On February 6th, NASCAR tried something off the beaten road, a new type of race for their top skilled drivers that took them back to their days of riding shorter tracks with the first ever Clash at the Coliseum. The Busch beer sponsored event was the battle of titans in racing that it was billed to be, as all of the speedsters that NASCAR fans love were there tearing up the asphalt track for 150 laps at Los Angeles’ Olympic Coliseum.
The national televised event premiered on the FOX network and boasted the heavy-hitting entertainment line-up of Latin superstar Pitbull for the beginning of the race and Hip-Hop legend Ice Cube for the intermission. Both acts tore up the stage right under the coliseum’s famous flame glowing torch. But the other heat makers were on the track, ripping into the corners of the shortened speedway. Yet, the day was a long one to get to the finish-line of the history making festivities.
First, at the morning meet up, NASCAR had participating journalists gather at the track’s entry point to ride shotgun with former circuit driver and manager of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Jusan Hamilton. He also happens to be the first African-American race director to call the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20th 2022. What he did that morning (Feb. 6th 2020) was take excited media folks around the track at 50-70mph in powered up Toyotas. His easy smile and joy of explaining the race style while whipping the wheel came across in his casual but blazing spin around the track, “They’ll do this for 150 laps, a quarter-mile of race track, they’ll can get around here in 15-secs…23 cars out here, bumper to bumper. You’ll feel the rumble. It’s a contact sport. We’re going like 50-60mph, they’ll be going like 90mph. We went pretty quick with a stock Camry.”
— Jusan Hamilton (@JusanHamilton) February 7, 2022
Hamilton is a rare one in this position, for the Daytona 500, he’ll be only the third person to call the race since 1988. As race director he’ll be in charge of making all the restarts on point, along with calling the cautions and score penalties. He will be THE man of the hours that the lauded race will go down at in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Yet, the guy that continues to have all eyes on him is the young O.G., Bubba Wallace. He had some upbeat words about the historic job that Hamilton has, telling NASCAR’s official website, “I think it’s incredible, so congrats to him…I have no idea [about] that path and what it takes, but having that relationship with him and seeing how much he wants to push the sport for the better and seeing him being able to call the race for the Daytona 500 is special.”
The other thing that is special is how Wallace is such a cool guy for someone that is the main face for people of color, mainly Blacks, as the entry point for a sport that African-Americans have traditionally been minor in the sport’s branding. At the Clash at the Coliseum press conference, Wallace expounded on the importance of having fun in the new race format (“It’s exciting, like the Summertime Shootout and legend cars.”) and how it would draw in new fans to the sport. It was reported that over 70% of the ticket holders to the event were new to racing. He was also very excited about the musical performances that were on deck for the afternoon, “Now that’s the questions I like! I’m excited. I got to talk to Cube last night for his soundcheck. Excited to have him back in our sport. Then Pitbull, being around him at the track house was super cool, for the sport and fanbase. They bring in a different perspective too. They’ve done a lot of exciting things for [Pitbull’s] race team.”
While so many firsts were kicked off during the Clash at the Coliseum, there were those that helped the day come to be. One person in particular who continues to champion progressive change within the organization is Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion, Brandon M. Thompson. A 10-year vet at NASCAR, working his way up from Manager of Racing Operations to VP, he has seen and helped usher the kind of shift that is happening at the racing giant. “We feel like it’s our super power, getting people to the race track and change the perception. Unfortunately, because of some of the preconceived notions that people have about the sport over the years…9 times out of 10, when we get people to the track, their perceptions change. While everyone might not leave as a fan, people leave with a different respect for what’s going on. That is now an easy entree into fandom, as you now know what’s going on.”
Thompson believes that the racing climate is undergoing a shift, just like in society, “what this venue and what this race represents overall: you have a NASCAR race with the city scape of L.A. in the background. It doesn’t get more sexy than that. [Pitbull and Ice Cube performing] and we have a who’s who of guests coming through.” Even with the celeb fan fare, it’s not lost on Thompson how much more needs to be done to get the sport and diversity on the right track, “It has been a road to get here. I got in the sport in 2003, seeing it evolve to this point is huge. What this race means in that journey is another significant milestone. I try to tell people that, no doubt was 2020 a landmark moment in time for the sport, but none of that could have happened without the foundation of the Diversity Internship program [started] in 2000. Nowhere else had that at the time and no one needed it like we did at the time. That’s one of the things I feel NASCAR doesn’t get enough credit for, there was recognition before it was the popular thing. All of the ground work from back then, made us ready for 2020.”
Getting the word out that African-Americans have stake in the sport of racing is a tough go. Yet, those in the know will call out NBA Hall of Famer, Magic Johnson in being an early owner and supporter of the sport and now Michael Jordan (who signed Bubba Wallace to his 23XI Racing team) is an owner as well. One of MJ’s team in Director of Partnership Management, Kreig Robinson at 23XI Racing is another rare longtime Black motor sports executive who has climbed the ranks and sees the industry changing for the better. While walking through the crowd of revelers Robinson tells his timeline in the speed life, “I’ve always been into racing since the late 90s. Started off in drag racing. I got a chance to meet Michael [Jordan] up at Laguna Seca [a raceway in Salinas, California], we struck up a conversation. He was starting up a motorcycle race team. I ran the sponsorship division for that team for about ten years. Then when he started [23XI] we connected again and here we are with Bubba Wallace and now Kurt Busch.”
Robinson continues, “I worked for Red Bull energy drink. That was my big exposure. Growing up, we were into drag racing. So it was one of those things where I never imagined being apart of anything like this…NASCAR, Indy Car. You see it on TV, but you never thought you’d be here. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri…it’s not that sort of thing. There were tracks around, but we didn’t feel comfortable leaving St. Louis to check that sort of thing out.” And as for working with the one Air Jordan, “Man, it’s tough [he wants excellence], so you don’t want to be the guy that drops the ball. It’s an amazing opportunity, he’s giving us an opportunity to do stuff like this. Invest in a program like this and bring diversity to the sport, it’s amazing.”
The big part that gets overlooked in the push for diversity around racing as a whole, is the huge lanes for sponsorship. Jordan’s team is flanked in McDonalds and Doordash signs. Bubba Wallace even has deals with clothing brand Columbia and documentaries on Netflix. There is gold in those curvy tracks and if it’s shiny and worth some bucks you better believe guys like boxing icon Floyd “Money” Mayweather’s ears are ringing to invest.
Yes, The Money Racing Team will be in full go mode on this Daytona 500 race day. Barely making it in, but they are in and ready to win. You have to respect the grit that it takes to start in a sport that is unfamiliar and unforgiving to your previous legend status in another arena. Everything is earned and the way that NASCAR is opening up to new ideas and teams (like Giselle Zarur of FOX Deportes being the first female pit reporter for the Great American Race) and people all they can do is sit back and enjoy the ride of more change, the merrier.