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‘It’s all worth it’: Brad Daugherty savors his historic victory at Daytona 500

The five-time NBA All-Star became the first Black NASCAR team owner to win the legendary race

Former Cleveland Cavaliers star Brad Daugherty was sitting in the dark, alone at home in Orlando, Florida, nervously watching the Daytona 500 after enduring a recent eye surgery to repair a retina tear. Driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was in position to not only make history for JTG Daugherty Racing but for African Americans as well. As Stenhouse earned the checkered flag, Daugherty yelled out to himself, “We just won the Daytona 500” knowing he just became the first Black owner to win the race in what also happened to be Black History Month.

“I was teasing with someone the other day at the racetrack saying, ‘We get Black History Month. Of course, it’s the shortest month of the year. So, we always get shortchanged, African Americans,’ ” Daugherty, 57, told Andscape in a phone interview. “We were laughing a little bit because we were just so proud of our heritage and lineage and all that stuff. And then that popped into my head after the race, ‘Oh, my Lord, man. I just became the first African American to win the Daytona 500, in Black History Month, man.’ It just doesn’t get no better.”

Daugherty is known for his outstanding basketball career with the Cavs and with the University of North Carolina. The five-time NBA All-Star averaged 19 points on 53.7% shooting from the field, 9.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists from 1986 to 1994 before a back injury ended his career prematurely. The 1986 consensus second-team All-American also was named to the ACC 50th anniversary men’s basketball team and played in college with Michael Jordan. Daugherty is also one of four owners of JTG Daugherty Racing and, including Jordan, is one of five Black team owners in NASCAR’s 75-year history.

The following is a Q&A with Daugherty in which he talks about making Black history with NASCAR, the triumphs and challenges for Black people in auto racing, texts from Jordan post-victory, his relationship with star Black driver Bubba Wallace, today’s Cavaliers, his hopes of getting more Black people and college football players jobs into auto racing, his Hall of Fame hopes and much more.

You get your rear end kicked a lot when you’re small. And that day on Sunday, I said to myself, ‘It’s all worth it. It’s worth every bit of it to be sitting here as a Daytona 500 champion. It’s worth every bit of it.’

What kind of responses did you get immediately after winning the Daytona 500?

I was so excited and then immediately my phone started ringing. NASCAR’s [president] Steve Phelps calls me. All the folks, my team, started calling — Jody and Tad [Geschickter], Gordon [Smith], my partners — they call, and my phone just starts going nuts. And so, it was just bedlam from that standpoint, and I just sat down and said to myself, ‘Man, I’ve been in racing for 35 years or something like that, man.’ And you watch people win these races and you dream of winning these races. And so, it’s weird. But every week we leave our race shop there in Harrisburg, North Carolina, a little small one-car race team [that’s] got 50 people that work on my race cars and do a fantastic job, and I think we’re going to win. And I’ve been thinking that same way for 30 years. Even when there’s places that we’re not really good at, I still think we got a chance.

And then when it happens like this and [it’s] the biggest race of our schedule, a race that makes you a champion forever, it’s almost overwhelming. I’ve got little bit of OCD. So, the way I’m successful is if I can compartmentalize things. And I do that very, very well. I’m a pain in the a– but I do it very, very well. And even as the days have gone on, it’s really hard to put it in perspective. And then I immediately thought to myself [about] guys like [former NASCAR Cup team owner] Tinsley Hughes. When I came along, this African American brother used to sit and talk with me. I picked his brain on, ‘How do you do this? What are the resources available to us?’

Then I thought about [Black racing pioneer] Wendell Scott and the Scott family. It popped into my mind. I’m like, ‘I wonder what Mr. Scott would think.’ And then I thought about him, Michael [Jordan] and Bubba. I thought about [Rev Racing owner] Max Siegel and people like that who worked with the diversity program and worked their guts out to try to make this sport more inclusive. I thought about [African American driver] Rajah Caruth, who’s coming along, man. He’s going to be there one day. That stuff started going through my mind and then I started thinking about all the people that helped me get here. My buddy Robert Pressley from a little podunk town in North Carolina. And my friend the late Jack Ingram. And those things just start flowing through.

I teared up man and just really emotional. I’m not a boo-hoo person, but I had a tear in my eye and it just so much joy and exuberance from doing this a long time and there’s a lot of sleepless nights. It’s a bumpy road. It’s hard. You get your rear end kicked a lot when you’re small. And that day on Sunday, I said to myself, ‘It’s all worth it. It’s worth every bit of it to be sitting here as a Daytona 500 champion. It’s worth every bit of it.’

What was it like for you in auto racing racially when you first started?

