In late spring 2020, as people of all races and ethnicities took to the streets to voice their discontent following the killing of George Floyd, many organizations quickly followed suit. Across industries and sectors, companies began issuing statements of solidarity with the Black community and committed to doing their part to prevent such injustices from occurring in the future. But for some, these events only affirmed the work they had long been doing.
At NASCAR, the events of 2020 served only to solidify the organization’s — and the industry’s — commitment to this important work.
“Diversity and inclusion have been part of our company’s values for some time,” says Brandon Thompson, vice president of diversity & inclusion at NASCAR. “However, I do think that the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — the sort of steady drip of things that we experienced in 2020 — made it more important for us to bring the conversations we’d been having behind closed doors to the forefront to make sure that our fans knew exactly where we stood on these issues.”
Appointed in June, Thompson — who previously served as managing director of the NASCAR Touring Series — leads the sanctioning body’s strategy around diversity and inclusion as it seeks to champion and enhance these values across the industry. In his role, he oversees an existing team of NASCAR employees responsible for multicultural programs and initiatives, including the longstanding NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program, as well as strategic alliances with the Institute for Sport and Social Justice and the Diversity and Inclusion Sports Consortium.
With an eye on attracting top diverse talent to NASCAR, both on and off the track, Thompson recently spoke with The Consortium about the organization’s vision for the future and the steps it’s taking to achieve greater diversity, equity and inclusion in both the sport and industry.
What is guiding your work in this new role?
Our main goal, speaking from a broad sense, is to make sure that NASCAR as a company, an industry and a sport is diverse. It’s our job to make sure that we’re creating an environment in which diverse candidates can come and be a part of the sport, number one, but then taking that a step further to make sure that those who come to the sport — be it from an employment standpoint or a fan standpoint — feel welcome and included; that’s in all aspects, be it race, sexual identity, differently abled persons.
What sparked the creation of your position, and why were chosen to lead this important work?
I think it’s been a steady beat. I’ve been around the sport for 17 years. I did my first internship in 2003 at the Nashville Superspeedway, and it’s been the topic of conversation at least since then — and even prior to that. For instance, the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program, which I was fortunate enough to be a part of has been around since the year 2000.
We didn’t just find religion on these topics of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice during the first week and a half of June 2020; these things have been going on for quite some time. Our executive leadership team, Steve Phelps and the board, understood and recognized that this was the next steady progression if we were going to continue to make an impact in this area.
Under your leadership, what are NASCAR’s top priorities when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion? What is your overall strategy for achieving these?
Our top priority, candidly, is to make sure that NASCAR as a company and as an employer has its own house in order. That means making sure that employees feel valued — those of us who are diverse, differently abled, identify differently in terms of sexual orientation or whatever the case may be. It also means making sure that our hiring practices and the people who we have working for us reflect those values.
In terms of a strategy, it’s a three-pronged approach. There’s the internal piece. Then, there’s the industry, making sure that we’re partnering with the entire industry, with teams, with drivers, with sponsors, with broadcast partners to make sure everyone’s rowing the boat in the same direction. Then, it’s the external piece — making sure that fans, consumers of the sport, know and understand that we’re seeking to build a diverse and inclusive environment where anyone who enjoys fast cars and close racing can come and feel welcome at the racetrack and enjoy that without barriers. We’re planning to make some announcements soon regarding a more robust and detailed plan.
What are the greatest challenges NASCAR faces on the path toward achieving its diversity goals?
Frankly, I think it’s the stereotype that hangs over the sport — some of it earned and some of it not. That’s the biggest thing we’ll have to do is change public perception about what NASCAR is and what NASCAR’s all about.
What have initiatives like NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Driver Development Program and Diversity Internship Program done to diversify the sport and NASCAR in general? Have these efforts led to enhanced inclusion as well?
I’m glad you mentioned the Drive for Diversity Program. We have drivers in the top level of NASCAR, in the cup series, who have come through their program and have proven to be successful. Daniel Suarez being a NASCAR champion at the Xfinity Series level was no small feat; he is the first Mexican native to accomplish that goal. Obviously Bubba Wallace, although he’s not visiting Victory Lane, he led the truck series in victories his last year. Kyle Larson’s been to Victory Lane, and we’re excited to see his journey continue. So, there are three drivers out of 40 who are diverse and doing well in their respective ways. That’s not something that should be taken lightly.
