NASCAR Gives Thousands to Jackson Nonprofits

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing-also known as NASCAR-is the nation’s no. 1 spectator sport and the no. 2 television sport, but how many NASCAR fans know it is a financial supporter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson?

In 2001, Jackson announced he had "brokered" a deal involving Dr. Pepper’s sponsorship of a black-owned NASCAR racing team. NASCAR executive Brian France and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have both taken part in conferences sponsored by Jackson’s nonprofit group Rainbow/PUSH.

Last July, NASCAR co-sponsored Jackson’s largest annual event, a conference convened by several Jackson nonprofits, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund. NASCAR was one of 23 " Platinum " sponsors, a designation that cost $100,000, along with such long-time Jackson corporate backers such as Coca-Cola, Citigroup and McDonalds.

The relationship of Jackson to NASCAR is instructive. Jackson has a history of threatening major corporations that he claims have discriminated against African-Americans and then winning large contributions from them. Less well known is his influence in the world of sports.

Jackson’s History of Using Sports to Advance His Agenda

Jesse Jackson has a history of inserting himself into sports-related controversies. Mainly he has focused his attacks on the low numbers of blacks in coaching and management positions on professional sports teams and college football, blaming the situation on a "culture driven by white supremacists."

In 1987, he organized a boycott of Major League Baseball, prompting then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth to promise to study whether blacks were frozen out of coaching and management jobs. Jackson protested outside the 1993 All-Star baseball game over Major League Baseball’s lack of an affirmative action plan. And in 1994, he helped organize a search for minority investors in the Oakland As.

Jackson also has involved himself in professional football. In one notorious episode, Jackson suggested that race played a role in the firing of Green Bay Packers coach Ray Rhodes, an African-American, despite Rhodes’ lackluster 8-8 record for the 1999 season, following a win-loss-tie record of 9-22-1 during his final two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. But Jackson questioned the motives of Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, writing a letter to the Packers asking, "was Ray Rhodes, an African-American, held to a different standard?"

In that instance, Jackson’s intervention backfired. Typical was the reaction of NFL Commentator Dan Dierdorf, who said, "Ron Wolf must have become a racist in a hurry. It was just a year ago that he hired Rhodes." columnist Greg Gaber observed, "Football people, both black and white, rallied behind the Packers with widespread criticism of Jackson. When the camera and microphones withdrew, Jackson and PUSH quietly jumped off the Rhodes bandwagon. Still it served as another example of Jackson’s sometimes random and ill-considered forays into the athletic arena.

Rainbow Sports

Jackson’s major nonprofit organizations are Rainbow/PUSH and the Citizenship Education Fund. Rainbow Sports, a division of both CEF and Rainbow/PUSH, is the vehicle Jackson uses to involve himself in professional sports.

The legal status and financial accountability of these groups is murky, but they carry out many of his activities. (For an analysis of this relationship, see Capital Research Center’s April 2001 Organization Trends, "Jesse Jackson’s Empire.")

Rainbow Sports is headed by Charles Farrell, a former Washington Post reporter whom Jackson met in 1993. Farrell, who claims success in getting professional sports teams to purchase from minority vendors, has hosted a series of seminars in cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington and Atlanta.

At Jackson’s Wall Street Conference in January 2003, a panel on business opportunities in the sports industry included representatives of Major League Baseball, the Detroit Tigers and New York Jets.

Why is Jackson involved in sports? Publicity and power rather than money appear to be the immediate major reasons. Aside from getting professional teams to purchase from minority vendors, few sports organizations and players are large financial supporters of Rainbow Sports or other Jackson nonprofits. But with NASCAR, things may be looking up.

Jesse Jackson and NASCAR

NASCAR’s support for Jackson is certainly curious and potentially controversial. Stock car racing in the United States traces its origins to the days of the moonshiners of the 1930s, who were always looking for ways to give their cars extra speed and maneuverability in order to outrun the IRS agents.

Eventually the moonshiners began holding informal races, which led to more organized events. In 1948, William (Big Bill) France, Sr. started NASCAR. Today, NASCAR supports about 2,200 events a year in 12 divisions at 124 racetracks in 37 states.

NASCAR is a billion-dollar enterprise. It is privately held by France’s heirs, who include his son, Bill France, Jr., currently NASCAR Chairman, and his grandson, Brian France, NASCAR executive vice-president.

Auto racing traditionally has been a so-called white man ‘s sport. In 1991, Willy Ribbs became the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.) And, given its Southern origins and blue-collar appeal, stock car racing in its early years experienced rampant discrimination. But that’ s changing.