A long time ago, a lot of people probably didn’t want me around. But I love racing. My dad taught me to love racing and I’m going to do whatever the hell I want to do. I don’t answer to no one else like that. So, if you got a problem with me, you got a problem. I don’t work that way. I don’t shy away from things like that. I’m not a confrontational person, but I don’t shy away from it. So, I’ve always just kind of marched to the beat of my own drummer and did my own thing and there’s probably people that didn’t want me there and there were people who was glad I was there.

What does it mean to you to have Black ownership in the sports world?

I get that question a lot. ‘Hey, Mr. Daugherty, what is it like owning one of those teams? How does that work? Is it like an NBA team?’ There is not a real collective bargaining process. There is not a salary cap. So, I get to explain the ins and outs and the business perspective of it. That really makes me happy. I tell [the Cavs players], ‘Hey, come to a race. I can show you how it will work or come to the race shop even more importantly. And I can show you what it looks like, the dynamic, and then I can take you to Rick Hendrick’s race shop and you can see what a massive operation of 600 people is like and how it works at the highest end.’

I love those inquisitive talks that I get to have with these young men, because today these young guys are so far ahead of us. They’re bright young men and they’re entrepreneurial and they have the resources to be so. And so, I love talking to these young cats about ownership there as well as ownership in professional sports, which is important. We need to own more baseball, basketball, football teams. And we need more faces of color in ownership. We need more women in positions of ownership and these young cats are so smart. They’re so sharp. I’m so proud of where the league is at today. We have some tremendous young men in our league.

From left to right: Cleveland Cavaliers greats Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Larry Nance pose for a photo at halftime during the game between the Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Jan. 21 in Cleveland.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Have you talked to Michael Jordan since Daytona?

I just texted with him. He just said, ‘Congrats.’ I told him, I said, ‘It’s a damn shame that every article that has your name in it is basically clickbait.’ We were laughing about that. ‘Oh, Michael and Brad trash-talk.’ That’s kind of an old NBA narrative. I’m proud of Michael. And he, he’s saying congrats on what you’ve done. I pull for him. I want that [No.] 47 to finish first, but I want his cars to finish second every week. And I want people to get that. They think all we do as basketball players is talk trash and we don’t have the brain to talk. He said, ‘Congrats, my brother. Congrats, man. Proud.’ I said, ‘Thank you, appreciate it, man.’

What is Michael Jordan’s influence on racing as an owner?

So, when Michael does something, everything is cool because he’s a cultural icon. And so now these young cats are starting to ask me more and more about it. ‘Help me understand the race car business.’ You get to talk to these guys about NASCAR and it’s really hard to explain it because from an African American perspective, there are not a lot of us. I remember days going to racetracks and there’d be 50,000 people there. And, man, I would damn near be the only face of color in the whole crowd. I don’t know how this happens …

I applaud NASCAR for the last decade of what they’ve tried to do in becoming more inclusive and all-encompassing. But there’s still a part of me that looks at this and says, ‘It’s taking too long. This is not OK.’ And I think more and more people realize that. But it’s the 21st century, man, and we still only have one African American driver at the top level. How is that? That bothers me. That’s why I tell Michael, ‘Man, I’m so appreciative of you.’ I’ve known Michael since I was 17 years old and he’s a friend. I’m so appreciative because my little race team, I would never have been able to put Bubba in a car and I wanted to so bad.

I tried to figure out a deal to get Bubba in my race car and he was willing. But I would’ve never been able to put him in a race car that could win on a weekly basis, and that’s what Michael has done. Bubba Wallace can win a championship in Michael’s race car. That type of equipment, he’s got the best of the best. And so, my fear was putting him in my race car where I need a driver that’s going to carry that race car a lot of times. And just having mediocre success with Bubba, I can’t do that. I couldn’t do that to the sport. Bubba has to be successful, man. Bubba has to be successful for Wendell Scott, for my buddy Tinsley Hughes. For me. For all the kids, little African American kids who want to be race car drivers, Bubba’s got to succeed.

What do you think about the impact that Bubba Wallace has made on Black people in auto racing?

He texted me right after race. I know him really well. Bubba and I text and talked three, four, five, six times a month and weekly during the season. I try to be a sounding board for him a little bit. That dynamic of being able to be a sounding board for him … So, I’m just really proud of him. He goes through a lot and there’s a lot of haters for Bubba Wallace, even though [NASCAR] is trying to make things better, make things right and do what we need to do. But that doesn’t cut out a segment. And the social media thing, people they’re just nasty and terrible and mean a lot of times.

