Valrico native Michael Cherry helps bring NASCAR to Black Entertainment Television
Every time he does an interview, questions swirl around how it feels to to be one of the few black men competing in NASCAR, where allegations of slurs directed against minority fans, slurs shouted at the few minority drivers and a $225-million lawsuit alleging racist and sexual harassment in 2008 have dimmed the sport's reputation.
But there was one thing Valrico native Michael Cherry said he'd never been asked until I brought it up: How do other black people react to seeing an African American man driving in NASCAR?
"To tell you the truth, it surprises a lot of (black people)," said Cherry. "They didn't know that I drove a race car, or that any African American drove a race car. They really don't have no one to cheer for...They don't have that connection. Now, they're my biggest fans."
That's the kind of transformation NASCAR officials hope will spread far and wide tonight, when Cherry is featured along with a host of other minority and female drivers in Changing Lanes, a reality TV show based the sport's Drive for Diversity program.
And instead of airing on ESPN or the Speed channel, creator Max Siegel took his idea to Black Entertainment Television, the black-focused cable channel that was looking to feature different kinds of programming in an attempt to reach new audiences.
"if you communicate the message in pop culture, people listen," said Siegel, who uses the racing team he owns to administer NASCAR's diversity program, selecting 10 minority and/or female drivers for a academy-style, yearlong schedule where drivers get racing time, workouts, time in the shop working on each other's cars and exposure to potential sponsors.
"I worked at Sony/BMG on the American Idol things," added Siegel. "By the time the company put a record out, fans were already bonded with (the singer's) brand. (For this show), I wanted to come up with a blend of The Apprentice and American Idol."
Cherry, who grew up in Valrico and has moved to Mooresville, N.C. for the program, snagged a sponsorship with Nationwide Insurance last year and logged his first win in NASCAR in June -- achievements he says never would have happened without NASCAR's program.
I wrote a longer feature on Cherry for today newspaper you can read here. A preview of Changing Lanes, which debuts at 8 tonight on BET, is below: