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BET search hits the track

Michael Cherry, 21, of Valrico, is a poster child for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. He stars in BET’s reality show tonight at 8.

Special to the Times

Michael Cherry, 21, of Valrico, is a poster child for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. He stars in BET’s reality show tonight at 8.

The first question he's often asked is why he doesn't play basketball.

Next, comes astonishment, when Michael Cherry of Valrico reveals that he's actually a member of a very small group: African-American NASCAR drivers. And sometimes those he surprises the most are other black people.

"They didn't know that I drove a race car, or that any African-American drove a race car," said Cherry, 21. "Now, they're my biggest fans."

Cherry will help bring those revelations to a larger audience today, starring in an ambitious effort to change NASCAR's diversity-challenged image by bringing an unscripted reality show to Black Entertainment Television.

Changing Lanes debuts on BET at 8 tonight, centered on the search for 10 participants to join NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which gives women and ethnic minority racers driving opportunities and training.

The show was developed by Max Siegel, a former entertainment lawyer who became the first black man to serve as president of a NASCAR franchise. Back in his days working for record labels, he saw how American Idol could develop a singer's fan base before a record ever hit stores.

Could the same technique be used, he wondered, to sell people of color on the young minority drivers trying to make a name for themselves in NASCAR?

"I wanted to come up with something that has a little bit of The Apprentice and a little bit of American Idol," said Siegel, who developed the show with America's Next Top Model producer Ken Mok.

And in many ways, Cherry is the poster child for Siegel's goals.

Started in the car racing game at age 17, he was mentored by his stepfather, Jimmy Cherry, a longtime veteran of the local racing scene (Cherry tells BET's cameras he never knew his biological father, who was black, and has been raised by his mother and stepfather, who are white).

He's been a part of Drive for Diversity for years, securing a sponsorship from Nationwide Insurance last year and scoring his first career NASCAR victory in June — becoming the first black person to win a late model race at Tri-County Speedway in Mooresville, N.C.

Changing Lanes shows Siegel winnowing 30 drivers down to the 10 accepted to his team, Revolution Racing. Hip–hop flavored music plays in the background; the action is narrated by rapper/actor Ludacris.

But the series features a limited amount of racing, focused more on the drama of the selection process. Siegel knows the show might not have enough racing for race fans, and too much for those don't know the sport, but he hopes BET's viewers will keep and open mind. Cherry, who calmly tells BET's cameras of an ugly incident when a rival racer's girlfriend threw the n-word at him, just hopes for the day when his race won't be so remarkable.

Changing Lanes debuts at 8 tonight on BET.

BET search hits the track 08/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 10:01pm]

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