‘Race’ docuseries shows delicate balance faced by aspiring NASCAR drivers like Hayden Swank
20-year-old college student is determined to advance in a sport that’s not welcoming to Black drivers
It’s a sound bite heard early in the docuseries that follows Hayden Swank, a jarring piece of advice offered to a Black teenage race car driver attempting to secure a meaningful space in a predominantly white sport.
“Under any circumstance,” a crew member tells Swank, “don’t take your helmet off after a race.”
That line demonstrates that the repercussions of driving while Black can extend even to a racetrack. This week, former Formula One champion Nelson Piquet further highlighted this by apologizing for using a racial slur last year while discussing Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time F1 world champion.
“There’s always people who don’t take too kindly to you,” Swank said of his experiences as a Black driver. “I’ve raced at tracks where it’s not the most welcoming environment. As one of few [Black drivers] doing this, I try not to let it get to me.”
Swank, inspired by Hamilton in F1 and Bubba Wallace in NASCAR, is determined not to let the perceived differences of being a Black driver be a deterrence. This year, Swank, now 20, who was part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program four years ago, is racing late-model cars on the CARS Tour, with his progress documented on the Race docuseries that’s now in its second season on YouTube.
“My goals are to one day make it to the Cup series and race on Sundays,” Swank said. “The CARS Tour is my first taste of running a late-model series. Right now, I’m working on my craft and working on my way to get to that next level.”
“I love competition, I love winning. Once I got out there, it just came so naturally.”
Playing with Hot Wheels toys as a young boy sparked Swank’s interest in cars, which intensified when his family moved to Woodstock, Georgia, just a short distance away from a small racetrack.
“I didn’t know anything about competitive racing, but once I saw all the kids my age out there, I told my parents, ‘This is something I want to do,’ ” Swank said. “I love competition, I love winning. Once I got out there, it just came so naturally.”
Although the thrill of driving fast came naturally, Swank learned that the challenges and obstacles of driving while Black extend to a race car circuit where he’s often faced hostility as one of a few Black people in an environment where Confederate flags are often flown openly.
The worst environment for Swank was at Franklin County Speedway in Virginia, where he won a race only to have race officials attempt to take it away, alleging that he cheated. That led to a heated encounter between Swank’s father, Bob, and racetrack officials that was captured in the first season of the docuseries. Racetrack officials seized Swank’s shocks, which they then sold back to his race team.
“You probably need a whiteboard and all that crap they’re trying to pull at Franklin County,” Swank said. “They just kind of threw out the rule book, and then charged us $400 to get our shocks back. It’s tough sometimes to navigate in a predominantly white sport.”
It’s also tough to navigate the sport without money. Swank has added prominent sponsors to help move his career forward, including Overtime, the sports brand and basketball league that produces the Race series on its YouTube channel, Old Spice and the General Motors “Bring Us Your Talent” initiative that assists students in their careers.
“In addition to the challenges athletes face to try to achieve their dreams, Hayden is competing in a sport that lacks the diversity of others,” said Dave Zegarelli, senior executive producer at Overtime. “We’re honored to have him share his story with the Overtime community as he brings fans inside the world of auto racing and the hard work it takes to strive to be the best.”
Swank is thankful for the support and the exposure.
“Ever since I was 7 and started out with quarter midget racing, my family has provided all they could,” Swank said. “This is the one sport where your checkbook often goes further than your talent does and I was always going up against drivers that were better funded. But over the past two years, thanks to my sponsors, I’ve been able to close that gap.”
Closing that gap, for Swank, means mastering a delicate balancing act: that of being a full-time race car driver and a full-time student. Swank is a full-time student at the University of Georgia, pursuing a degree in advertising and marketing.
“From the last week of February to the end of the semester there wasn’t a minute in the day where I wasn’t working on getting better as a driver or studying for tests,” Swank said. “It was a 60-credit semester combined with doing the biggest thing I’ve ever done in racing. I think I managed it well, but it was pretty tough.”
Juggling race car aspirations and being a college student is an experience he shares with Rajah Caruth, who drives stock cars while majoring in motorsport management at Winston-Salem State University. Both are products of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program.
“For a while, I was the only young driver of color for the most part, so seeing Rajah rise up the ranks has been good,” Swank said. “Rajah is awesome and we’re able to bounce stuff off each other, and it’s cool to communicate with someone who is going through the same stuff as I am.”
Unfortunately, that “stuff” is never-ending for Black drivers, which was made evident this week with the racist remarks directed at Hamilton, an F1 legend.
“It’s really frustrating to see that there’s still a segment of ignorance and discrimination still around,” Swank said of the Hamilton controversy.
That segment of ignorance and discrimination won’t likely fade. But gone are the days when Swank was concerned about keeping his helmet on.
“I’ve faced challenges because I’m Black, but I don’t worry about those people,” Swank said. “I just worry about winning.”