When Antron Brown won the National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel championship last season, he became the first African American to earn a major auto racing title.
The distinction was noted, but not trumpeted, by the NHRA. That wasn't a slight, Brown said, because drag racing has been a leader in sports diversity for decades.
"Being the first African American to win an auto racing title and the first in the NHRA is a great feeling don't get me wrong," said Brown, the defending Sonoma Nationals Top Fuel champion who will compete in qualifying today at Sonoma Raceway for Sunday's finals. "But to be honest, I've never had to worry about diversity in our sport. It's always been wide open. I grew up racing in the sportsmen classes with my dad and my uncle, got the chance to drive drag bikes, and now I'm in dragsters. And from Day One, there's always been diversity in our sport. It's really no big deal."
Unlike NASCAR, the NHRA doesn't have a diversity director or initiatives to try to increase minority and female participation. For the NHRA, diversity always has been organic. It just is and always was.
The Pedregon brothers, Cruz and Tony, have a large Latino following. Last week in Colorado, ESPN cameras focused on a group of Latino fans cheering on every pass by the Pedregon brothers. Their older brother, Frankie, also raced in the NHRA and co-owned a team in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program a few years ago.
Women have been drag racing since Barbara Hamilton got her NHRA license in 1964. NHRA Hall of Famer Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to earn a Top Fuel license, has three championship titles and 18 overall victories. Former Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Angelle Sampey is the winningest female NHRA racer with 41 career wins. Veteran racer John Force's daughters Ashley, Courtney and Brittany have NHRA victories, and Courtney Force is seventh in the Funny Car standings this year, just 23 points behind her father in fifth entering this weekend's event at Sonoma.
"I heard stories of Shirley (Muldowney) from my dad, and she's passed down quite a legacy to the rest of the female racers," Courtney Force said. "I hope I can do the same because, let me tell you, I sign a lot of helmets and gloves of young girls who tell me they're racing in junior dragsters and super comps. The diversity in the NHRA is just amazing, and I love it."
Ashley, Courtney and Brittany Force worked their way up through the junior ranks to alcohol-burning cars to Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars. They earned their seats in the top echelons by racing at far-flung tracks before their father, a 15-time NHRA Funny Car season champion whose teams have won 17 season titles, would bankroll them. Early in their careers, they raced against blue-, white- and grease-collared drivers at local tracks such as the Sacramento Raceway, where the sport's diversity is readily displayed.
"The NHRA is a reflection of our community, and that community is diverse," said Jerry Archambeault, NHRA vice president of public relations and communications. "We are very grass-roots, and at local tracks such as the Sacramento Raceway, we have all races, both genders and all socio-economic classes. The point of entry is very affordable in drag racing, and from the earliest days of the sport, it's always been, 'Run what you brung.' "
Unlike in the NHRA, the upper echelons in NASCAR are white and male. Sure, NASCAR has Danica Patrick, but she has only one victory in major auto sports competition, and that was in 2008 in IndyCar. Juan Pablo Montoya is a Colombian-born NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, but his highest finish in the point standings in seven previous seasons is eighth.
Several years ago, NASCAR started its Drive for Diversity program that funds women and minority drivers in regional competitions such as K&N Pro Series East and West. Elk Grove driver and Japanese American Kyle Larson won the K&N East title in 2012 as a rookie while racing for Drive for Diversity. Now he's seventh in the Nationwide Series standings and is a development driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
Brown accepted an offer from NASCAR to test with a Drive for Diversity team last May. He did well enough against seasoned stock car drivers that he's considering joining NASCAR at some level soon.
"Toyota gave me the opportunity to drive for Revolution Racing and Drive for Diversity, and after a couple of hours, I have to say that I was only about a second off the pace of the other driver out there," Brown said Tuesday from Bristol, Conn., as he watched his son, Anson, compete in a regional NHRA junior dragster competition. "I may race for them after the NHRA season and maybe on off weeks. Who knows? It's intriguing."
Brown said one of the best ways to integrate NASCAR would be by making a run at a title. Of course, it would be his skill and not skin color that would determine his success.
"The one thing that stops racism is to execute excellence," Brown said. "When you do that, people forget about the color of your skin, and they look at the athlete. My great grandmother was Native American. My grandfather is French Creole. I'm the true American mutt, and at the end of the day, we're all Americans. Look at the person for their successes, not for their gender or the color of their skin."
Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at email@example.com.