Rod Cox of Hendrick Motorsports preps tires before the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Courtesy of Corey D. Smith)

Morehouse Students Find New Experience in NASCAR

HAMPTON, Ga. –There was nothing but sunshine and clear blue skies at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Feb. 24, and being at the NASCAR Xfinity Series Rinnai 250 that day allowed me to become a kid all over again just for a few hours.

It was my first time at a NASCAR race, and initially, I was nervous that I would regret coming. I knew going from a majority black campus at Morehouse College to the majority white environment of NASCAR would be a total culture shock. However, when I walked down pit road and saw the people shuffling around with engines roaring and cars zooming in and out of garage doors, all of those preconceived notions went away.

Thanks to the NASCAR Multicultural Development department, our experience as Morehouse College journalism students was tailored to highlight the different black figures who are essential to the races. They did an outstanding job of dispelling the myth that the only black people at NASCAR races are the people who direct you to your parking spot.

We witnessed several black pit crew members, including Brehanna Daniels, the first African-American female to go over the wall in a NASCAR national series race, and a product of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program. Drive for Diversity pit crew member Dion “Rocko Slaw” Williams candidly told our tour group “Anybody you see who’s black is probably with us.”

It was refreshing to see young black men and women being such a vital part of the race. Without the pit crew, the race would be a disaster.

“Even if you don’t find a passion in NASCAR today, you’ll find an experience.”

After the national anthem, Drive for Diversity coach Phil Horton talked to us about the exercise that drivers have to do. Much like other athletes, NASCAR drivers do cardio and core strengthening exercises that help them better regulate their heart rates as they zoom at speeds up to 190 mph around the track.

“They’re not riding around the track with their hearts beating fast,” Horton said. “It’s like they’re sitting at home in a recliner.”

To me, NASCAR seems like a hub for new beginnings for African-Americans. Every black person we met came to NASCAR from other careers. Horton was an accomplished athletic trainer with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, Williams was a professional football player with the Minnesota Vikings, and even the Vice President and Chief Security Officer at NASCAR, Christopher Davis, transitioned from professional football to the FBI and now to NASCAR.

Before the race Davis told our group this: “Even if you don’t find a passion in NASCAR today, you’ll find an experience.”

He couldn’t have been any more right. Attending a NASCAR race was one of the best experiences that I’ve had so far in my three years here in Atlanta.

Emmanuel Johnson is a Morehouse College junior Sociology major/Journalism and Sports minor from Durham, N.C.