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June 11, 2004
Already an established race car driver in the Goody Dash series in New Jersey, Ricky Gonzalez dreamed of breaking into NASCAR but lacked the contacts and financial backing to do so.
So when he heard about NASCAR's "Drive for Diversity" tryouts for minority drivers this past January in North Carolina, he counted himself in. Of 250 drivers who showed up, Gonzalez made the first cut of 12. While he wasn't selected among the final five, all of whom were given sponsorship contracts, the Aguada, Puerto Rico, native used his pluck and determination to parlay the experience into a team and a ride at the Craftsman Truck series.
Born in Puerto Rico and adopted at the age of 2 by a Puerto Rican cabinetmaker, Gonzalez was raised in New Jersey, although he visits family on the west coast of the island two or three times a year. He recently met his biological mother and discovered he has 13 brothers and sisters, three of whom live in New Jersey. Gonzalez is the second to the youngest, was the only one of the brood adopted and is one of the only ones who speaks English.
"I have a lot of Puerto Rican pride. I'm very connected even though sometimes I feel like I go through double discrimination -- rejected in Puerto Rico because I was raised in New Jersey and rejected in the states because I'm Puerto Rican," Gonzalez said.
Without significant funding Gonzalez used smoke and mirrors already to compete in two events and he hopes to have at least seven more on his schedule this season. Just by getting out on the track, the 38-year-old is making history as the first Puerto Rican to race in NASCAR. He's happy to be a pioneer, but he's also frustrated.
"I'm pretty much doing it on my own. If you look down the list of truck teams, most of them have major sponsors. I have only single race deals and it's very difficult to break into NASCAR that way," said Gonzalez, who owns a graphics company in New Jersey that does car striping and lettering. "If you look at the lineup of current drivers, they either come from a racing family or a wealthy family. My family has nothing to do with racing and I don't have one team to help me. I put them together race by race."
Despite marketing research that indicates Hispanics are the next big boom in NASCAR fans, Gonzalez said he's knocked on doors and found few Latino companies interested.
"They told me they prefer to put their money in soccer," said Gonzalez. "I mean, here's this huge fan base out there and they're not even interested in tapping into it."
NASCAR media relations official Josh Hamilton said he estimates Hispanics make up nine percent of NASCAR's 75 million estimated fans. Latinos make up 38.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to Census data. NASCAR racing is considered the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States.
Sponsorship would mean big-time visibility for any product, so it's strange to Gonzalez that no one wants to bite.
"I get a lot of mail from fans and I've met with a lot of fans and they're very supportive," said Gonzalez. "An amazing amount of people come up to me to tell me how proud they are that someone's out there representing us. It's an honor to do that but it's difficult because I'm running a limited schedule. NASCAR tells you what tracks you can race based on whether or not they think you can handle the competition."
NASCAR fans are not known for being culturally enlightened or diverse -- up until just recently the Confederate flag was a frequent site at events -- so it kind of makes you wonder how they would receive a Latino driver.
"I don't get outright prejudice, but they'll make a comment when they hear my last name," said Gonzalez. "It's getting more diverse in areas of the country now. Now you're seeing drivers from California or Wisconsin or Michigan whereas before they were primarily good ole boys from the South."
"NASCAR has never actually taken the approach of keeping anything out," says Malcolm Calhoun, who founded the Drive for Diversity program. "The sport had a demographic history of minority involvement with racing cars for generations. We're just bringing it to life."
In fact, according to Pat Walsh, of Access Marketing, Drive for Diversity continues to look for qualified minority drivers and crew members. He said press releases went out across the United States prior to the January tryout Gonzalez attended.
"If they had tryouts this is the first I'm hearing about it," said Puerto Rico's top race car driver, Wally Castro, who won the Trans Am Series Grand Prix event on the island last October. "I would have gone."
Castro estimated Puerto Rico's NASCAR fan base at 2 million and said he's even heard rumors that a group on the island plans to pitch NASCAR to land an event here. The Grand Prix, held at the Isla Grande Airport last fall, drew an estimated 21,000 fans, unprecedented for auto racing in the Caribbean. The Grand Prix will be back this Oct. 10 at the airport.
"If they [Trans Am series organizers] had any doubts at all, they were erased after the first event," said Castro.
Walsh said he hopes news of future tryouts will reach an even greater number of minorities. Gonzalez agreed.
"It's very tough when you're trailblazing. I hope I can motivate younger kids that want to do this and hopefully they'll have an easier time with corporate America," said Gonzalez, who said his truck has a Puerto Rican flag down the side of it.
"Most people don't know but the Hispanic fans and the mechanics know and they all started coming up to me and I couldn't get over how many there were," said Gonzalez. "I got some flak for saying this from NASCAR but basically, at the level we're at, our driving skills are equal. The difference is team, equipment and sponsorship. You see a driver, who never did anything, hook up with a different team and start winning. The problem is they don't see the value of a Hispanic driver."
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.