NASCAR is working to expand its base on and off the track. About six million people watch the Sprint Cup Series on TV. More than 75 percent of those viewers are white, and more than 60 percent are men.
But, now, the sport is showcasing some unlikely rising stars behind the wheel.
Driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace made NASCAR history when he won at the Martinsville Speedway last October. The 20-year-old became the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR race in 50 years – since Wendell Scott’s checkered flag in 1963.
Wallace told CBS News’ Mark Strassmann he crossed the finish line crying. He said, “Tears of joy came. Couldn’t even hold it together. Race wasn’t even over yet, and I’m still bawling.”
When he heard it was the first time in 50 years for an African-American driver to win a NASCAR race, Wallace recalled, “I said, ‘Wow.’ I should be the 100th, you know, since that. You know, it’s just how bad it needs to change.”
NASCAR’s “good ol’ boy” image has stuck to the sport like a sponsor decal. In this year’s Sprint Cup, the sport’s top level, 43 drivers compete. Among them, 42 of them are white, all of them men, except Danica Patrick.
But, in 2004, NASCAR started a program called Drive for Diversity. Max Siegel leads its competition arm, called Rev Racing. It recruits and develops young minority and women drivers and pit crews.
“They’re professional race car drivers,” Siegel said. “And it’s a lifestyle, so we want to make sure that not only do they have the talent on the track but they’re dedicated to putting in the time to develop their craft.”
Developing that craft – turning a good driver into an elite one – can cost millions of dollars. Rev Racing pays for the mentoring, training and time behind the wheel.
Siegel said, “Every driver that has gone through this program – but for the Drive for Diversity program and Rev Racing support – wouldn’t have been able to finance their development into the professional series.”
Kyle Larson graduated from Rev Racing and is now a rookie in NASCAR’s top level. He’s 21, half-Japanese and a rising star. Larson said, “It’s pretty much a dream come true.”
At 7, Larson started racing go-carts on dirt tracks in Elk Grove, Calif. Larson said, “I have another kid who was half-Japanese like myself, and we would call ourselves the ‘Asian invasion.'”
NASCAR hopes Larson drives a second “Asian invasion” of fans.
Larson said if the drivers become more diverse, fans will likely also diversify. “They’ll come up to me and be like, ‘Oh, you know, I’m half-Japanese or Chinese or whatever, and I’m rooting for you this week, so do a good job.'”
Wallace began racing at age 9 in North Carolina. He recalled, “There was only one black kid. Only one. And that was me.”
Wallace also went through Rev Racing. Asked if it’s important that NASCAR has this program, Wallace said, “I believe so. You still look in the stands, it’s predominantly white. You still look on the track, it is all white, except for one.”
Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, said, “The fabric of America is multi-cultural. That’s what NASCAR wants to be. It wants to have that fabric of America, and, I think, if the characters and the personality and the faces and the genders that participate in the sport are all part of that, then the grandstands will be too.”
Both Wallace and Larson plan to make it known they belong – every time one of them races into Victory Lane.