Since returning to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2001, Dodge has proven to be a leader in promoting diversity. Bill Lester, driver of the No. 8 Bobby Hamilton Racing Dodge Ram in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, has been one of the leaders in the diversity program. Dodge's Bob Wildberger, Bobby Hamilton and Lester discuss the Dodge Motorsports Diversity Program.
BOB WILDBERGER (Senior Manager, NASCAR Operations - Dodge Motorsports)
"The Dodge Motorsports Diversity Program is a program we're absolutely proud of. It's become the benchmark in the industry. The goal is to help all Dodge Motorsports teams become more diverse, starting with the driver all the way down through the ranks. There are several benefits for us. Obviously, there are social benefits. The Motorsports industry is in need of increasing diversity, expanding their audience. The way we've got our program structured, we're starting to discover some untapped talent. Through our program we've been able to bring some new, fresh talent to the teams that otherwise might never have never been found.
"We have a driver development program. Bill Lester is our diversity role model. Last year was his first time in a full season in a circle-track program. He's got experience and seat time now and we're looking for him to perform well this year. He's a wonderful spokesman for the sport. He's highly educated. He has a wonderful family, and he's a very intelligent individual. He brings a lot to the garage area and to the sport. He's got a lot of talent, and we're going to help him develop that talent. He's in one of the best trucks in the circuit, and Bobby Hamilton Racing knows how to win. We're doing all the right things with Bill, and he's doing a great job for us. We've got tremendous faith in him.
"It's really a three-part program. One is developing a high-profile role model, and that's Bill Lester. The second really encompasses a lot more people. We've established a scholarship program to the NASCAR technical institute in Charlotte, N.C. We search for members of diversity that are role models in their own right. It might be in high school, but that's OK. We're looking for people who want to be a part of the exciting racing industry but aren't quite sure how to get there. We provide them linkage to help them get their education so they can begin working for a Winston Cup or NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series or drag racing Dodge and Mopar race team. We initially granted scholarships two years ago. The first three scholarship graduates came out of school this past summer with 3.8-4.0 grades. This is real talent. Two of them work for Evernham Motorsports and the third graduate works for Jimmy Smith's Ultra Motorsports Dodge truck team. They're excited with their new career.
"We granted eight more scholarships last year. Those students are currently midway in their one-year program training. We expect them to graduate throughout the summer. Hopefully they will be employed by one of the Dodge teams, and we'll help them with that.
"The third year is already beginning. We'll grant up to 10 scholarships. It's a long-range program, and we think it's the right thing to do for the business. It's the benchmark. There's no one else in the industry, bar none, that comes this close to having this kind of program.
"The third part of the program is the diversity supplier program. We identify the suppliers that are owned by members of diversity who can provide products that race teams can use. These are big businesses with a lot of services and this is a way to increase their list of suppliers. That program is starting to work well for us, so we're really proud.
"We've got a three-part program. Our teams have bought into it, and it's great for the corporation, and I think we're going to end up with some good talent.
"NASCAR is elated with the activities. I sit on NASCAR's board of diversity. They're trying to look at the whole picture of diversity and doing a lot of programs on their own. They're trying to organize it so that more companies will join in. We have sub committees on the diversity committee, trying to figure out what to do to increase diversity participation as drivers and what to do to create excitement and knowledge for the fan base. They're going through each of those steps. You can't deal with it with a 90-day band-aid, but they are fully aware and excited about the challenge. We've been working together for three years now.
"It's almost a chicken and the egg thing. You've got to have people who will start early and stay interested, people who will start in with go-karts and at local tracks so the world can identify the potential talent. That pool is very tiny right now. When we embarked on our program, we had to do an extensive search, and we think we were very fortunate to find Bill Lester. There's not a lot of Bill Lesters out there. The total motorsports industry has this challenge. I think once awareness starts to increase, hopefully through some of the efforts of Dodge, you'll start to get more people interested. When you get more people interested, you're going to find more talent in that pool. There's no 90-day wonders here. We're attacking it with a plan, and it's going to take some time. Everybody is trying to figure out how to escalate that time line.
"It's not a matter of ethnic background. It's a challenge to find drivers of the Winston Cup caliber. This is the pinnacle of motor racing in this country. Huge lines of people want to be out there, but not very many are ready for that level of racing and can do it right. You don't want to bring anybody into this sport too soon. They need to come up the ladder so they get the right amount of seat time and the right amount of experience. You need good drivers that the rest of the drivers will race with.
"It's a long-range plan. It was our plan to develop it. I'd like to think it'll go longer than five years. We were very calculated in coming up with a three-part plan that addressed all areas of motorsports. Hopefully this will go forever. Every year that goes by, we have more graduates and more race teams discover the untapped talent. I hope the whole industry will begin to embrace it better and diversity will come around."
