Motor racing-NASCAR scours racing landscape for minority drivers

NEW YORK Tue Nov 27, 2007 8:33pm GMT

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NEW YORK Nov 27 (Reuters) - NASCAR is actively searching for black and Hispanic drivers to help diversify the historically all-white enterprise, CEO Brian France said on Tuesday.

"We've got programs that are trying to find talented drivers who otherwise would have never had an opportunity to showcase their skills in our sport," said France.

"We're finding African-American drivers and Hispanic drivers out in the short-tracks.

"These programs are creating opportunities for them to get started, come up through the ladder, and hopefully make it to one of our national divisions."

Formula One racing staged a minority breakthrough when Briton Lewis Hamilton, the first black driver to race on the F1 circuit, narrowly lost the 2007 title to Finn Kimi Raikkonen.

There are currently no black NASCAR drivers and the last to run in the series was in 2006. NASCAR said, however, more than 20 percent of its fan base is black or Hispanic.

"We have to do a better job on diversity," France admitted during a wide-ranging interview at the Reuters Media Summit. "That's another growth opportunity for us. We're doing a lot but we have to do more."

France said he was hopeful for "a breakthrough with a driver that three or four years ago we would have never had the opportunity to find.

"We need to be effective on diversity because those are the casual fans that we are seeking," he said. "They're not going to give us a fair look, come to our events, watch us on television, follow us on the Internet.

"We've got some work to do."

Television ratings were down about 13 percent this season and while France said he was not worried NASCAR's popularity slowing, he added the "margin of error for all the sports to manage their business smarter is more narrow."

EARNHARDT UNCOMPETITIVE

He also said the failure of NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to have a strong season hurt the sport's television ratings.

"It would have helped if he would have been competitive," said France. "He didn't win an event and he certainly didn't make our playoffs. And that's unhelpful if you're trying to build ratings."

France said double champion Jimmie Johnson might be the NASCAR's next star despite his laid-back personality.

"The storylines we talk about are driven by rivalries, driven by personalities, and they're also driven by dominance. Dynasties are all not bad for sports.

"Jimmie's in the early stages of what may be a dynasty. He's back-to-back champion in the stiffest of competition.

"But has he gotten to the status of Dale Earnhardt Sr? Of course not. It takes a long time and your personality has to come out there too."

France called Johnson "the Tom Brady of NASCAR," in reference to the clean-cut quarterback of the New England Patriots.

"He's a California good-looking guy that does everything perfectly," he said. "That's his style." (Editing by Rex Gowar)

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