That’s Racing: Racism, sexism charges sting NASCAR

Friday, June 20, 2008 at 1:40am
A lawsuit by a former NASCAR employee has stung NASCAR because the organization has been trying to shed its “redneck” stereotype. File

A black female ex-NASCAR employee has filed a $225 million suit charging some of her former male coworkers with racial and sexual harassment. From what’s been reported, she may have a case.

Maybe her fellow officials thought they were just joking and kidding around – treating her like one of the guys, as it were – but unless they’ve been living under a rock for the last few years surely they know that’s unpardonable in this day and time.

Haven’t they heard of Don Imus? He thought he was just joking too.

It’s not so much about the money (although $225 million isn’t chump change); the real damage is to the sport’s image and reputation.

The lawsuit reinforces every negative “redneck” stereotype that NASCAR has been trying to overcome for decades.

I spent more than 40 years in press boxes and locker rooms covering just about every major college and pro sport, and I overheard no more racial and sexist remarks in NASCAR than in any other sport. I have long-time friends in the top echelon of NASCAR. I know their hearts, and I know they’re not racist.

But the image endures. Stock car racing began in the rural South back in the days when everything from restrooms to racetracks were segregated. Even in a new millennium, that bygone shadow lingers.

It has been reinforced by the almost total absence of minorities in the sport. For years NASCAR has had a “diversity program” intended to bring in more women and minorities, but there has been little progress. There are still no women or minority drivers in the top series, and few if any on the horizon. And NASCAR’s lone black female official? Well … we know what she says what happened to her.

There are almost no black players in the NHL and equally few women jockeys in horse racing. Yet those sports don’t face constant charges of racism and sexism.

It’s not fair, but few things in life are, and NASCAR should realize it by now. It knows it is under a microscope, and that it must be ultra-circumspect when dealing with women and minorities.

That’s what makes the current case so mind-boggling. According to the woman, during her tenure with NASCAR she was constantly subjected to racist and sexist comments, actions and innuendo. How incredibly stupid could anybody have been to do that, even in jest?

There’s no context in which such behavior can be excused, especially not in NASCAR, which has spent decades trying to overcome negative stereotypes and modernize its image.

Suddenly all of that work is undone, the clock has been turned back a half-century, and NASCAR has to start all over.

Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville and has covered auto racing for almost four decades.

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