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Erik Moses, NASCAR’s first Black track president, on the importance of representation

The racing circuit returns to the Nashville Superspeedway after an absence of 37 years

Erik Moses loves a good challenge. The former CEO of the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission and president of the DC Defenders of the XFL was named president of the Nashville Superspeedway in August 2020, becoming the first Black track president in NASCAR history. The track in Lebanon, Tennessee, will host its first NASCAR Cup event in 37 years during Father’s Day weekend.

Moses’ great uncle, John Kenneth Lee, was one of the first five Black students to desegregate the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1951. Now Moses, 50, is making his own history, looking to fill the stands at his track and to create greater diversity at all levels of the sport. At a time when NASCAR’s popularity is falling, Moses says more Black, brown and female participants and fans may be a key to the sport’s viability. “If you’re not growing,” he said, “you’re dying.”

Moses spoke with The Undefeated about why he likes racing, the possibility of hosting a historically Black college and university (HBCU) football game and what it means to be a pioneer in 2021.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What have you come to appreciate about auto racing?

Everything. Many people try to argue that our drivers are not athletes, which is a foolish argument. All it takes is to get into a car one time to understand what it requires in terms of reflexes and hand-eye coordination. You realize these guys are going 150 mph with 39 other guys on the track, six inches apart on every side around you with a rearview mirror, no side mirrors and a guy in a tower with a pair of binoculars in your ear telling you where you can go and where you can’t go.

Nashville Superspeedway president Erik Moses on diversity in his sport: “We have to tell those stories so that those who are inclined to believe the stereotypes because of lack of knowledge can counteract those assumptions with facts.”

Jon Morgan Photography

That’s not even the beginning of it. The car gets built from a chassis to what you see on the track by a group of engineers and mechanics. That process is amazing to me, looking for any amount of advantage that will allow them to be fractions of a second faster than the competition. There’s so many details that are not visible to the naked eye if you have not been immersed in the sport.

What do you think your position and your track represents in Nashville?

Symbolism matters. I credit NASCAR for doing away with the Confederate flag, because for people like myself, and people not just of color but of conscience, that was a hard stop sign. Doing away with that has given people less reason to reject NASCAR out of hand without even dipping their toe in the water. Once you come out here, it’s way more diverse than people think it is. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many brown people, young people and women I have seen at the track and in the pits. Folks will see that and have their eyes opened if they allow us the chance to give them some firsthand experience with the sport.

I’ve heard you’re interested in hosting an HBCU football classic.

I founded and developed the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic in D.C. and ran it for six years. We’ve got unique infrastructure in Nashville – a 70-acre grass infield where I can fit probably two football fields back to back. And then you’ve got 25,000 capacity in the stands and our luxury suites. The novelty of having a football game at a racetrack I think is something that can be very appealing.

What do you see NASCAR doing in terms of diversity and racial justice?

We just launched, and I am happy to be included in our diversity, equity and inclusion industry council. It is composed of folks from across various stakeholder groups: NASCAR executives, event promoters, some of our bigger partners like Coke and Anheuser-Busch and Toyota and Chevy, our broadcast partners at NBC and Fox, so it’s intended to include every kind of perspective and stakeholder who wants to see our sport grow and flourish.

A big part of it is telling people what we’re already doing and have been doing, showing people of color and women who have been in the sport for a long time. We’ve got to talk about Wendell Scott and what he meant to this sport and what he had to go through, and that throughline you see now with young people like Rajah Caruth, who is an up-and-coming racer on the ARCA Series. The kid saw the movie Cars when he was 4 years old and decided he wanted to become a race car driver. Hayden Swank out of Atlanta is another up-and-coming African American driver. We have to tell those stories so that those who are inclined to believe the stereotypes because of lack of knowledge can counteract those assumptions with facts.

Are there specific diversity initiatives that you’d like to see NASCAR tackle?