I would also point to the Pit Crew Development Program, which is part of the Drive for Diversity Program. That program boasts a 100 percent placement rate for those who complete the training. It’s been around since about 2015, and right now, we’re looking at graduates of that program commanding a combined salary of somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 million a year. There’s a lot of diversity on Pit Road, and not just racial diversity — there’s also gender diversity. We had Brehanna Daniels become the first Black woman to pit a car in NASCAR, and we have a couple of other women who are coming through the pipeline and are working their way up through the truck series ranks. So that program has been immensely successful.
If you look at the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program (NDIP), we’ve been able to place people in full-time positions across the industry, not just within the walls of NASCAR. We have people who are working on teams, people on both the engineering side and the management side, as well as several NDIP alumni who are working at NASCAR on the corporate side. So, we know these programs are working. I don’t say that to say that we’re satisfied by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve got a lot more ground to make up, but we’re excited about the journey ahead and confident we will continue to make strides.
Bubba Wallace has been a key player in much of the organization’s social justice efforts. Do you have any plans to work together with Wallace — or any other members of the NASCAR team — to spearhead new initiatives within the organization? Why is it important to include internal team members in this work?
It’s vital. It can’t fall on any one person, any one department or any one facet of the industry. It has to be a collective effort in order to achieve the goals we’re looking to achieve. Certainly, Bubba will be a part of that, whether in a formal capacity or just Bubba continuing to stand up for what he believes is right and stand by his convictions. But we’re going to be leaning on a lot of other drivers as well — all of them, quite frankly — because it’s a shared responsibility.
It has to be a collective effort. I mentioned our partners in this, our racetrack partners, broadcast partners, corporate partners; we’re going to be leaning on everyone in the industry to carry this ball down the field. The industry is on notice and supportive of the efforts because, at the end of the day, our main goal is to get NASCAR and stock car racing in front of as many people as we can.
What can we expect from NASCAR in 2021?
You should expect to see us continue our efforts in terms of the programs we’ve talked about. We’re going to continue to make sure that our hiring practices are in line with our stated values and that we’re increasing our number of diverse hires. I think you can continue to see us do more in and around the communities that we serve, as well as partner with different initiatives, programs and/or organizations to make sure that the industry’s behind this effort and that society understands that NASCAR’s stated goal is to be as diverse, inclusive and equitable as possible.
We’re also excited about the prospect of new and younger ownership coming into the sport. Obviously, Denny Hamlin partnering with Michael Jordan is something we’re really excited about. On Sunday, during the DAYTONA 500, Jordan made his debut as co-owner of the 23XI Racing Team, and Pitbull made his debut as co-owner of Trackhouse Racing. We’ve also seen Emmitt Smith become involved in the sport through a sponsorship. We’ve been hearing inquiries from other new and diverse ownership as well.
What do you love most about your new role?
I love the fact that we’re able to make — or are at least positioned to make — an impact on society. I think NASCAR, frankly, caught a lot of people by surprise during the first 10 days of June with the stand that we took. It wasn’t a shock to me, quite frankly. I’ve had the benefit and the good fortune of being around the sport for almost two decades, and one of the things I’ve always felt in my heart was that we would get to this point and that things would shift. I hate the fact that it had to come to this in order for society at large to have this awakening, but I’m certainly encouraged by the things I’ve seen and heard in broader society and especially here at NASCAR. So that’s the thing that gets me the most excited, to see where the future can lead and to really see the impact that NASCAR will be able to have on the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice.
As a seasoned diversity and inclusion executive and business leader, what advice would you give to MBAs trying to stay focused during a time of unprecedented unrest and uncertainty?
I would encourage everyone to not give up hope. One of the things I’ve been extremely impressed with [through all of this] is the millennial and Gen Z generations, who have really answered the bell and have made it clear where they would like to see society go. I certainly see that as a beacon of hope.
If the events of this year are any indication, I certainly think that in the years to come, we will be in a better place. So I would encourage people to remain hopeful, to use their voices and to have the courage to speak out against issues of injustice — and know that there is no neutrality on this; you’re either against racism and actively pushing against it or you’re not.