Antron Brown, Erica Enders champs because NHRA championed diversity

1 Comment

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

Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
Leave a comment

AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”