By the 1980s, stock car racing had spread beyond the Deep South and become a national sport. NASCAR studies show its fans now include more females, young adults and minorities.

More than 15 million people per year attend NASCAR events, and another 130 million watch on TV. According to an ESPN poll, the black fan base of NASCAR rose 17.8% between 1995 and 2001 and NASCAR has attracted about 2 million black fans since 1995.

The Role of Sponsorship

This broadening, however, has not resulted in more African-American participation in the sport, a failing Jesse Jackson has attempted to exploit.

At a 1999 conference attended by Bill France, Jr., Jackson said, "The fact of the matter is there is frustration because of exclusion. We must now turn that pain to power. We were qualified to play baseball before 1947. We are qualified to race cars now."

But is the dearth of minorities due to "exclusion" or other factors?

It is important to consider the role of sponsorship in auto racing. Corporate sponsorship of NASCAR race teams is an integral component of its wildly successful business plan. NASCAR is a private, for-profit corporation that serves as a sanctioning body for most auto racing events in the United States. NASCAR collects ticket receipts and television revenue from races it sanctions. It does not hire or pay race teams or drivers.

Racers used to finance their own participation in the sport, but by the 1980s the enormous costs associated with NASCAR racing made it nearly impossible. Today it costs on the order of 12 to $15 million to field a car for the Winston Cup, NASCAR’s elite racing division. Race teams must raise their own funds from corporate sponsors.

Research has shown that, more than any other sport, NASCAR fans are very aware of sponsors and intensely loyal to them. Three out of four NASCAR fans consciously buy the products of NASCAR sponsors. More than 250 corporate sponsors are involved in NASCAR, 70 of them Fortune 500 companies.

NASCAR has sought to educate fans that without sponsorship, drivers would not be able to race, and NASCAR ticket prices would be much higher. Still, getting sponsorship in NASCAR is no easy matter. Drivers who don’t win races don’t find sponsors.

In recent years there have been black team owners and co-owners in various divisions of NASCAR, though none in the Winston Cup.

In 1998, Dr. Pepper sponsored a team formed by NBA legend Julius Erving and NFL star Joe Washington. It raced unsuccessfully in the Busch Series, NASCAR’s second-most prestigious division for several years before folding.

Former Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her husband Bob Kersee planned but failed to establish a team. BH Motorsports, run by black owners Sam Belnavis and Tinsley Hughes, intended to run a Winston Cup team schedule in 2003, but their project folded, too.

"These teams that tried before us and failed, it’s all a matter of funding," Belnavis said. "This is an expensive sport and sponsors are hesitant to spend money, especially on people they aren’t sure know what they are doing."

The problem of finding black team owners also affects the search for black drivers. Currently, the only black driver on NASCAR’s national-level circuits is Bill Lester, in the pickup truck division.

To find qualified black drivers, crewmembers, and other participants, it is necessary to enlarge the pool of them. But this is the exceedingly difficult part, according to Bill France Jr., "You don’t play it in school. If you’re a good athlete, a good basketball player, the basic equipment you need is a ball. That’s not the case here."

NASCAR Reaches Out

In recent years, NASCAR has seemed sincere in its efforts to involve African-Americans in the sport. As Bill France, Jr. has pointed out, "It is not in NASCAR’s power to create an African-American team, that is up to sponsors, but we can provide access to mentors and people who know the sport."

Dora Taylor, who heads NASCAR’s diversity initiative, says, "We just hope to fill in some missing links in education and communication. We want minorities to know they’re welcome for any and every opportunity we offer." One such initiative is the Team Rensi Urban Youth Racing League, which tries to use motor sports to excite inner-city youth about education. NASCAR also offers summer internships, an Urban Youth Racing School for minorities, and the NASCAR Technical Institute, where blacks and whites learn how to work on a pit crew.

NASCAR’s reaction to a racial "prank" in 1999 at the New Hampshire International Speedway underscores its break with the past. Two motor coach drivers for Winston Cup teams, one of whom donned a pillowcase, reportedly approached the black coachman for another team and invited him to join the KKK. NASCAR withdrew the credentials of the two that allowed access to track areas, which ended their employment. NASCAR quickly apologized to the victim, and distributed a memo restating its "zero tolerance for racial harassment."

The Jackson Trap

NASCAR’s support of Jackson’s nonprofits is undoubtedly intended to further insulate itself from charges of discrimination.