I care a lot about small businesses and minority- and female-owned businesses and giving them a shot. I would hate if we were to end up being a sport that tried to do all it could to get ticket buyers into our venues to consume our sport but did not show ourselves willing to work with businesses owned by those same kinds of fans. You put your treasure where your priorities are. Supplier diversity, things like that matter in addition to hiring. Let’s not use the same old businesses to try to get to a different outcome. Say you have a marketing agency you’ve been using and it’s a general market agency. Well, that agency may have the same issues as it relates to diversity that you do. And now you want to go after broader racial, ethnic and gender diversity? Who’s to say they have any amount of skill or proficiency in doing that? Why not go to an agency that is accustomed to speaking in and to those channels in a way that you can measure and can see has worked in practice?

Berkeley sociologist Harry Edwards talks about the different waves of Black athlete activism, from first-wave activists like Jack Johnson fighting for legitimacy, through desegregation figures like Jackie Robinson, to 1960s social activists like Jim Brown to today’s generation powered by social media. Where is NASCAR on that continuum now?

The most visible participants in this sport are the drivers, and we only have one [Black driver, Bubba Wallace] at the highest level, so I think that drives the perception that the sport is not welcoming to people of color. Having more drivers of color and women will help to change the perception faster than anything else.

But I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re at the Jack Johnson stage, because that’s what Wendell Scott was in the ’60s. Now, the problem is we didn’t see the continuation of what he did, and part of that is, unlike boxing where you just need gloves, this is an expensive sport and so necessarily dependent on corporate dollars. What Wendell Scott was able to do on his own dime was just amazing.

We’re at a moment now where corporate America in many respects is trying to lead on issues of equality and social justice. Whether it’s Rajah or Hayden or any of these folks, they need the corporate dollars in order to show what they’re made of and how they can compete. I don’t know what makes a multinational, multibillion-dollar company decide, ‘I’m going to bet on that Black kid from Atlanta who’s driving race cars to get him to the Cup level.’

If a company bet on the right Black driver, wouldn’t that be gold?

You’d have a Tiger Woods or a Serena or a Naomi, but the fear for people like me is that you get to what I call ‘the Obama Standard.’ That as a person of color or somebody who is different you have to be superexceptional to get a shot. You can’t be good. You have to be superexceptional. And assuming there are people who have the capability to be superexceptional, they still need the investment and the opportunity in the sport. The Urban Youth Racing School is doing great work teaching kids from urban areas about cars, the driving part, and how they work and jobs in the automotive industry, and we need more of that. What I don’t want is every up-and-coming driver or female driver to have to be Barack Obama in order to make it.

That’s like other sports when leagues desegregated. There weren’t Black players riding the bench. You had to be a star to get a chance.

I do think we are past that in NASCAR. We’re not in a place where you have to be ‘the right Black’ or ‘the right woman.’ I could be wrong. But my gut is that that’s not where we are. If you can handle a race car, if you can drive, someone will see that talent and help try to nurture it. The challenge is, are you exposed enough that the right eyes get to see you as you’re coming up, and that folks who are interested in nurturing you have the resources to do so.

It’s the year 2021 and you’re a pioneer. How do you handle that?

I’m not pursuing my career to make history. That said, representation matters. And I know that because of the communication I have received from getting announced for this job – friends and strangers saying what it means to them. I know it from going to the NASCAR Hall of Fame last October at Charlotte Motor Speedway and being escorted around and seeing a Black family in there, a mother, father and teenaged son, and thinking to myself, ‘Well, that’s cool.’ And then the father walked over to me and asked did I work in Nashville and was I the track president. This is during COVID. I had a mask on. And I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ He said, ‘I thought so, my son noticed you as soon as you walked in. He follows you on Instagram. Can he take a picture with you?’ He brought him over and the kid has encyclopedic knowledge of NASCAR and wants to be an announcer when he grows up. So, what my having this role means to that kid is more important than me being able to say I was the first. It says to him that he can work in this industry, in an important role, and doesn’t have to worry about whether it’s possible because he’s seen that it is possible.

Andrew Maraniss is a New York Times bestselling author of sports nonfiction for teens and adults. He is also director of special projects at the Vanderbilt University Athletic Department. Online at www.andrewmaraniss.com and on Twitter @trublu24.