Brandon Thompson fully concedes that other than knowing who seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt was or the racing successes of his fellow Tennesseans Sterling Marlin and Bobby Hamilton, he had not followed the sport of NASCAR early in his life.
And that’s despite growing up a couple miles away from "America’s Favorite Short Track," Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway.
Fast-forward a couple decades, a college education and an opportunity through NASCAR’s Diversity Internship Program and Thompson is now a NASCAR executive – a bright star and one of the original and highly thriving participants from the respected internship program.
"When I did my internship and got into this sport, I did not have a plan,” Thompson conceded. "I did not have any real prior knowledge of the sport other than I’m from Nashville and I think everyone had probably heard of Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.
"Other than knowing their names I don’t know that I had ever seen them, that was my very limited knowledge of the sport until I showed up at Nashville Superspeedway in 2003. I needed an internship to get back (home) to Nashville for that summer and for college credit.
"And I ended up falling in love with the sport.”
So much so that Thompson never left. And now, 14 years after graduating from Clark Atlanta University and completing two internships with NASCAR, he is a respected managing director in the sport, having worked up through the ranks from an account executive and operations manager to his senior level position helping run the sport’s hugely popular Touring Series.
It’s been not only a fantastic opportunity for Thompson, but his story has truly paved the way for all the interns that have followed.
"There’s definitely a certain pride in being a ground-breaker,” said Thompson, who is African-American.
It’s a similar feeling for current NASCAR intern Jorge Jones, a graduate program student who is currently serving his third internship in the sport.
Jones can hardly contain his enthusiasm speaking about his time in the organization from working in Charlotte with REV Racing two years ago, to his current role in the Hispanic and Youth Marketing division.
He smiles widely, gestures and generates such a positive vibe discussing his opportunities while at NASCAR. And just as important for him, envisioning the possibilities that lay ahead.
Unlike Thompson, Jones, 25, has been a lifelong NASCAR diehard fan. The San Antonio native is the nephew of popular NASCAR driver Carlos Contreras, who is the first Mexican driver to ever compete fulltime in the sport. Both men truly blazing trails.
Ask Jones about NASCAR and his memory automatically falls back to watching his uncle compete in the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the Daytona International Speedway high banks in 2000, when Jones was only seven years old.
"That was my very first NASCAR experience and ever since then I just fell in love with the sport,” Jones said smiling.
NASCAR’s annual Diversity Internship Program has been a success and after 18 years, now claims dozens of stories like Thompson’s and Jones’. Opportunity has resulted in thriving careers.
The NDIP (as the internship program is referred to) includes a 10-week paid work assignment with positions industry-wide, including one of NASCAR’s offices as well as at tracks and partner organizations. The initial orientation typically occurs during the sport’s glitzy and exciting All-Star Week in Charlotte, where the intern class is treated to behind-the-scenes access in a one-of-a-kind welcome.
"It’s an absolutely amazing experience,” Jones says of the orientation weekends. "I had gone to races before but I had never gone to all the behind-the-scenes access. The second year, I was actually standing in Victory Lane with Kyle Busch.”
Jones is quick to add that the program isn’t just about the bright lights and race nights, however. It is broad and intensive. There are positions available throughout the industry from working for the NASCAR Foundation to working at one of the sport’s race tracks like Talladega Superspeedway or Chicagoland Speedway to time at a race team such as Roush Fenway Racing or a spot in the NASCAR Weekly & Touring division that former intern Thompson now oversees.
"Not everyone may have been a big fan like myself and may not know much about the sport, it really just helps to get your feet wet,” Jones said.
"My girlfriend (Claudia Zapata), for example, is doing an internship with the NASCAR Foundation. When I met her, she knew nothing about NASCAR. Now she’s a huge Daniel Suarez fan because they are from the same city, Monterrey (Mexico). I think she knows more (about the sport) than me now. So this year is really special.”
It’s also historic for the program. There are currently 35 interns with positions this summer – the highest total ever and one that shows remarkable growth. Just 10 years ago, for example, there were 19 interns.
The increase in participation is reflective of an ever-evolving, highly detailed platform that includes time with NASCAR executives – President Brent Dewar spoke to the intern group just last week – and concludes with a resume workshop and a vital volunteering opportunity. The interns in Charlotte will be working with Habitat for Humanity next week and the group in Daytona Beach will serve in a local food kitchen.
As with Thompson and Jones, there are multiple compelling success stories generated from this internship opportunity.
"Partners within our industry have seen our success and seen the people we’ve hired from the internship program and as a result have begun participating themselves,” said Dawn Harris, NASCAR senior director for Multicultural Development, who oversees the program.
"I would say 20 percent of our graduates come back and either work for NASCAR or industry-related companies. Many others may transition into sports-related positions in other leagues. And the fact we are in position to provide them the framework, the experience, the knowledge that enabled them to launch other careers within the sports industry is also something we’re very proud of.”
The talent level that NASCAR’s Diversity Internship Program attracts is reflective of the prospects it creates. It’s an ever-evolving opportunity and one that is earning substantial and legitimate praise – from those that participate and the companies eager to ultimately hire them.
And the whole sport benefits.
"Candidly, a lot more of my friends and peers have started to take a greater interest in the sport because of my participation in the sport,” Thompson said. "I do take a certain amount of pride in that as well. But this sport is open to everyone.
"We’re fighting some negative stereotypes but I’ve pretty much brought all my friends to the race tracks in the last 12 or 14 years and all of them, every one of them, leaves with a completely different perception of the sport. They leave with a huge appreciation and that’s pretty cool to see.
"It’s a great time, I feel like to be a part of the sport overall. There’s a lot of positive discussion on moving the sport forward not just in the diversity area but what we’re doing with fans. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to be a part of the sport right now.”
Students interested in pursuing a career in motorsports through the 2019 NASCAR Diversity Internship Program can get information at NASCARDiversity.com. Applications are available at www.careers.nascar.com from Sept. 17- Dec. 31, 2018.