not want to sponsor a Black driver, and they definitely don't want to sponsor a Black-owned race team with a Black driver. They shy away from that.

The moment could be changing, but we have to wait to see what unfolds in the next 12-24 months. Is Bubba going to get more sponsorship because the timing is right in the next 30 days or even into next year? We don't know that. What has happened, from my experience over the last 20 years with corporations-and it still occurs today-is that Fortune 500 companies have come up with what they call "diversity and inclusion departments." They're just mechanisms for photo-ops that show the company's a good citizen. They don't have budgets. They take your photographs, throw them in the corporate communication, throw them in the newspaper, and that's the end of it. You're sitting there with your race car at this company, and you're grinning and smiling, and you get nothing.

If you get anything, it's a handout. NASCAR has been in decline, but you still need a good $15 million a year if you're going to be in the top five. Corporations will give you a hundred grand. There's no way to get to the top because everyone knows that it takes money to compete in that sport. It's not like a stick-and-ball sport.

Bubba came in second in the Daytona 500 two years ago. He has a chance to win it, but he doesn't have the sponsorship. It's hard to be a Black underdog in that sport. It's hard to be Rocky. Rocky can just go to the gym and punch the bag and get ready to fight to the death. But in racing, if you don't have $5 million, you can't even show up to the ring. The Confederate flag issue and the noose issue have just taken away the topic that he and NASCAR should be discussing.

From what I've seen of Bubba, he's either at his wits' end or emotionally taxed. He knows he can win those Cup races, and because he does not have enough sponsorship, he's extremely frustrated. When he was in the truck series and was coming up through the ranks, everything was going well. He was winning. He was accepted by the NASCAR industry.

Now he's at the top level, and he could win any race at any time with the proper resources, and he's not getting them. So when this Black Lives Matter movement and the Confederate flag issue came up, he became a militant overnight and put his "I Can't Breathe" shirt on. That's a good thing. You're standing up. "Hey, the Confederate flag needs to come down." All that's true. There's not anything wrong with that. But I'm not sure he would have done that two years ago or five years ago.

Some things are the same today about the sport as in the 1970s. Black interest in auto racing is very rare. Most Blacks are centered in the inner cities, and culturally, they just don't have the exposure to it. Even today, it's "Why would you want to be around NASCAR fans or people of that ilk?" Then you have the expense. It's very costly, even at the lower levels, and it's dangerous. I'm not a psychologist or sociologist to explain it at a Ph.D. level, but the risk of losing your life or getting hurt or injured doesn't grab the interest of Blacks.

A lot of Blacks have this barrier sometimes. "How would I ever win? I don't have enough money. I don't have the knowledge." And they get intimidated by the white world, especially a technical world they could actually thrive in. They shy away.

I wasn't like that as a kid. If you gravitate to a go-kart when you're 12 years old, going 60 to 80 mph with that breeze, that thrill, that noise, the smell of the fuel, you're thinking, "I don't care if I break my legs. I'm going to the front." That's how a race car driver thinks. Racing's a gritty, gladiator environment. Drivers don't care if they get killed. They're trying to win.

___

(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.