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

Hunter McElrea wins Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 Scholarship

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Hunter McElrea bested 18 competitors to win the third annual Road to Indy USF2000 $200,000 Scholarship Shootout on Sunday at Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, Ariz.

The two-day contest featured on-track competition in Formula Mazda cars as well as interview sessions and assessment from a panel of judges.

“I can’t believe it,” McElrea said at IndyCar.com. “This is definitely the most exciting opportunity that I have had in my racing career. I cannot thank Mazda and everyone enough for making this possible for me. The fact that I am going to be on the grid next year thanks to them is a dream come true.

“They have given me the opportunity to prove myself in such a high level that I never even thought I would be able to reach. I have to thank Andersen Promotions, Cooper tires, all of the judges, everyone from Mazda, the Bondurant Racing School and the other competitors, who literally pushed me to the limit.

“I am just so happy. It is still sinking in, but I just can’t wait to get next year started, and I’ll be representing Mazda in that nice Soul Red USF2000 car.”

MORE: Michael Carter wins Mazda Road to 24 shootout

The 19-year-old McElrea was born in California, but reared in Australia.

As a result of winning the award, McElrea will compete in the 2019 season of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.

McElrea won the Australian Formula Ford Championship this year on the strength of 13 victories in 21 races.

Early competition resulted in a final field of six drivers that included Jake Craig, Michael Eastwell, Braden Eves, Flinn Lazier and Ross Martin. They competed in a qualification session and 30-minute simulated race. McElrea won that race.

“Today was an incredible day,” said Tom Long, Mazda Motorsports factory driver and one of the judges. “There was so much talent here for the shootout. Hunter McElrea just rose to the top when it was time to shine, but our decision was very, very difficult.

“In the end, given all of the circumstances, we were able to make a pretty good decision and we are really, really proud of not only Hunter but our whole team here with Mazda to be able to grant this $200,000 scholarship for his opportunity in USF2000 next year.”