BOBBY HAMILTON (Owner Bobby Hamilton Racing)
"The biggest progression has been off the track. Bill Lester does a lot of speaking for them, and we're starting to get feedback from it. About a quarter of the way through the second year people starting noticing it. The scholarships and everything they've got going with diversity now has worked out real well. We just started getting resumes from the diversity scholarship students. Our team manager is going through them now. We have to be careful because we don't run year-round in the truck series. We run Daytona and then we're off a month. When we go to Darlington, we'll have to hire three more people, so we're looking in that direction. We like getting young people in there who can learn fresh and don't already have bad habits.
"Bill is doing fine. He's fast, and that's what we couldn't find before. When we had Willy T. Ribbs it was a brand new deal. It wasn't fair to Willy and he hadn't driven that stuff. Bill got in at a better time. The teams are communicating well now. Bill was fast off the bat, so you didn't have to worry about qualifying, but he tore up a lot of stuff. It took him until midway last year that the only way you were going to learn was finish the races, so the last half of last year was pretty good.
They need to win. It's time. It's the third year. He's had a year under his belt, and we're a factory-backed team with plenty of technology. The goal is to win. If he could win one, that would be huge. I won't let him win nothing. We've got a lot of good teams in here, and it'll be a good year for one of the Dodge teams to win the championship. Ford and Chevrolet complain all the time, but they're too tight to spend any money in the truck series. Toyota is coming in too, so we need to keep our guard up and get on our game.
"I think the Diversity Program is a good deal for NASCAR. It's up to the marketing people to make it what it needs to be. NASCAR wants it really bad. They want it to be successful. Dodge is ahead of the game with it. It's cool how they did it. They already had their plan in place. When I went up there and met them they had it laid out in segments. They had a long-term plan, and they're that way with a lot of stuff. I think it catches people off guard, but they've got their game plan together."
BILL LESTER (No. 8 Bobby Hamilton Racing Dodge Ram)
"A whole lot more people know about the Diversity Program because of the relative success we had last year. We made a big save at Daytona last year, and a lot of commentary resulted after that. We were running second at one point, and everybody is watching what goes on at Daytona. We had some really had some strong qualifying runs last year. We just missed the pole at Phoenix. We had a number of top 10 roll offs. I think I've earned everyone's respect. I think people know I'm serious. I have ability. The team and equipment are strong. ESPN took good care of us.
"The best thing that can happen is No. 1 we win Daytona. We win the championship and run Winston Cup next year. I'd like to be able to prove myself and prove we deserve the opportunity. We've talked about it. We've got to see how this year develops. Bobby has talked about Winston Cup. It's early to speculate about next season, but I think time will tell.
"Dodge is two steps ahead with the Diversity Program. I started out with General Motors and I left them because they weren't serious. Dodge came on board with the No. 8 truck program. It essentially laid in my lap as opposed to all the head banging I'd been doing before that trying to get somebody to believe in me and take a chance. Dodge put out the red carpet, and I can't commend them enough for letting me realize a dream.
"The proof is in the pudding. When somebody else (sponsor) graces that truck, then we'll know. The discussion is a lot more positive than it's been in the past, but actions speak louder than words. I've been given a lot of impression that things are going to happen real soon. Until then it's all cheap talk and ideal speculation. The financial economy is a problem. It's real hard to get money from anybody. A lot of teams have folded. It's not easy for anybody. It's not a black thing. It's a nationwide thing right now. Before when the boom was going on, it was 'let's stay in the box and focus on what we've done for years.' Now, it's hard for everybody.
"If you think out of the box for a change and see what can happen. Look at the Tiger Woods and Williams Sisters phenomenon. I've got to win. The pressure is on me, not from the standpoint of being the black driver. I feel unfulfilled because I haven't won yet. Until I win a race or the championship, I haven't proved anything yet.
"You're talking about the cream of the crop in terms of skill. A lot of good race drivers are sitting at home. Being here on a consistent basis means you're talented and devoted. I'm a minority just by being out here. When I left high tech, people wondered why I left a six-figure income and success. I was successful by their definition, buy I wasn't successful by my definition. To me, success is happiness, and I wasn't happy. I was living for the weekend and living for when I could drive. I was responsible for the careers and livelihoods of people I managed. I was good at what I did, but I didn't have inner peace.
"My father was a tremendous athlete. He has records at the University of Chicago in basketball that still stand. His record for most points in a game at 46 was broken this year, but he still has the record for most points in a season and most points in a four-year career. He supported my athletic endeavors. This situation where I have skills behind the wheel have nothing to do with my whole family. Nobody in my family races.
"I learned from the school of hard knocks. I never went to a driving school. I learned on the streets. I learned that I like going around the corner sideways and running 100 mph. Somebody said go out there and see if you've got what it takes. I think I do."