Antron Brown, Erica Enders champs because NHRA championed diversity

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When Antron Brown and Erica Enders won their second respective NHRA Top Fuel and Pro Stock championships Sunday in Las Vegas, what they achieved was more than just being the best drivers in their classes in 2015.

Brown and Enders once again were prime examples why the NHRA is the most progressive sanctioning body in motor sports – if not all forms of professional sports.

While other motorsports series kept the door closed to African-Americans, females and other minorities for far too long, the NHRA instead welcomed everyone with open arms.

It didn’t matter what gender you were or what color your skin was. The only thing that mattered was that you were a racer, plain and simple.

When legendary three-time Top Fuel champ Shirley Muldowney was ridiculed back in her home state of New York for wanting to be a professional drag racer, she moved west to California to follow her dream.

And it was the NHRA that not only allowed Muldowney to pursue that very dream, but encouraged her to be the best she could be.

In turn, Muldowney became a symbol to females everywhere that if she could succeed, they could too. Sure, it definitely wasn’t easy in such a male-dominated sport, but whenever Muldowney ran into roadblocks from some of her competitors, the NHRA quickly bulldozed and pushed aside those roadblocks so as to keep the road open for Muldowney.

It was Muldowney who inspired Enders when the latter was an eight-year-old aspiring racer back in Texas in the early 1990s – and it’s Muldowney, now 72 and still as feisty as ever, who continues to inspire Enders.

“I just absolutely love Shirley,” Enders said at this year’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. “She blazed the trail for women in drag racing. I and every other female drag racer wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her and what she went through. She is a true inspiration.”

Brown, meanwhile, came out of New Jersey seeking to race his motorcycle somewhere, anywhere. The NHRA gave him that opportunity, and he did so for several years in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class before switching to Top Fuel. This year’s championship is his second in the last four seasons in the 330-mph, sub-four-second world of nitro-fueled dragsters.

Sure, from a historical standpoint, Brown is the first African-American champion (and repeat champ) in NHRA history, while Enders is the first female Pro Stock champ (and also repeat champ) in the sanctioning body’s annals, as well.

But those racial/gender descriptors are irrelevant. What is is the fact they’re both winners and champions yet again.

Back when I was with USA Today and covered the NHRA from 1984 through 1997, I sat down with NHRA founder Wally Parks one day in the early 1990s and we talked about how NHRA and the sport had evolved in the first 40-plus years of its existence and under his watch.

I asked Parks what were some of the things he was most proud of in his tenure as leader of the drag racing world.

Without blinking an eye, Parks leaned in like a friendly grandfather, grabbed my arm and said with a smile, “Giving everyone a chance to race. That’s what NHRA has always been about.”

It was very apparent that Parks took personal pride that the NHRA had taken such a positive lead by welcoming anyone who was a gear head at heart and who might have nitro methane or high octane racing fuel running through their veins.

As we talked further about opportunities in the sport, I noticed something conspicuous in the words Parks used – or should I say the words he didn’t use. He never said “blacks” or “African-Americans” or “Hispanics” or “Mexicans” or any other racial descriptor.

He never said “them” or “those people” or anything that would make those of non-white racial makeup stand out.

Instead, he just kept calling all drivers “racers” or “drag racers;” their skin color or gender was irrelevant.

I had always respected Parks but that day took that level of respect to a whole other level. This was a man who cared for everyone and, damn it, he was going to make sure they were going to get every chance they could to pursue their dream – like Muldowney, Brown, Enders and tens of thousands of others in both the professional and sportsman/amateur ranks.

In Parks’ personal dictionary, the definition of race was exactly what it was: a competition of speed and elapsed time, not a descriptor of skin color or culture.

That’s why NHRA today is without question the most diverse and welcoming motor sport series in the country. Go to any of the 24 national events and you’ll see African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and even those of Middle East descent sitting together, chatting like old friends, enthralled by the eye-popping speeds and ear-popping sounds.

The passion for racing is what binds them together. You don’t see ethnic or racial groups segregated in certain parts of the grandstands. Instead, you see a cultural, racial and ethnic melting pot that should be the envy of every other professional sports league around.

NHRA has built much of its popularity on Parks’ policy of welcoming everyone with open arms. That’s why we see African-American drivers like Brown and J.R. Todd, Hispanic drivers like Cruz and Tony Pedregon (who will serve as an analyst when Fox Sports begins televising NHRA races in 2016), and female drivers like Enders, three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey and sisters Brittany and Courtney Force, daughters of the sport’s all-time winningest driver, John Force.

It’s a brotherhood and sisterhood linked by smoky burnouts and the pursuit of always trying to go an extra thousandth of a second quicker or one mph faster than the other driver in the next lane.

They all occupy and race on the same ground. They all compete on unquestionably the most level playing field in the world. And no one cares where they came from or how they got here.

All that’s important is the passion to race and a long legacy of diversity. NHRA truly does it right. It gets it when it comes to being color blind and gender blind. That’s why we are celebrating champions like Brown and Enders — and we should also celebrate NHRA for being a champion of diversity and equal opportunity.

Other sports sanctioning bodies and leagues could learn a hell of a lot from the NHRA’s example.

It’s a true shame many of them still haven’t.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).