Long road to diversity

CONCORD, N.C. -- An engine, deep and throaty, winds out on the back stretch at Lowe's Motor Speedway and Arik Almirola smiles.

He leans against his late-model stock car, the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet, in a spacious garage that is, figuratively, anyway, vastly farther than the few North Carolina miles separating him from the track that hosts NASCAR's longest race. Almirola, a 19-year-old Cuban-American, is the face of the future in stock car racing. For now, though, the future remains hopelessly distant. In April, he finished sixth three times and seventh twice in his races at nearby Ace Speedway.

"I don't feel like a pioneer at all," Almirola said. "My own goal is Nextel Cup. That's what I'm here for."

A few decades ago -- really, even a few years -- Almirola would never have imagined himself circling the oval in a car that to the untrained eye looks like an exact replica of Tony Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet. In a racing series that never has been noted for embracing diversity, how did Almirola find himself speeding along the fast track?

Almirola is the beneficiary of a powerful alliance of football men who are neighbors in suburban Charlotte, Joe Gibbs and Reggie White. Before he returned to coach the Washington Redskins, Gibbs and White, a future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end, decided to do something about the lack of minorities in NASCAR.

A year ago White, like a number of prominent African-Americans before him, was looking to break into the highest level of NASCAR. But even with the help of Gibbs, whose Joe Gibbs Racing is one of NASCAR's most successful teams, White couldn't pull together all the necessary resources; Gibbs estimates that running a car consistently in the top 10 costs between $13 and $20 million annually. Together, they agreed to start at the beginning.

"We felt that our program was one that needed to start at grass roots," Gibbs said. "Get some young people, put them on scholarship, let them live there year 'round and let them race late models. We said, 'Reggie, why don't you come on board as a partial owner and you can learn from the ground up.' "

Almirola and Chris Bristol, a 26-year-old African-American, were the winners in a nationwide talent search that, according to J.D. Gibbs, Joe's son and president of JGR, was the subject of inquiries from a company that produces reality television shows.

"Everybody knows that NASCAR is more of a white sport," White said, sitting in the immaculate Huntersville, N.C., JGR facility that was populated by a dozen versions of Stewart's orange No. 20 and the green No. 18 of Bobby Labonte. "The culture shock to me was when I went to the races and saw the rebel flags. That really did something inside of me, because the rebel flags, to me, are the same thing as a swastika to a Jew.

"Knowing what Jackie Robinson and Marion Motley and those guys did, I started to try and get somebody the opportunity in this sport that may not have the opportunity, the resources to get involved in the sport."

This is not an isolated effort. Under the banner of NASCAR's "Drive for Diversity," five minority drivers are being supported on the Dodge Weekly Racing Series.

Most people connected with NASCAR acknowledge that programs of this kind have been a long time coming. One of them is driver Jeff Gordon, who won the last two Nextel Cup races, the Aaron's 499 at Talladega and the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

"There are not enough opportunities for minorities out there to get behind the wheel of a race car," said Gordon. "People who are involved in racing, especially out here on the NASCAR circuit, we all grew up with it as kids. I don't know if for minorities that opportunity is in front of them. It's a sport that costs a lot of money and it's tough for a lot of kids to get involved."

The current numbers are not impressive. Of the approximately 150 drivers regularly behind the wheel in NASCAR's three elite series -- Nextel, Busch and Craftsman Trucks -- only one is African-American: NASCAR truck driver Bill Lester. At 43, Lester's Toyota Tundra has finished 16th, 15th and 17th in three races this year.

"My feeling is that NASCAR promotes itself as America's Sport," said Lester. "For it to truly be America's Sport, it needs to represent the hue of this country, it needs to have a racial cross-section which is reflective of what this country's numbers are. It does not now."

No one in authority seems to know just why.

"I'm not sure," said George Pyne, NASCAR's chief operating officer. "We're certainly proud of what Bill Lester has accomplished. We're sure there are little kids across America dreaming of being the next Bill Lester or the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart."

"I know NASCAR is really focused on diversity," Gordon said. "They're wanting to make an impact and grow our sport out to all the fans."

While promoting diversity clearly is the right thing to do, it could also pay off for NASCAR in terms of attendance and television ratings. The African-American and Hispanic audiences, according to polls, are far below their Caucasian counterpart, relatively speaking.

Aric Almirola and Chris Bristol, however, aren't in it for the bottom-line. Almirola has been around sprint car racing since he was a kid and has worked himself up from go-carts. Bristol, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, attended his first car race at the age of eight.

According to their crew chief, Ray Thiess, "It's been a little rough at times. I don't think they'd thought it would be this hard. We're going against some good racers. There are four champions at Aric's track alone. The main thing is, we're getting better each week."

"I think I can win auto races," said Bristol. "If that turns into a positive thing socially for the African-American community or for the sport of NASCAR, then I'm all for it."

Gibbs, like so many in the sport, hopes the next Tiger Woods is behind the wheel of a Nextel Cup car.

"There's going to be a huge groundswell if we can find a Tiger Woods to drive a race car," Gibbs said. "I think there will be a real attraction to it, a real excitement."

"I hope when they get in the car, that they see themselves driving on a Nextel Cup track," White said. "That's why we're doing this, not for them just to stay in the lower series, but to move up in the championship series. Chris and Aric understand that, `Look, you haven't been given this chance just because you're black or Hispanic, you can drive. That's why we picked you.' "

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.