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In Race To Increase Diversity, NASCAR Recruits College Athletes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

NASCAR is not known for diversity. There are no black drivers currently racing in the top circuit, but it's trying to change its image. They're reaching out through pit crew recruitment. Pit crews have become essentially a sport within the sport, as race teams train former college athletes to sprint around cars to change tires and lug equipment. In North Carolina recently, NASCAR held its first national pit crew combine to attract minority athletes. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Branden Dozier didn't think playing football for UNC Charlotte would lead to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR GUN)

TOMSIC: His friends are even more surprised.

BRANDEN DOZIER: They're like, oh, what are you doing now since football fell through? And I was like, oh, right now, I'm at a NASCAR combine. And they were like, what? Like, what do you do? And, I mean, I'm like, I change tires (laughter).

TOMSIC: Dozier had never changed a tire until the day before this combine outside Charlotte. In fact, none of the nearly 20 people trying out are anything close to mechanics. Their specialties are college basketball, football and track and field.

PHIL HORTON: Let's see what we got, OK? Ready, guys?

TOMSIC: Phil Horton was NASCAR's first African-American pit coach. Working on pit road is physically grueling, so the combine starts with typical sports workouts like jumping rope.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUMP ROPE HITTING GROUND)

TOMSIC: Brehanna Daniels is among many trying out from HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. The former Norfolk State basketball guard sprints back and forth between cones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOES SQUEAKING)

BREHANNA DANIELS: Oh, God.

TOMSIC: She slips, and Coach Horton says they have to stay under control.

HORTON: Same thing like running around the car. Same thing like running around the car.

TOMSIC: Pit crews evolved over the past 20 years or so from gear-head mechanics to highly trained athletes. In a 500-mile race, shaving one second off a pit stop can be the difference between winning and losing. There are no African-American drivers in NASCAR's top circuit, but minorities are playing a larger role on pit road. Brandon Thompson oversees crew member development for the sport.

BRANDON THOMPSON: To be able to see someone who looks like you and say, hey, you know, that could be me - it's not a pie-in-the-sky idea anymore. And it adds credibility when we go back and say, no, like, this sport really is open and inclusive.

TOMSIC: Thompson worked with universities to draw athletes to the combine. They're competing for spots in Drive for Diversity, NASCAR's development program for minorities and women.

THOMPSON: We always say that the crewmember portion of the Drive for Diversity program is one of the hidden gems because for a long time it's been pumping people into the national series.

TOMSIC: There are now about three dozen graduates of the program working on pit road. The top ones can make six figures.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR GUNS)

TOMSIC: At the combine, the athletes practiced firing air guns before the main event, a pit stop where they replace two tires.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR GUNS)

TOMSIC: One person wedges of 40-pound jack under the car and heaves. Two people loosen lug nuts, and two others smack on 60-pound tires.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR GUNS)

TOMSIC: Some stops go better than others. Coach Horton catches a former San Diego State basketball player pressing the wrong button on the air gun.

HORTON: So you tightened them? All right, let's - well, just switch it, and let's get it right this time.

TOMSIC: The longest stop took about 30 seconds. The fastest was 10, which Horton says is still three seconds slower than the pros. Several women have made it to pit road, but there's only one regularly working there now. Brehanna Daniels takes that as a challenge.

DANIELS: Me being, you know, minority and being a female - it already makes it hard and tough for me. So I'm just trying to, you know, add a new face to the pit crew stop, you know, and change the game a little bit.

TOMSIC: NASCAR plans to have 10 people from this combine join the Drive for Diversity program. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.