As NASCAR start-ups go, Victory Motorsports isn't much. The team's only driver, Morty Buckles, sports a faded fire suit with his former sponsor on it. Team owner and former Falcons wideout Terance Mathis works the phones from a nondescript Atlanta office he shares with a local hip-hop label. From these humble beginnings, the pair is trying to make history: Buckles as Nextel Cup's first full-time African-American driver in three decades, and Mathis as the first African-American majority team owner, period. Buckles is so confident in Mathis that he left NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which places minority up-and-comers in top-shelf rides with guaranteed corporate cash. He's not the only believer. NASCAR stalwart Morgan-McClure Motorsports is giving technical support. And Jerome Bettis called Mathis about investing just hours after kissing the Lombardi Trophy. So how soon will their No. 04 Chevy hit the track? Not soon enough for Buckles and Mathis.
BUCKLES I took a chance by leaving Drive for Diversity to join Terance, and he took a chance signing a 34-year-old driver a lot of people didn't know about.
MATHIS But you know what? Someone took a chance on me. Everyone told me that I was too short and too small to play high school ball. Then I was too short and too small to play D1. Even after I was an All-America, I was told I was too small to play in the NFL. Thirteen seasons later, I guess they figured I wasn't too small anymore. If certain people hadn't taken a chance on me and believed in me, I'd be back home in Stone Mountain doing I don't know what.
Buckles first slipped behind the wheel of a go-kart in first grade. A few miles up Georgia's Highway 410, Mathis was smoking fourth-grade cornerbacks in the Bronco League. But the two didn't meet until 2005, when Mathis cold-called Buckles to lay out his plans. The road of wannabe NASCAR owners is littered with the likes of Jim Brown, Brett Favre, Joe Washington and Jerry Jones. But to Buckles, this felt different, right from the first handshake.
BUCKLES When Terance and I got together to talk, our stories sounded alike. He'd had to work harder than the next guy to get to each level of football. I've been racing since I was 6, and I've always had to work a little bit harder and longer than the competition.
MATHIS You can't be afraid to work hard. The harder you work, the more enjoyable it is when it all pays off. Especially when you look at those people who tried to slow you down and you say, See?
BUCKLES Yep, and there's always someone out there trying to slow you down. Some of it has been because I'm black, and maybe some people didn't give me a break here or there. Everyone's got their stories. But mostly it hasn't been any different for me than any other driver trying to move up the ladder. You have to prove you can drive, but you need the equipment to do it. You've got to have money to get the equipment. Then, when it all comes together, you have to show you can drive before the window closes on you.
Mention Morty Buckles in grandstands down South and fans nod in acknowledgement of a real wheelman. He's held his own for a decade against local legends, using second-division equipment while splitting time between raising his family, securing financing and earning a mechanical engineering degree-always dreaming of the day he'd race a genuine ride with singular focus.
MATHIS The kid can drive. You should have heard Carl Edwards talking about him.
BUCKLES Yeah, that was cool. That was one of those moments that Terance is talking about, when all the work is worth it.
MATHIS We took Morty to a test up at the Kentucky Speedway last summer and put him in one of ST2 Motorsports' cars. Edwards started checking out Morty's lap times, and he goes, "Where has this guy been hiding?" This was Carl Edwards, the cover boy. For him to acknowledge what we're trying to do and what Morty can do if given a chance, that was instant credibility.
BUCKLES Here's the thing about racing: If you're fast, nothing else matters. Nobody cares where you're from or what color your skin is or how you got there. If you can get around the track a little quicker than the next guy, real racers are going to notice-and that's when doors open. In the end, whether you're racing go-karts or Nextel Cup, people just want to know that you can get across that finish line first. Once they know you're the real deal, the other stuff takes care of itself.
MATHIS Just like catching touchdown passes. Funny how that seems to solve a lot of problems.