I just try to encourage him because he’s really talented and very capable. But that young man walks around with the weight of the world on his shoulders because of the expectations and everything. And I just encourage him to be himself and to let it happen. It’s going to happen if you let it happen. Sometimes you get in the way of letting it happen.

I’m just really, really proud of him. I’m so proud of Michael Jordan. Michael didn’t have to do this obviously, but he did it. And it’s just a different era that when someone like that who steps into it and now everybody pays attention.

What advice would you give to somebody of color or a woman who would like to get involved in the auto racing world and loves it, whether it’s from an ownership standpoint or a racer standpoint or a crew standpoint, but are intimidated that there are not a lot of people there that look like them?

We’ve got to continue to speak to that and vocalize that there’s no barriers. The only barriers are going to be green. And if that’s taken care of, there are no barriers to getting into NASCAR and to becoming a racer. And what you’ll see, I see it all the time, man. The fan? Man, you see more and more and more faces of color at these races. It is awesome. Those barriers that were there in the past. They’re not there anymore. And if you want to come and be a part of something that’s just absolutely incredible, once you get in, you’re standing there watching these race cars, there’s nothing else like it. Come on.

Every Fortune 100 company in America touches NASCAR or racing somehow. So, there is a great opportunity. I tell all of these young African American cats, ‘Hey, you don’t have to just drive a race car. There are jobs in this.’ There is nautical engineering, all kinds of jobs. And then from the ownership side, absolutely. If you have the business acumen to be an owner in any type of sport, man, this is an incredible opportunity in a sport that’s just continuing to evolve and grow. It is welcome and it’s hyper-competitive and you got 75 million fans. That’s your fan base. It’s unbelievable.

What do you say to your Black friends that aren’t familiar with the auto racing, who didn’t grow up loving the sport like you did in North Carolina and are reluctant to give it a chance?

In order to do anything that’s out of your comfort zone, out of your boundaries maybe so to speak, you just have to be a little more open-minded. I’ll always invite and allow anyone access to someone that wants want to come learn or inquire or be a part of. But I’m not going to fight you. If it’s not your thing, I get it, man. That’s cool. If you don’t want to give it a chance. Just like soccer, I know a lot of brothers together won’t give soccer a chance. I like watching Manchester United and Arsenal. It’s an unbelievable event. And I know some brothers that just won’t. They ain’t watching it. They don’t care if I got it blaring on the television. So, I respect that. I got no problem with that.

But if you’re interested, come on. Because if you’re interested, once you stand there and watch race cars going 200 mph and it’s the most unbelievable thing you’ve ever seen in your life. You will be hooked. You just can’t help it. You can’t help it.

A.J. Allmendinger (right), driver of the #47 Scott Products Chevrolet, celebrates with team owner Brad Daugherty (left) in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 10, 2014, in Watkins Glen, New York.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There are so many Black college football players that probably don’t understand that they could transfer their football skills to racetrack crew. Can you explain that?

We rotate about 12 guys throughout our pit crew seasonally. So, we try to keep 12 guys available. And then some of these massive teams like Joe Gibbs and Hendrick, these companies have three crews of guys. Football players are who we target. We go out and look for guys who are college football players or ex-NFL guys, if they still in shape or younger, not too beat-up. The guys that you see on pit row today, these are all ex-athletes from somewhere. They either played Division I football, Division II football or Division III football. They played briefly in the NFL.

And then like Rick Hendrick and the guys at Joe Gibbs, they have combines for these guys. And you go through NASCAR, you get signed up, you go to the combine just like you do the NFL combine and they work you and teach you how to become a pit crewman.

These jobs are fantastic and they’re great for guys who still have a lot of competitiveness in them. People don’t realize a tire and wheel weighs almost 70 pounds. And so, we’re changing four of those, with a complete fuel load of fuel, in less than 11 seconds. So, you got to be an unbelievable athlete. There are incredible jobs. And then yes, with each race team and through NASCAR, you can intern. We do a couple years. We’ve got several interns that come through. We have a large marketing company that we use at my race team, so we bring interns in all the time. I’ve brought a lot of faces of color in through my race team, got guys started with my race team, and now the pit row is littered with faces of color and I’m so proud of that.

And a lot of those guys came through my little shop and moved on to race for Rick, the big teams, and make a great living. And I continued to do that. I got two young brothers that just came on board this year to my race team and it’s the same thing. They’re going to get the opportunity to learn and grow and I take pride in that … My front tire changer is a young brother, Ben Weber, an African American dude who’s in the Cup Series. He’s making a great living and he does a great job. And then Arize Obi is my gas man. He’s just a stud of a guy. Big, strong guy. And these two young brothers are going to be great, and I hope they stay with me forever.

What is the biggest thing you had to overcome racewise, in this business?