The Jackson-NASCAR relationship culminated in an announcement at Jackson ‘s annual Wall Street Project conference in New York in 2001 that Dr. Pepper would sponsor the Miller Racing Group, a team for the NASCAR Late Model Series. It has a black owner, Leonard Miller Jr. and black driver Morty Buckles. In 2002, when Buckles was replaced with another black driver, Shanta Rhodes, Jackson claimed hat he had "brokered" the establishment of the team.

Jack Kilduff, president and chief operating officer of Dr. Pepper, said, "Everything we do has to have a business reason, and as we looked at how we are going to develop the Dr. Pepper brand in the future, we see our involvement in NASCAR and with minorities as an opportunity."

Do African-Americans in auto racing welcome Jackson’s involvement? Carlin Alford, a black race driver from Nashville who hopes someday to compete in NASCAR told the Tennesean: "I’ m happy for Morty Buckles, just as I would be happy for any driver who gets a NASCAR opportunity. But in terms of the big picture, I don’t know that it helps to focus so much on color. I don’t want people to think I deserve a chance because I’m a black driver."

And do NASCAR or sponsors such as Dr. Pepper need Jesse Jackson? Or does he need them?

Reduced Moral Authority

At about the same time as the Dr. Pepper announcement, however, Jackson received publicity of a different kind, reducing his moral authority, and creating new risks for his corporate supporters.

In 2001, Jackson admitted fathering a child out of wedlock with a staff member of the Citizenship Education Fund. The spectacle of a married clergyman in this predicament was only heightened when the photos appeared of Jackson visiting the White House with his pregnant mistress in tow for the ostensible purpose of providing "moral counseling" to Bill Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky episode.

When it was disclosed that CEF employed Jackson ‘s mistress, and paid the expenses of moving her to the West Coast, a more far-reaching media discussion of Jackson ‘s finances and tactics ensued. It was triggered in part by a formal Complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service by the National Legal and Policy Center asking for an audit and investigation of CEF ‘s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, resulting in Jackson’s amending CEF’s tax returns. (The complaint is pending.)

Reactions to Jackson’s recent threat to protest the Masters golf tournament over the issue of female membership may be indicative of his reduced stature. Masters champ Fred Couples pointed out, "I didn’t know he played golf or knew any golfers."

King Kaufman, sportswriter, said, "It doesn’t help when Jesse Jackson chimes in, because, as much as I hate to say it, he’s become a sort of poster boy for dumb protests."

More significantly, three-time champ Tiger Woods refused to join the protest, provoking this outburst from Charles Farrell, the director of CEF’s Rainbow Sports division," I find it shocking and appalling that somebody who has brought so much stature to the game of golf is basically saying it is all right to discriminate against humans."

Jackson’s biggest score since the 2001 revelations was with Toyota.

In January 2002, the company was a very visible co-sponsor of Jackson’s Wall Street Conference where a Toyota executive gave a keynote address. But that was after Jackson threatened to lead a boycott of the automaker because a Toyota postcard had showed a close-up of a black person’s smile with "tooth jewelry" in the form of a gold Toyota RAV4.

There were also charges of too few minority dealerships, even though Toyota’s record in that regard was better than most. In response, Toyota announced a $7.8-billion "diversity plan."

The perception that Toyota caved in to Jackson produced a backlash. Talk show host Bill O ‘ Reilly proclaimed on his no. 1-rated cable television show that he would never buy a Toyota. By July, Toyota had no presence at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition & Citizenship Education Fund Annual Conference. Today, Toyota strenuously denies any relationship with Jackson, and it has recruited two prominent Republicans, Jack Kemp and former New York Rep. Susan Molinari, to serve on an advisory board on diversity.

As Jackson’s influence declines, his actions and statements grow more extreme.

At a Sept. 13, 2002, rally in Washington, DC, he claimed that President Bush wants to "rule the world." He also said, "September 11 did not change everything. It changed the subject . . . The subject is broader than bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The real subjects for us is [sic] Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, Arthur Andersen . . ."

In a Sept. 16, 2002, speech at Michigan State University, Jackson was dismissive of the Founding Fathers and asserted that American democracy was only 37 years old, not 200-plus.

Jackson stated that "democracy as we know it did not begin in Philadelphia, where a bunch of white men wrote the laws." Jackson dated the advent of American democracy to 165 when the Civil Rights Act passed.

Will Jackson’s personal scandal, attacks on President Bush and criticisms of the war on terror imperil NASCAR’s support of his nonprofit groups? Toyota moved away from Jackson when the media coverage went bad and NASCAR has made little effort to alert its fans that it supports him. One recent sign: the current brochure on NASCAR’s diversity program doesn’t mention Jackson even once.