The only minority driver to race full-time in NASCAR's top division was Wendell Scott, who made nearly 500 Cup starts from 1961 to 1973. Those were the days when a man could build his own car, haul it to the track, recruit cousins for a pit crew and go racing against Richard Petty. Since Scott retired (after suffering serious injuries at Talladega), only one black racer has cracked NASCAR's top three divisions consistently: current Truck Series driver Bill Lester. Some blame the lack of color on multimillion-dollar start-up costs. Others point to a stick-and-ball culture that draws kids to a field or a court before they've even heard of a racetrack. To a man, every current NASCAR star was introduced to the sport by a father or an uncle, or received inspiration from a local racing hero. African-Americans have had few influences to push them through the race-shop doors, something that Buckles and Mathis want to change.
BUCKLES The potential history-making part of all this is exciting. One of my mentors is Wendell Scott Jr. He's told me stories about the stuff they had to deal with, and what he dealt with after his dad got hurt, and when he tried to make it as a driver himself. When I hear him, I realize how fortunate I am to have gotten some breaks and to have guys like Terance out there fighting to make this thing work. But it also worries me, because I don't want to let those people down.
That responsibility is familiar to those who tried and failed to create the minority-owned race teams of the recent past: Brown, Washington, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Julius Erving. Each has stood where Victory Motorsports stands today, facing racing's version of Max-Q, that point during a rocket launch when pressure peaks and the force will either destroy the craft or propel it forward.
MATHIS My original intent was to run the full Nextel Cup schedule this season, but that's been scaled back to 20 NASCAR events and another dozen in ARCA. We're so close to being on the track, but you can't field cars without sponsorship. That's what we're working on right now. We could put a car out there, but not one that's worth running. We could putt around and finish 35th, but I'm not going out there without a chance to compete. Morgan-McClure Motorsports has cars ready to go, and they know what they're doing. They've won three Daytona 500s. We just have to find funding to get them rolling. In the meantime, we have to be patient. One thing I've learned about drivers, they're the only athletes less patient than wide receivers!
BUCKLES See? Now Terance knows what it's like to be a real racer. In the beginning, so much of it isn't about ability or good equipment or whatever. Racing costs money-a lot of money. It's about knocking on doors and making calls and bugging people until you find a corporation to underwrite what you're doing.
MATHIS An oil company we had been talking with just told me they can't sponsor the car. I can't tell you how many times we were that close and had the deal fall through. You just want to grab these people and say, Take a chance! When someone finally does, they won't regret it.
Fielding a full-time Nextel Cup team for a 36-race schedule requires someone to pony up about $10M, but the payoff can be huge. Danica Patrick earned her primary sponsor, Argent Mortgage, an estimated $9M in media exposure during her 16-race rookie season in IRL, a series that pulls a fraction of the ratings of Nextel Cup. So Victory Motorsports works the phones and crashes the conference rooms, believing they're selling not only a chance to make history, but a win-win proposition for sponsors, too.
BUCKLES People are like, Are you sure you guys want to go through with this?
MATHIS I get those calls all the time! "Man, are you nuts?" Friends of mine tell me that I'm in it for the money. I've got money. This is bigger than that, bigger than NASCAR really. You're trying to change something, create opportunities for guys like Morty, like me, for the next African-American driver, the next African-American owner. What Tiger Woods did for golf, somebody will do for racing. You think Danica Patrick is getting attention? Wait until a black driver rolls his car off that hauler to run a Nextel Cup race.
BUCKLES For me, it's about all those things too. But I let Terance worry about them. I worry about driving. I have to block out the history. If I want to be the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, then I have to concentrate like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. And that means worrying about the car and letting that other stuff take care of itself. We just need a chance to prove ourselves, and we won't quit until we can.
MATHIS Get us to that sunset, and we'll close the deal. In 1995 with the Falcons, we had to beat the 49ers in the final week to make the playoffs. Jeff George got knocked out early and we were way down. We won in the closing minute with a 40-yard TD pass by our backup quarterback.
BUCKLES Who caught the pass?
MATHIS Terance Mathis.