Diversity and inclusion mission making ongoing strides in NASCAR

To fully appreciate the tempest that Brandon Thompson had risen to face last season, it helps to build a timeline. The springtime that brought the outbreak of COVID-19 also marked crucial moments in the sphere of social justice. Both were areas of global and national-level magnitude. NASCAR faced those crises in its own ecosystem.

Scott Hunter
Brandon Thompson, Credit: Scott Hunter

Thompson was named as Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion on June 16, tapped to a new position meant to promote diversity throughout the NASCAR industry. His appointment arrived in the midst of a turbulent time of change not just for the sport, but for society in general.

Kyle Larson’s dismissal for his use of a racial slur was barely two months old. George Floyd had died while in police custody on Memorial Day, and the circumstances of his death sparked protests nationwide. With the country’s reckoning on race growing, NASCAR drivers began to find their voice. Bubba Wallace and Ty Dillon hosted an impactful discussion on social media June 3, and four days later, more NASCAR drivers joined in a unified call to action amidst the unrest during their race at Atlanta on June 7, with a pre-race observance led by NASCAR president Steve Phelps and a video that expressed the drivers’ willingness to listen and learn.

NASCAR banned the Confederate flag on June 10, six days before Thompson’s assignment was announced. He’d been on the job less than a week when the tumultuous events surrounding Wallace at Talladega and the garage’s show of support for him unfolded. In the context of a sport that lists airflow as a component of its on-track competition, these winds were decidedly choppy. Thompson would have little time for an easing-in phase of orientation.

“It was a lot to do in a very short period of time, but I also think that also gave our group an opportunity to get in and show what we could do,” Thompson said.

Nearly a year later, the Diversity and Inclusion group is still showing its progress, counting numerous organizations as partners in its mission to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. The department has bolstered its existing relationships and fostered new ones, expanding its reach with the help of a newly formed Industry DE&I Committee. The committee will convene for this first time this month and features some of the most influential names in the industry — Phelps, Wallace and Rick Hendrick, among them — with additional representation across teams, tracks, manufacturers, rightsholders and official partners.

Through the work of Thompson’s department, NASCAR has developed relationships with multiple organizations — the Urban Youth Racing School, Trevor Project, the Women’s Sports Foundation and UnidosUS just as a sampling — and expanded resources for diverse employees, supplier diversity efforts, and enhanced training have all grown.

A more structured approach to supporting advocacy organizations will be a central component to NASCAR’s enhanced diversity platform, Thompson says. The new advocacy group alliance will focus on women and the Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and LGBTQ+ communities.

This week, NASCAR announced to employees the formation of an LGBTQ+ employee resource group (ERG) following the launch of the company’s first three ERGs last summer. Groups for women, Black and Hispanic/Latinx employees were assembled as forums for shared experiences and to build community among diverse employees and their allies.

Since last season and leading up to this year’s Daytona 500 on February 14, NASCAR worked with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), the Institute for Sport and Social Justice and DECK Leadership to successfully complete more than 3,000 sensitivity and unconscious bias trainings across the industry.

As the platform continues to evolve, at the center of it is Thompson, a 37-year-old Nashville native who first came to the sport as part of the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program nearly two decades ago. The role has tapped into his leadership skills, but the strides his group has made haven’t been a solo endeavor.

“Relationship-building is definitely a key part of all this, and not only relationships internally across departments,” Thompson says. “The network can’t live just within the D&I department, but it’s even throughout the industry, whether it’s the relationships with teams, tracks, etc., as we’re trying to accomplish a lot of our goals.”

If Thompson felt the brunt of the responsibility with his appointment last June, the NASCAR community has helped him shoulder it. He had already established a foundation with the relationships he had built in his various roles with the sanctioning body — from his start as an intern in the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program in 2003 to full-time roles with the sanctioning body’s racing operations and grassroots touring series.

When his current position came amid that eventful and pivotal time last year, the industry was there with its support — whether it was making a collective statement pre-race in Atlanta or pushing Wallace’s car to the front of the grid on Talladega’s pit road.

“All of these things really illustrated how important these things were, yes because of what we were going through in society, but also what the true character of the industry was,” Thompson says. “Mentioning with that, the industry hasn’t always been cast in the best light. There’s been a lot of things put on the industry in terms of stereotypes and perceptions, but I think we at least begin the path to dispel some of those myths and perceptions.”

Arguably, some of those perceptions have been drawn from NASCAR’s past, when the idea of diversity wasn’t as readily embraced. “Within the last calendar year, sports leagues, teams and athletes and I think corporate America in general are being looked at in a different light and are expected to weigh in on things like this and speak out,” Thompson says. “The new generation of consumers is calling on that and looking for companies and leagues to do that, and it’s for all the right reasons.”

Illustrative of that effort was the Diversity and Inclusion team’s response in the wake of last month’s mass shooting tragedy north of Atlanta with the series scheduled to race at Atlanta Motor Speedway south of town just four days later. With six of the eight victims of Asian descent, Thompson said the department mobilized and worked with the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, hosting some of their employees at the weekend’s race events to provide a needed distraction from a difficult week. Before the race, NASCAR tweeted its support for the local chapter as part of a call for followers to help #StopAsianHate.

“Being able to call attention to it, being able to highlight those organizations, and just acknowledge that moment during pre-race was something that was important to us,” Thompson says.

While Thompson is proud of what’s already been accomplished, he points to what remains on the to-do list. Social issues continue to mount and sports leagues remain active in their response to current events. NASCAR is no different, and Thompson and his team remain ready to try to smooth the turbulence.

“We are definitely at … and maybe crossroads isn’t the right word, but an inflection point,” Thompson says. “I certainly think that’s where we are, and that there is a lot more work to be done. So we certainly made a lot of strides, but last year in many ways was just the beginning. NASCAR publicly in making its stance on issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion, and social justice was important — a seminal moment for the sport, for sure, but now the actual work begins in terms of what that looks like.

“What are we doing in terms of areas of diversity, what are we doing in terms of our alignment with organizations who are doing the work to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, and what else are we doing internally to support our own employees and what are we doing from an industry standpoint to make sure we’re making meaningful and impactful change across the entire sport.

“Yes, the work has just begun in a lot of ways.”