While NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program might be perceived as an effort to draw more African-Americans into professional racing, the reality is that the campaign is aimed at developing a full range of minority and female drivers and crew members and to expand its fan base in numerous directions.

And so far, among Hispanics, NASCAR is making strides.

The program is helping produce promising Latino drivers. Michael Gallegos, who was born in Colorado, finished 17th in the 2007 NASCAR Camping World West Series standings in his third season in the program. And Jesus Hernandez, a second-generation Mexican born in Fresno, Calif., finished 12th in the 2007 NASCAR Camping World East Series standings in his fourth season in the program.

Several drivers, including Ruben Pardo, Rogelio Lopez and Jose Luis Ramirez, were born in Mexico. The elder statesman among Latino drivers might be Carlos Contreras, the first Mexican-born driver to compete in any NASCAR national series. Contreras, 38, broke through in 1999 when he joined the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and finished 14th in his first race — the NAPA Auto Parts 200 at California Speedway.

“Most people expected me to go to CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), which was very popular at the time in Mexico, but I chose NASCAR,” Contreras said. “I wanted to be the first Hispanic in NASCAR, to open doors in Mexico and with Hispanics to NASCAR racing. I feel I have definitely opened doors for others to follow, including Ruben Pardo. We now have a NASCAR series in Mexico, and the races are broadcast in Spanish throughout the U.S. and Mexico. I feel that what I did started everything.”

According to the Simmons National Hispanic Consumer Survey, about 8.9 percent of NASCAR fans are Latino. There was a 10 percent increase between 2001 and 2005, when the most recent survey was taken.

There are Latino team members, drivers and a team owner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series and Camping World Series. Felix Sabates, born in Cuba, has owned a NASCAR team since 1987 and was instrumental in making a Mexico City race part of the NASCAR Nationwide Series circuit. Armando Fitz, owner of Fitz Motorsports, has been a Nationwide Series team owner for seven years. Joe Nava, owner of Performance Motorsports, competes in the Camping World West Series. Alba Colon, from Puerto Rico, is General Motors’ top engineer for its NASCAR Chevrolet racing program and was one of Hispanic Business magazine’s 20 Elite Women last year. Phil Jimenez is a race engineer for the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota team.

But drivers are the faces of the sport.

Aric Almirola, who is of Cuban descent, drives for DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) in the NASCAR Spring Cup Series.

“When fans have someone they can relate to, identify with and cheer for, they become emotionally invested in the sport,” said Max Siegel, president of DEI. “I am proud to be able to support Aric’s career, and hopefully have a direct impact on the growth of our sport.”

There are obstacles, however, and some in NASCAR spoke openly about the challenges they have faced in trying to reach the top of the sport. Asked if he faced racism, Contreras said, “a little.”

“The new Mexican guy stood out sometimes, especially to some people in the garage who had never been out of the South,” said Contreras, who competed in two races last year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for Fitz Racing. “I can say, though, that with time, I was seen by most as a regular guy in the garage, and I made lots of friends.”

The bigger obstacle is attracting sponsors, Contreras said, because corporate America doesn’t really rush to sponsor Hispanic or other minority drivers.

“If sponsors want the Hispanic market, they will go to soccer or music,” he said. “… Give me a good car and I will get around the track as good or better than any driver. Why should I be limited with my sponsors because I am Hispanic? It’s really not fair.”

Ruben Pardo, who drives for Fitz Motorsports, said Contreras helped open doors for him.

“If there aren’t big pockets behind you, you just can’t go racing,” he said. “I am eager to race, but support for me to continue my career is not there right now. I really have to work twice as hard as the next guy. Companies need to support Hispanic drivers. If you had a Hispanic driver competing with a high-profile team or sponsor, I am sure that fans would flock to their support. … It is tough for a Mexican company to spend this kind of money, and U.S. companies hesitate to sponsor a minority. My résumé should impress most anyone, but once they see I am Hispanic, I am cast aside as a Hispanic driver, instead of being seen as a NASCAR driver who has won races and championships.”

Clearly, the talent is there. But the sport still needs more top Latino drivers at all levels. And the corporate sponsors still need to fully understand that embracing diversity is a business imperative and that the Latino market has not been fully engaged. Understanding that could be the real fuel that propels the Latino community even further in the world of motorsports.

About the Author: Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card in sports, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular commentator for ESPN on issues of diversity in sports.