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

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski