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NASCAR's diversity goals get lineman-sized push

Joe Gibbs knew Reggie White wanted something from the first rap on his front door, from the moment the former NFL coach peered through the peep hole at the still-menacing eye of the retired All-Pro defensive lineman.

This year, since that visit, Gibbs has added his weight to the latest and possibly most viable diversity effort in a circuit Rainbow/PUSH Coalition board member Bill Shack called "the last bastion of white supremacy" in professional sports.

"Reggie said he was interested in getting into it from an ownership side and I told him how hard it was," Gibbs said. "Then he said he wanted to bring on some minority drivers, so we started looking at some things. This sport needs to reach out to everybody."

If Reggie White Motorsports is to open figurative doors for African-Americans in stock-car racing, it will have started, literally, with a knock on a door between two Charlotte neighbors.

"NASCAR wants this," said White, who was NASCAR's guest at the Talladega fall race. "They are really stressing diversity and I thought this would be a great opportunity to give some people a chance that might not otherwise get it."

Expanding opportunity for African-Americans is an important issue for NASCAR, and a plank for new CEO Brian France, who created its diversity board. While the organization has supported various minority initiatives _ such as the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia and promoting truck series driver Bill Lester _ it needs charismatic, independent figures like White, who remains a well-liked and recognized figure.

Though his outspoken commentary on racism and social stereotyping often has been controversial, he has proved himself as an advocate for change. But he admits he never suspected NASCAR would be his vehicle until adviser David Gandy approached him.

"To be honest, when he approached me about it, my response was like, NASCAR?" White said. "I've always wanted to be a part of something in another team sport but also to give inner-city youth in particular the chance to do something. We've found there are actually a lot of inner-city kids racing, but they're in karts."

Similar ventures by African-Americans Hank Aaron and Julius Erving failed in the past, but White's effort could be stabilized by the material support of Gibbs' two-time Winston Cup winning team.

"If this was just me, it would be one thing," White said. "But being in a partnership with Joe, we're even stronger because he's won championships and he knows what he's doing."

That the team has realistic expectations and is preaching patience and development also helps. It plans to start with young black drivers in the Late Model series.

"Originally, we were going to put a white driver in the car," Gandy said. "It was going to be just be minority ownership. Then we rethought it. Instead of a white driver _ and it would be suicide to put a black driver in a Winston Cup car, there is no one qualified right now _ if this is about getting more minorities in the sport, how can we do it at a level where there is already talent there?"

Steve deSouza, vice president of Gibbs' Busch teams, and Gibbs' son and team president, JD, a member of the NASCAR diversity council, culled 250-plus applicants to six competing for two spots. The plan is to grow to six teams which would race at the numerous tracks in North Carolina. Gibbs will provide all of the equipment from a dedicated new shop in Charlotte.

Gandy said the fastest RWM could get a driver to the soon-to-be Nextel Cup series would be 2007. That's no help to Lester, who saw Dodge last week discontinue its diversity program.

NASCAR hopes to offset that with the launch of its "Drive for Diversity" program, which will recruit African-Americans at all levels, from sponsors to drivers.

"This is the right thing to do, morally," said Terrence Burns, NASCAR managing director of consumer communications. "And from a business standpoint, it increases our talent pool and makes a lot of sense."

Even before he sought out Gibbs, White surrounded himself with knowledgeable advisers. That one, former New York Jets running back Adrian Murrell, is African-American adds to the effort.

Murrell, born in Fayetteville, N.C., grew up tinkering with cars with his father and later built racers. Now retired, he's the president of a racing team.

"This is something I've always wanted to be involved in," Murrell said. "My dad was always the gearhead guy. Being around him, being a product of who is, got me going in this direction."

Finally, the direction may be forward.