Jordan's NASCAR team, sponsors have goal of diversity

By Alex Andrejev
The Charlotte Observer/TNS

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Bubba Wallace is shown exercising alone in a dimly lit gym. The camera cuts to a small, static screen in the corner as a news reporter's voice is heard saying: "Bubba Wallace asks for a ban on Confederate flags at NASCAR events."

Wallace grinds through his workout, heaving and sweating as he crunches his body weight in what seems like a symbolic representation of his burden as the only Black driver competing full-time in NASCAR's top series. Voices continue broadcasting headlines involving Wallace from this year, including references to a tweet issued by President Donald Trump, a Black Lives Matter car paint scheme and a noose incident some have labeled a "hoax." Wallace is driving. It's raining.

The commercial lasts for a pulsating one minute and 17 seconds, and reaches a climax when Wallace walks through a gaggle of reporters - a young, Black fan looking on admiringly - and stops next to one who asks, "How do you respond to requests that you apologize?" Wallace's eyes flick to the camera, then back to the reporter, and he walks on. His response is silence.

Then the words, "Progress owes no apology" flash on screen before the audience is hit with an inevitable promotion for ... auto insurance?

What the?

"Proud to support unapologetic change. Proud to support Bubba Wallace," the tagline for the Root Insurance ad reads.

The commercial dropped in October along with the announcement that the car insurance disruptor was partnering with Wallace to "champion progress that is long overdue." Wallace called the ad toned down.

"It just shows where we need to go as a generation, where we need to go as a nation, to not make (racism) to where it's such an, 'Ooh, I don't want to touch that,' " Wallace said. "These conversations need to be had. That's the problem. People don't want to talk about it because it doesn't affect them."

At first glance, the campaign seemed like a shock to NASCAR's system. The sport doesn't typically see new brands launching into sponsorship with an explicit stance on a polarizing topic. But this week Root Insurance became one of five founding partners for Wallace's new Toyota team, 23XI Racing, co-owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.

The company joined other IPO and stock market giants sponsoring the Cup Series team in its first season. Those sponsors include DoorDash, McDonald's, Columbia Sportswear and Dr Pepper, which are contributing to a fully funded first 2021 season for 23XI Racing. No sponsors shied away from Wallace's social activism in their announcements.

"As a company that values diversity, openness, and empowering local communities, we are proud to partner with 23XI Racing to build upon our shared foundation of creating a more inclusive environment for NASCAR fans," a statement from DoorDash vice president of marketing Kofi Amoo-Gottfried said. The company was expected to spend between $10 million and $15 million with Wallace's former Richard Petty Motorsports team and is likely investing in a similar range with 23XI, according to Charlotte Business Journal.

"Two years ago, McDonald's partnered with one of motorsport's rising stars, Bubba Wallace, and we couldn't be more proud to witness him succeed on and off the track, while breaking barriers and becoming one of the sport's truest change agents," McDonald's USA president Joe Erlinger said in a statement. "As a founding partner of 23XI Racing, we're excited to continue our partnership with Bubba as he and the team advance the sport and make it more relevant to a larger audience."

Wallace said the team's sponsors share his goals for promoting diversity, inclusion and equality. He said his talks with the brands, four of which had established relationships with Wallace before signing with the team, were about "off-track stuff." The 23XI Racing team said promoting diversity will be a goal internally as well.

"We've raised our hand that we want to be right there alongside (NASCAR), with our partners, trying to develop ways that more people can see NASCAR and the industry as a place to build their career, gain experience, and we can become more inclusive as a sport," 23XI Racing president Steve Lauletta said.

The team has been connecting with NASCAR's Diversity and Inclusion office in order to consider more people of color for positions within the organization. NASCAR's vice president of Diversity and Inclusion Brandon Thompson told The Charlotte Observer that his office has referred possible candidates to 23XI, although the team makes final decisions. He said the excitement around Jordan's entry into the sport has also generated more interest from potential applicants.

"Who wouldn't want to go work for Michael Jordan, right?" Thompson said. "There has already been an uptick in inquiries about is (the team) hiring and if (we) know about anything that comes open over there."

Thompson, a graduate of NASCAR's Diversity Internship Program, said he believes the presence of the team will strengthen the already-established internship pipeline for minorities in racing, especially on the corporate side. Although Thompson said he hasn't yet heard how many of his office's recommendations have been hired, reports of diverse hires at 23XI have emerged. Kreig Robinson, a Black motorsports marketer who worked for Jordan's motorcycle racing team, was named director of partnership management at 23XI, per Sports Business Journal.

There is no metric in place currently for the number of diverse hires NASCAR is encouraging teams to make, Thompson said, but that is a point they could one day get to. He also said the office isn't solely leaning on 23XI to be a target for its diversity pipeline.

"Right now, it's just more or less being intentional about it," Thompson said. "Certainly, we have talked a lot about what we need to do to strengthen our recruitment practices, strengthen our retention practices quite frankly, and any support programs we have around the company and in the industry, to make sure we're supporting diverse talent throughout the sport."

Thompson is one of 25 individuals from the Diversity Internship Program working in the NASCAR industry. More than 400 students have participated in the program since its first year in 2000. Some graduates have gone on to work in other sports professions, but the momentum around 23XI could keep more in NASCAR.

"Industry-wide I think there's just so much excitement around the team and Michael Jordan's involvement and Bubba being able to establish himself in a competitive ride," Thompson said. "I think there's just a lot of general industry momentum behind that and excitement behind the team."

Hamlin has already said he wants to expand the organization to a multi-car operation, and both he and Jordan have expressed their support for Wallace's social activism and the goal of promoting diversity in racing. Thompson said that Jordan has been in constant contact with NASCAR leadership and that "it does not appear that he's going to be an absentee owner by any means," a promising sign that the team's goals will be met.

"(Wallace) didn't ask for all the popularity and the eyes to be put on him," Hamlin said. "It was because he's broken a lot of barriers within NASCAR racing, and so he feels like this is something that he's passionate about. He wants to continue to break barriers within our sport and it's up to me as the car owner to be supportive of that."

If the momentum around 23XI continues, Wallace could be one of many making the conversation around race and social activism less taboo with greater corporate support.

"There's a lot of people like that inside the sport, outside of the sport, just in the world that are like, "(Racism) doesn't bother me. I don't care,'" Wallace said. "... If you respect me, if we're friends, if we're family, whatever, then it should affect you as the same way ... Just as human beings, we want to step up and make sure that our brothers and sisters looked out for."

Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan responds to a question during a news conference on Oct. 28, 2014, at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, NC. Jordan and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin have started a NASCAR team, with Bubba Wallace their driver.