It's 8:15 on a cool Saturday night in August, and the future of stock car racing is asleep at the wheel. While other Nashville teenagers are chomping on corn dogs at the Wilson County fair or cruising strip malls, 19-year-old Joe Henderson III is parked inside his dad's pickup truck on the infield of the Music City Motorplex, nodding off to a Kanye West CD as part of his prerace ritual. When he awakens in a half hour, he'll climb feetfirst into his late-model Dodge stock car and battle 14 other drivers, some of them twice his age, for the $1,200 first prize in a Dodge Weekly Series race. And like any cocksure youth, Henderson won't give a second thought to the risk or the pressure. "Pressure is like a 400-pound person sitting on you," he says. "But I'm just a kid. What do I know?"
In March, when Henderson was still several weeks from graduating from high school, Nashville-based Craftsman Truck team owner and former Winston Cup driver Bobby Hamilton Sr. handed him the keys to a 3,400-pound, bright-yellow Dodge coupe with 350 horsepower, a five-man pit crew and full-time sponsorship from Kodak to drive in the Sun Belt region of the Dodge Series. Hamilton is one of six team owners participating in Drive for Diversity, a new program created by Access Marketing and Communications of Charlotte and backed by NASCAR that matches minority and female drivers with teams and sponsors.
Henderson first met Hamilton four years ago when he visited the veteran's racing shop in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Joe had been working his way up through the go-kart, legend car and minicup circuits, but that initial conversation did not lead to the spot on Hamilton's team that he coveted. Hamilton kept close tabs on the young driver, though, and three years later he pulled Henderson out of a seventh-period class, put him in a stock car and had him drive his first laps around the Motorplex's 5/8-mile track with its 18-degree banked turns. Three hours later Henderson was prepping for a Dodge Series race that weekend.
His father, Joe Jr., 55, who works for Plastech Engineering Products (which makes dashboards for Ford) and serves as his son's adviser, is thankful that young Joe has opportunities that he never had. Since his parents divorced seven years ago, Joe III, the youngest of three children, has been raised by his father, who drove in dirt-track and local street races in the 1960s. Racing has created a special bond between the two. About the only time they spend apart is when young Joe is circling the track, and even then the radio chatter between them is nonstop. "He's always going to be there to give me that support," young Joe says. "He's an inspiration."
Joe III is becoming something of an inspirational figure himself. Bill Lester, a former Hamilton protégé turned Craftsman Series rival, is the only black racer in any of NASCAR's top three divisions (Nextel, Busch and Craftsman) and has had middling success in his eight-year career. "I don't have anything to worry about, though," Henderson says through a wide smile. "I can drive." Maneuvering around the same Nashville track on which Cup drivers Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin cut their teeth, Henderson had nine top 10 finishes and was 10th in points entering last Saturday's Dodge Series season finale.
With the season having wrapped up, Henderson is considering attending Nashville's Auto Diesel College in the off-season to become a certified mechanic. After watching his young driver take his lumps this season, Hamilton will give Henderson better equipment and try to make him a consistent winner in the Dodge Series next year. Then the plan is to put him in a truck on a 5/8-mile track in 2006, followed by a one-mile track. If Joe succeeds at that level, Hamilton says, he will have no choice but to promote him to the Craftsman or Nextel series. "When Joe moves up, we don't want it to be because of his color," Hamilton says. "We want it to be because he can drive a race car."
You can bet he won't be caught napping. ‚ñ†
The New Breed
Programs such as Drive for Diversity are creating opportunities for minorities and women in racing. Here are three drivers who, like Joe Henderson III, got off to a fast start in the Dodge Weekly Series.
Aric Almirola, 20, Gibbs Racing. After narrowly missing 2002 rookie-of-the-year honors, this Hispanic-American from Tampa has three top three finishes in the Atlantic Division this season.
Chris Bristol, 27, Gibbs Racing. In '03 the Columbus, Ohio, product became the first African-American to win a Super Truck race. He's added two more victories since.
Allison Duncan, 24, BH Motorsports. In her second season driving on ovals, the San Rafael, Calif., native has five top five finishes in 17 starts in the Atlantic Division at Hickory, N.C.
Henderson, who races in Nashville, was picked for the NASCAR-backed Drive for Diversity program.