Drive for diversity shifts out of neutral

CONCORD, N.C. -- Finally, suddenly, diversity appears to be making leaps and bounds in NASCAR.

It has looked that way several times in the past, though, so pardon my wait-and-see attitude.

But as of Wednesday, upon Chicago businessman Art Shelton's first appearance in front of an audience of NASCAR media, hope for diversity looked brighter and better than it ever has before.

It isn't just that Shelton is offering Chase Austin -- the 19-year-old African-American prodigy whose development was interrupted by the Hendrick Motorsports plane-crash tragedy -- what appears to be his best opportunity to drive since Hendrick had to shut down its development program.

It isn't just that Shelton and Austin arrive alongside 18-year-old Marc Davis and his family-owned team -- Austin in Trucks, Davis in Nationwide and Sprint Cup -- to rocket NASCAR's total of African-American drivers from zero to two, virtually overnight.

If Shelton is sincere and as committed as he says -- and he surely seems both -- then his purchase of what was Fitz Motorsports, and his renaming and vast expansion of that existent team into promising Trail Motorsport, is -- as far as I can tell -- the largest and fullest commitment in the history of NASCAR by an African-American investor.

He and seller Armando Fitz, who will remain with the team as a consultant, say they have verbal commitments and assurances from major sponsors that will be announced at Daytona during Speedweeks next month but were not named at their news conference Wednesday in North Carolina that was part of NASCAR's annual preseason media tour.

Shelton is committing personal financing to the team for a five-year plan that should take Austin all the way to Cup level. But Shelton should be advised of the ancient one-liner in auto racing: "You know how to make a small fortune in NASCAR? Start with a big fortune."

But the man exudes credibility, the wisdom of decades in the commercial loan industry and, most of all, a calm sort of passion.

Maybe 10 minutes into our conversation Wednesday, Art Shelton said something simple, something elegant, that still resonates, resounds.

"How you make diversity in anything," he said, "is with excellence. The current president was elected mainly because of excellence. People saw that this person can do the job.

"And we can diversify NASCAR with excellence."

The eye-misting coincidence of this apparent sunrise on diversity in NASCAR is, of course, that Art Shelton arrived formally in this long-all-white, long-all-Southern sport less than 24 hours after the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

In fact, with the Obama campaign's grassroots success -- begun on the Internet -- as an intentional or unintentional model, Shelton is developing a Web site, TrailMsport.com, focused on encouraging fans, with an eye toward minorities, to participate in the team.

He plans to hold a drawing before every Trail race, pulling the name of a fan to be placed on the car for that race. He'll ask fans to blog their opinions and ideas. They'll get to vote on some team issues.

If all goes well, minority individuals will be made to feel involved, something NASCAR has been searching for since the turn of the millennium.

Shelton, with his independent spirit, seems the perfect fit for Austin. The youth has steadfastly refused to participate in NASCAR's underfunded -- and some say superficial, cosmetic -- Drive for Diversity. Should he make it to the elite Sprint Cup level, he doesn't ever want it said that he got there on any semblance of affirmative action.

Austin's sticking by his principles had stirred resentment deep inside the NASCAR hierarchy, which has always wanted its hands on the controls of everything, now even the diversification it sorely desires.

How you make diversity in anything is with excellence. The current president was elected mainly because of excellence. People saw that this person can do the job. And we can diversify NASCAR with excellence.

-- Art Shelton

NASCAR, for whatever reason, didn't send a representative to the formal arrival of Shelton and his newly named Trail Motorsport team, with Austin in Trucks, Jimmie Johnson's younger brother Jarit in a developmental series and a driver to be named later for Nationwide, although none of those contracts has been finalized.

The absence of NASCAR officials seemed odd if you'd been around, as I had, all those years to see the fanfare and the red carpet for other minority efforts in the past, all of them efforts that eventually failed for lack of sponsorship: Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Bob Kersee … Reggie Jackson … Julius Erving and Joe Washington … all were welcomed with great hoopla.

Former NBA star Brad Daugherty, an auto racing analyst for ESPN, is the only African-American team owner who's been able to stick it out over time in NASCAR, and his funding has come sporadically. New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss last year became part owner of a Truck series team.

When I asked for the sanctioning body's reaction to the arrival of Shelton with an offer to Austin, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston responded via e-mail: "Art Shelton's entry into the sport is promising, as is his selection of Chase Austin. We are looking forward to seeing both Marc [Davis] and Chase compete at the national level this year."

NASCAR claims some -- probably too much -- credit for Davis, who participated in the Drive for Diversity for one year, with a lot of additional funding from his father's efforts, and was picked up quickly by Joe Gibbs Racing as a developmental driver.

When Harry Davis was told by JGR this past fall that the funding just wasn't there to move his son up to the Nationwide Series, he decided to do it himself. The Davises plan to run six Nationwide races and a few Cup races this year with a family-owned team, with some technical and hardware assistance from the Gibbs organization.

Now come the Sheltons: Art and his son Patrick, who has considerable experience in motorsports marketing and will run the team day-to-day.

Neither family has asked for any special favors; nor have the Austins.

Do give NASCAR credit for not only seeking diversity but also sounding the call nationally that "We want to look more like America," as NASCAR chairman Brian France has said.

Given that, the Sheltons, the Austins and the Davises will do it themselves.

So what makes Art Shelton different from the past prospective minority team owners who have come into NASCAR? Most of the others were new to the sport. They came; they were impressed by the crowds, the noise, the spectacle; and they looked at it as a good business venture.

Shelton's passion runs long and deep.

"To date myself," he said, "the first NASCAR race I ever saw in person was at Bristol [Tenn.] way back in 1963. I'd listened to NASCAR races on the radio, and always dreamed of the day I would get to see a race.

"I finally got to see one, and from there I decided that was a sport I would enjoy being a part of one day, not knowing that day would come this day."

This day might turn out to be, as the previous day certainly was, a monumental day in American history.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.