Racial issues are often a touchy subject. Not just in the NASCAR world but in society in general. During its 51 year history, the NASCAR series has largely been devoid of minority drivers. In recent years, NASCAR has acknowledged the subject and has taken steps to further opportunities for minorities.
Wendell Scott has been the only black driver to ever win a race. A few others have tried but to no avail. In 1998, former NFL running back Joe Washington and NBA Hall of Famer Julius Erving teamed up to form a race team. With sponsorship from Dr. Pepper they began competing on the Busch circuit in 1999. They have had minimal success with the fledgling operation. But success is a gradual process. It doesn't happen overnight.
Carlos Contreras became the first Mexican born driver in NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series when he started the final race of the 1999 season. His 14th place finish turned some heads and he started the 2000 season with a 13th place effort at Daytona. Though his season has had its ups and downs, he's proven himself capable of racing in the series. Contreras was a Mustang series champion in Mexico before venturing north. He hasn't come close to victory lane yet, but he's made progress.
Minorities have been making in-roads with NASCAR competitors and fans alike. Sadly, that was overshadowed by one driver in a lower NASCAR series making an unsubstantiated claim and erroneous remarks. During the truck series weekend at Pikes Peak, a driver with a motorcycle and drag racing background told anyone who would listen that NASCAR barred him from qualifying and then physically removed him from the track premises. Every major newspaper in the country picked up the story. Why did an unknown driver with virtually no stock car experience make headlines? One reason: Bobby Norfleet is black.
NASCAR has an approval process for drivers. Before allowing them to race on the larger oval at high speeds, a driver must prove themselves in a stock car on shorter tracks. Norfleet's first attempt at the truck series came at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway where he failed to qualify. When the truck series went to the Portland road course, Norfleet made the race. Not based on speed (he was 17 miles per hour slower than the pole speed) but because he HAD to make it. The entry form called for a 34 truck starting field. Only 33 trucks showed up. During the first half of the event, Norfleet was black flagged three times for a lack of speed.
Racing with limited sponsorship is tough on any team. When Norfleet told NASCAR about his sponsorship difficulties, the governing body acted. NASCAR Vice President Brian France called a number of companies that had expressed interest in sponsoring a NASCAR team. France had gone as far as to fly executives from companies in to meet with Norfleet.
After the Portland black flag debacle, Norfleet showed up to qualify at the Pikes Peak one-mile oval. However, NASCAR had only cleared him to compete on road courses and tracks three-quarters of a mile or less. Despite not being on the entry list, Norfleet claimed he had a right to qualify. Norfleet had not proven that he could hold his own on the smaller tracks. He had not proven he could handle a stock car in race traffic. He had not proven anything. Steve Prescott was in a similar situation to Norfleet. He wanted to race on the larger tracks, but NASCAR also denied his entry at Pikes Peak because he had not exhibited proficiency at the lower level. What did Prescott do? He packed up his equipment and headed to the next short track to try and qualify.
The longstanding NASCAR rule of licensing applies to everyone. Before NASCAR would allow Kyle Petty to step up to Winston Cup competition, he had to run an ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway to prove he could handle it. It doesn't matter if you're the son of "The King" or a motorcycle racer trying to make the crossover. But Norfleet would hear none of it. He called it a racial issue. Before Pikes Peak, Bobby Norfleet was just another struggling driver trying to make a race. After Pikes Peak, he became a household name... if only for a moment. A national activist group staged a demonstration outside of NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida in support of Norfleet. Without even knowing the facts, the activist group took up his cause. The national media picked up on the story. Some news outlets edited the story down to the basic line of Norfleet being denied a chance to qualify without detailing NASCAR's policies. The governing body has come under fire in recent years for its lack of minority involvement. To a degree, NASCAR has acknowledged the situation and has spearheaded initiatives to open new doors to minorities in the sport. NASCAR might not have the best track record on the subject, but in this case the governing body's actions must be defended.
Norfleet specifically targeted Ricky Hendrick as a driver with limited experience being allowed to compete at the Pikes Peak truck race. The unfortunate part of Norfleet's claim is that he didn't look at the facts. Hendrick has had a successful few years in the Late Model series picking up a number of victories. He posted a 20th place finish in his Busch series debut at the Myrtle Beach short track in 1999 and was then licensed to race at tracks larger than one-mile. He qualified for the October 1999 race at Rockingham and was running competitively before a wreck ended his day. Hendrick had proven he could race at the NASCAR level. At the Pikes Peak truck race, Hendrick finished a strong 6th. What has Norfleet proven at the NASCAR level? He has proven that he can barely get out of the way when the leaders come up to lap him. Pikes Peak International Raceway claims that after being informed he was ineligible to qualify, Norfleet left the garage area. The driver claims that armed guards forced him out. Two different stories. But one comes from an individual who has distorted the facts.
Amid the controversy, Norfleet attempted to qualify for the truck series race at 5/8-mile Evergreen Speedway in Washington. Once again, he was too slow to make the race. Maybe deep down Bobby Norfleet knew he hadn't proven himself on the shorter tracks to warrant a step up. Maybe he thought that he needed some media attention to get a sponsor. Maybe he thought that playing the race card was a chance to get some recognition. Or maybe he just didn't think at all.
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