NFL’s Kamara supportive of NASCAR’s push for inclusion: ‘This is a safe space’

Alvin Kamara hesitated.

The 5-foot-10, 215-pound NFL running back wasn’t sure whether he belonged at a NASCAR race. His interest in stock-car racing only recently piqued due to the COVID-19 shutdown, as it was the first professional sport to return to action. But old reservations kicked in when he arrived at Homestead-Miami Speedway as an invited guest.

“I was kind of like, let me stay on my side, I’ll introduce myself,” Kamara said Friday on his first NASCAR teleconference. “But everyone was so welcoming. They’re like, ‘Man, we love that you’re here. Are you really interested?’ I’m like yeah, and we had conversations going and flowing. I’m meeting fans and interacting with people. I’m like oh, this is a safe space. It’s not what I thought it was. I was pleasantly surprised.”

Kamara’s first in-person race happened in June 2020. On Wednesday, Kamara announced his Louisiana-based juice bar, The Big Squeezy, will sponsor Ryan Vargas’ No. 6 JD Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series next Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

RELATED: Alvin Kamara partners with JD Motorsports

The three-time Pro Bowler went from brand-new fan to financially invested partner in less than a year.

“It means the world to me,” said Vargas, one of NASCAR’s few Hispanic drivers. “This is one of those opportunities that doesn’t come along often, and that’s kind of been my whole career. I was a part of the Drive for Diversity program in 2018, and they opened the door for me to get into the sport. One thing I will always say is this sport has welcomed me with open arms. I’ve always had great experiences.”

In the past, certain stereotypes surrounded NASCAR. That’s why both Kamara and Vargas clarify that the league does feel more welcoming now.

Last year the sanctioning body prohibited Confederate flags from all NASCAR venues, and as Kamara acknowledged: better late than never. In that same year, the industry backed Bubba Wallace — the only Black driver at the Cup Series level — as he spoke out about social-injustice issues the nation continues to battle. Conversations on how to further improve were brought into 2021, too.

Steps have clearly been made toward a better, more inclusive future.

“There are people in the African American community that are obviously interested,” Kamara said. “I think it’s more so on our radar now because of what’s been happening over the past, I guess, nine or 10 months. Bubba, the news of him has been everywhere. Obviously with NASCAR making the move to ban the flag from their events and from basically their culture and their footprint, that was one huge thing. I probably couldn’t bring myself to a race if that was something I felt like they were supporting. With that being gone, I think that there will be more African American fans and people that are interested.”

Kamara isn’t the only big name outside of the NASCAR realm seeing and supporting its push for change. NBA legend Michael Jordan and Grammy-winning superstar Armando Perez, a.k.a. Pitbull, are both team co-owners at the top level. Jordan helps field 23XI Racing with Wallace as its driver. Pitbull is with the Trackhouse Racing Team and its pilot, Daniel Suarez, the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR national-series event.

This goes beyond brand promotion.

“We’ve been hitting it on the head: It’s about diversity,” Kamara said. “Just opening the gates to welcome in new fans and new people that may have had interest but didn’t feel comfortable or people that don’t even understand the sport and may be indifferent about it but willing to give it a chance. I think there’s a whole new set of possibilities that can come with what’s going on right now.”