You really realize that when you’re around, there’s some people that just don’t want you around and they’re not going to say it to your face. You can feel it, or you hear it later. There are guys and gals that made comments when I was coming along 20 years ago that they didn’t want me around. I had no business being there. I’m a basketball player or I’m of color. ‘What am I doing at the racetrack?’ And some of those folks now are in pretty big positions in TV for sports, other sports, and some in NASCAR and I see those people and they act like it never happened.

But you know what? It’s a lesson I’ve learned and as I’m getting older, you just become less tolerant of bulls—. You also realize that it’s the part of the lesson that the good Lord lets you learn. When I try to talk to young guys, whether I’m talking to Darius Garland or Cedi Osman or Evan Mobley, I’m really, really trying to impart wisdom from experience to these guys. When I’m talking to my son, or my son-in-law, I’m trying to get them to understand what I’m telling them is not because I’m just a know-it-all. It’s because I bumped my head and I want to tell them you’re still going to have to bump your head, too. But I want you to be aware that that’s not the end of the road. You’ve got to keep going. And when you keep going, you’re able to look back and say, ‘That’s the lesson I was supposed to learn.’

What did the Cavaliers players say to you the first time you saw them after the race?

I went back to Cleveland [last week], and I did a game for the Cavs. And so, I talked to Donovan [Mitchell], he was out at the All-Star Game when it happened. I got to chat with him, Evan Mobley, and other players. They’re trying to understand it … But I had all these guys, Donovan Mitchell, Evan, and Darius, all these guys are asking me this. It’s a big deal, man.

They ask, ‘How does this compare to basketball?’ And those types of questions. And I’m like, it’s just my life. It’s not really a comparison. It’s just my life. It’s what I am, who I am, what I do, and I’m just blessed to have done both. And I think I’ve done both pretty well.

How good can this Cavs team be?

They’ve got some incredible pieces, as you know. This has to be a tough season for them. They have no playoff experience, man. They have never been in a situation where they’ve had a team that’s been able to focus on them for two weeks. They’ve got to go through that first. Once they go through that, oh, man, I’m telling you … Some nights I’ll watch them and when it clicks, I don’t see anybody beating them. They need more depth, and they need one more veteran guy that can get his own shot. But they still make mistakes. They turn the ball over a little bit. Sometimes they don’t defend as well in transition as I’d like to see them, because they depend so much on Evan and Jarrett [Allen] blocking shots. But those are little things because they’re the No. 1 defense in the league.

They played Denver the other night, who is just phenomenal on offense. It came down to the wire. The Cavs didn’t play great offensively. They struggled shooting the ball. They ended up losing by a couple, but that was a heavyweight battle, man. So, this team, you know, I’m saying four, three years from now, they will play for a world championship if everybody stays healthy.

What is your friendship like with auto racing legend Richard Petty?

Richard thinks he knows a lot about basketball, which he does. So, we sit and talk basketball and I was kidding him that morning. We just talk about family and how everything’s going. And he’s like 85 years old, man. He looks unbelievable. And it was funny. We were sitting there in the corner just talking. I said, ‘You look unbelievable to be 85 years old.’ He said, ‘I know your eyes are bad now. I know you really can’t see.’ But he’s always just been encouraging to me. I have a lot of respect for him.

I also have so much respect for Ned Jarrett and the late Junior Johnson. Those two, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett, back in the day would help Wendell Scott. What made Wendell Scott so great is he was such a smart man, and he would build a lot of his own pieces and parts. And then if there was something he couldn’t build that was really sport-specific, he’d get it secondhand or get it from people and they’d give him junk. But Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson would get him the best pieces and parts from the manufacturers and make sure he had that. And I always thought that that really means something. You got two guys in an era when they don’t have to do that. What good does it do to them? And I respect that. I admire that.

Are you still owning hope that you’ll get the consideration for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame?

I was a really good player. I see guys who go into the Hall of Fame. I’m like, ‘Wow, OK. Maybe I didn’t play long enough.’ If you asked Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Rony Seikaly, Rik Smits, Alonzo Mourning, those guys I played against their opinions, they would probably solidify whether or not I deserve that opportunity because when I played and I was healthy, I was every bit as good as any of those guys.

So, the majority of those guys were able to lead their teams to championships, I wasn’t able to do that. But night in and night out, for eight years, I never played against another center in the era that I didn’t think I was better then. I knew I would have a tough time stopping Patrick Ewing or David Robinson. But they knew they had a hell of a time stopping me.

I would be so honored. But I’ve never even had the opportunity to be on the ballot, so maybe it’ll never happen. But if it did, I’d be honored, tremendously.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.